How and when did you become involved in the hospitality sector?
I grew up in South Sligo in a very rural area with small farms, which hasn’t changed a lot since. I went to work at Yeats Country Hotel at Rosses Point. It was 1966. I was still at school and had just finished my Inter Cert. I spent two years working there and Ryan Hotels had bought it by the time I did my Leaving Cert in 1969.
They were offering a management development programme and I joined that. I moved to Killarney very quickly after that where they were building their new hotel and did my stint in the kitchen there. Everything grew from that. I eventually moved to London with them in 1972 when they were opening the London Ryan Hotel. That was my first experience of a hotel opening in its entirety.
Dalata has undergone impressive growth over the last 10 years. How have you achieved this?
I started the business in 2007 at a funny time. We hadn’t seen the crisis coming, because even though people were talking about the credit crunch and problems with the subprime market in the US, they didn’t think we had any real exposure. We were wrong and, in 2009, we lost 40 per cent of our revenue.
Operational gearing is very high in the hotel sector, so every euro that comes off the top line usually comes off the bottom line. We responded to the crisis by taking on management contracts with the banks who were appointing receivers to other hotels.
We went from a small Irish company in 2009 to the largest operator in the country by the end of the following year. We had taken on 37 hotels under management contract. That’s when it started to turn for us. We floated the business in 2014 and we hit a record share price this month. This is exactly why it’s so important to always look at your business strategically and ask yourself ‘what could I do if this happens?’
You are clearly a people person. Do you think the hospitality sector is "in the blood"?
In my own case, it wasn’t, but I was extremely lucky to find something that absolutely fitted my character and the way I think. I had not stood in a hotel until my first job, but having spent many summers in the industry, I was bitten by the bug. Hospitality is like every business. If you love it, it will love you back. If you don’t, it will kill you.
For me, it just fitted perfectly. I have been in the business now for 40-odd years and I can’t say there has been a day in my entire life when I said to myself ‘I hate the thought of going to work today’. If you find something in life you enjoy doing, it’s an incredible bonus because you spend a lot time working no matter what you are doing. If you are struggling, you have a big problem.
What are the key attributes you need to succeed in hospitality?
It’s all about detail and the ability to visualise. The difficulty in hospitality is the sheer range of customers. What pleases one will displease the next. You can’t be all things to all people, but you have to try to accommodate as broad a range as possible, particularly in very busy hotels. You will not please all of the people all of the time and sometimes, we beat ourselves up a little but over that, but that is the reality.
People’s expectations have changed a lot over since I started in the industry. Then, it was very different because hotels were uniquely different to your home. A lot of people didn’t have the same facilities in their homes as they would find in hotels. Technology has really turned the dial in recent years because, as people, we now want things instantly. If we have to wait too long for room service or queue for breakfast, that has an impact.
What I find is that, if you can fix a guest’s problem, you have a customer for life. So, I always say look at a complaint as a positive. If you fix that problem, the customer is with you. They are on your side. The outcome is not about whether the steak was too tough or the room was cold. It’s about how you handle it.
How important has upskilling and personal development been in your career?
For all our people, upskilling and personal development is crucial. You must stay relevant. I am no longer the young fella I used to be, so people might assume I don’t understand new technologies. I’ve made it a point to keep up-to-date. Last year, I spent three days in Amsterdam with Booking.com to learn about their psychology, the way they think about how they operate their business.
You sometimes see people reaching a point in their lives where they stop trying to be relevant. That’s a terrible mistake, because time catches up with them and passes them by.
It is crucial to focus on being absolutely relevant to your industry and wider business network. When we open our five new hotels next year, the management teams will be hired from within the group.That will create a domino effect, because as people are promoted, they have to be replaced. That in itself creates an energy. A key mark for us is that we “grow” our own people.
Describe your approach to managing and delegating?
If you were to ask me what I spend most of my time doing, it’s influencing and getting my message across. I have about 14 senior executives reporting to me and two Deputy CEOs. It’s a very informal arrangement and we have a lot going on now.
We’re very focused on building business in the hotels we already have, a lot of which have only been acquired in the last three years. We are investing a lot in those properties – both in terms of refurbishment and people. We have a very decentralised process, where the general manager of each of our hotels has total control of the operation of that property.
They make all the decisions on things like pricing, human resources, but sit under the umbrella of group policy. It’s up to them to make sure their property is generating sufficient revenue, but we have a lot of contact with our people and its incumbent upon us to make sure all the properties make their budgets or beat them if they can at all.
What are your plans for Dalata in the months ahead?
We have a lot of expansion going on in the company. That is down to the recovery in the economy, but also in response to the shortage of hotel rooms in cities like Cork or Dublin where there hasn’t been any real development in the hotel sector for 10 years. We are adding about 550 rooms in Dublin and we are also building a new hotel in Belfast. It’s all about building in locations where there is demand, but not a lot of new supply coming in.