More than 12 years after opening a thriving leisure centre in the Mayo town of Belmullet, businessman Enda Brogan made the difficult decision to close down Gateway Leisure for good.
he insurance premium increased five-fold, significant losses were incurred during the pandemic and, by his own admission, the fun had gone out of running a business that centred on creating good times for families.
“We could have continued, but we would have been working just to pay off the insurance,” he said.
After UK company Leisure Insure announced it was leaving the Irish market in 2019, Mr Brogan said it was one of the most stressful experiences of his life because he was forced to trade without cover.
“We couldn’t get insurance and I didn’t sleep for those four months we were uninsured,” he said.
He eventually sourced insurance through Play, Activity and Leisure Ireland (PALI), an organisation that campaigns for cheaper insurance, which secured cover for businesses in the leisure sector through a group scheme.
But in the past three years, the price of Gateway Leisure’s premium was going in only one direction.
“No business can sustain that type of outgoing. You’ll have your rates and other fixed costs that are there. That goes without saying,” Mr Brogan said.
“But insurance was a thing you didn’t know what it would cost until you got your quotes back, and in the last few years it was like a free-for-all.”
He took a risk in opening Gateway in the Gaeltacht town during the height of the recession in 2009 but it was a gamble that paid off, with up to 4,000 people coming through the doors every week.
“It was a go-to place on a wet day, which we unfortunately get a lot of in the west of Ireland,” he said.
The venue had ten-pin bowling, a restaurant, bar, pool tables, mini-golf, an arcade and one of Ireland’s biggest activity play frames.
It was popular for birthday, communion and confirmation parties but the increase in outlays and the 16 months of closure during the pandemic took its toll.
In the centre’s 12 years, no personal injury claim was ever brought by a customer.
“The soaring costs of insurance have left us, as a company, stunned,” Mr Brogan said in the statement announcing his decision to close.
“We have not seen our business return to the pre-Covid level and we have lost revenue and continue to lose revenue.”
His business last traded in October 2021 but, eight months later, it still feels “rather raw”.
“There were 35 people laid off and there was a huge asset to the area lost as an attraction. I’m still feeling guilty. It saddened me,” Mr Brogan said.
“The blood, sweat and tears that went into it to get it where it was wasn’t done light-heartedly, so to say goodbye was really tough.
“No matter which way you look at it, we were probably seeing 3,500 or 4,000 people a week. It was sustainable if things like insurance were more manageable.”
The Government argues it has made significant progress in delivering insurance reform but businesses such as Gateway Leisure remain under threat from prohibitive insurance costs.
Seán Fleming, the minister with responsibility for insurance, told the Irish Independent the proposed amendments to the legis- lation underpinning the duty of care would “benefit many businesses around the country”, helping them access more affordable insurance.
He said that while there were “issues with certain sectors”, this did not represent the market as a whole.
“Ireland is a very small market for business insurance and pinch points do exist for certain niche sectors,” he added. “These are mainly in the leisure and activity sector, which have traditionally been dependent on specialist insurers.
“This situation has not been helped by Brexit, where British insurers can no longer easily sell products into the Irish market without a presence here.”
Insurance campaigners have argued that the duty of care is unfairly balanced toward occupiers, such as business owners, making it more likely they will be held responsible in insurance liability claims.
The proposed changes would balance occupiers’ duty-of-care responsibilities with personal responsibilities, including those of consumers, visitors and recreational users.
The Government had initially set a deadline of last June for these proposals to go to the Cabinet, but the deadline was missed.
The Alliance for Insurance Reform has urged the Government to move quickly to turn the proposals into working legislation – before other businesses like Gateway Leisure are forced to close.