Tomorrow’s World – What’s Going To Change For Irish Hotels And Guests

Monday, February 08, 2021. 5:16pm

“We won’t be opening car doors for guests anytime soon” says Clement Gaffney, Group Hotels Operations Manager of Pat Doherty’s Harcourt Developments, Hotel Division with properties in Ireland, The U.K. and Caribbean. It is an evocative image that none of us would have considered a few short months ago. It is the new norm.

In 2008, Irish hotels were plunged into a deep global recession and the last 10 years have been a long slow recovery into a buoyant economy. In March this year, that ended with shocking speed. Déjà vu seemed unfair. Irish hospitality and hotels have to change. That will be operational, procedural but most of all, it will be cultural and often counter intuitive.
Behind closed doors, that has already begun.

Hoteliers are good managers. They are used to dynamic environments, the unexpected and reacting fast. With that DNA comes an acceptance and a desire to ‘get on with it’ rather than lamenting a recent economic climate, close to ideal. 

Whilst there are inevitable economic consequences of the pandemic, this is a very different challenge to the banking collapse of 2007-08. The focus is not just on survival and rebuilding, this time, it’s on health, hygiene, risk assessment and keeping people safe. That creates emotional challenges as well as practical ones – fear, safety, insecurity, job losses, loans, rapid learning and a new landscape. But, in ‘getting on with it’ there are many instances of innovation, practical solutions and a vision of what the future will be. This is about rapid change and navigating without a compass. It’s about a different kind of opportunity and what it will mean for an industry that is so important to our island nation.

Right now, our future feels strange because of its unpredictability. In some ways, if the future didn’t feel uncertain then perhaps something is wrong. Sometimes, the only way to understand what change means is to jump in, embrace it, move with it and let the current take you. Sometimes, resisting that can, of itself, prove fatal.

According to Failte Ireland, there are 823 hotels in Ireland as well as almost 1,100 Guest Houses and B & B’s. This article spoke with 11 hotel leaders from east to west, north to south, group to independent, big to small, city to country, luxury to local. The questions were about the future, what changes have been forced on them, what guests will now see and what opportunities exist.

Uncertainty is the thorn in the side of every business and thankfully, The Taoiseach’s May Day statement has, at least, given an aspirational road map with hotels due to salvage a little of the summer business starting this July. 

On the other hand, as Ciara Treacy, Proprietor of The Ross Hotel in Killarney points out “We might open but people are not yet ready to go stay in hotels yet so there isn’t really a magic opening date”.
Health Minister, Simon Harris’s recent remarks on travel and foreign holidays “are not looking good”, though depressing for many, they offer a silver lining for hard pressed hotels with expected growth in staycations for the remainder of the year.

When you digest the shock of sudden change and with so much to do, it takes time before you can process the priorities but Guy Thompson, General Manager, Castleknock Hotel sums it up “Hospitality is going to change completely. We are Irish, we like to meet, shake hands and hug. From now on, our focus has to be to give people confidence in our professionalism and that the hotel they are going to spend the night in is safe”. Ironic for an industry so good at preparing immaculate bedrooms.

Often, when we walk into a hotel bedroom we marvel at the cleanliness and compare it to our own home. Hygiene is the new focus and this raises a multitude of challenges, tasks and learning. As Ger Alley, General Manager, The Heritage Hotel in Co. Laois explains “It will be a very health and hygiene focused world and this will be paramount in how we operate and how we sell”. 

It’s only when you stop to think about this subject that you realise how far it reaches. Those little bedside pens and pads will have to go. Spare wardrobe hangers will be removed. How shampoo and soaps are dispensed will change and as Fla Larkin, Owner, Haddington House, DunLaoghaire points out “It will be like going back to the old days when every bedroom will have a hook outside where we can hang express breakfasts and anything that needs to be delivered to the room”

Similarly, the housekeeper’s trolley is already consigned to the past. Linen, towels and amenities will be delivered in prepacked bundles. Bedrooms, although already cleaned to exacting standards, will be forced to go beyond cleaning and be sanitised. In the USA large hotel groups are signing partnerships with well-known disinfectant brands. “People will need to feel safe in our bedrooms. That will be their first thought” says Guy Thompson.
This doesn’t come without challenges. There will be an immediate need for retraining, and more health focused induction and there will be considerable investment needed in internal infrastructure, equipment and staff development. As Clem Gaffney notes “We will be hiring people to tell guests what not to do and that’s completely alien to the nature of Irish hospitality”. 

What was normal is gone. As Gaffney continued “It will be like going back to a bygone era. We will have a Concierge to manage the elevator” Andrew O’Neill, Chief Executive of Choice Hotel Group agrees and points out “We will be telling staff what they can no longer do”. Even the simple things like staff coming to work will change. On entry and exit they will need new sanitisation protocols, new health checks and even staff dining, changing rooms and breaks will require new procedures. Hoteliers are already restructuring layouts, signage and clearly the welcoming front reception desks will be very different with distancing, screens, contactless payments and a greater use of technology. 

The customer journey will not be the same and that includes the interaction with guests. Buffets are likely to be a thing of the past. Hotel Bars will be reconfigured and the entire check out process will have far less engagement. The friendly welcome of a Concierge in uniform is likely to be replaced with a high vis jacket introducing guests to the new codes. There will be new positions requiring new people, knowledge and tact. As O’Neill points out “Who will feel comfortable in the immediate future coming to breakfast? That means many guests will opt for in room dining and that adds 16% more to food and beverage costs. In room dining will become the norm”

At the core of every good hotel experience is the interaction with people. Ask anyone if they enjoyed their stay in a hotel and inevitably the answer has nothing to do with describing the rooms, structure or luxury. Typically, they will say “They are such nice people”. Naturally, as gregarious people, interaction makes memories, good or bad. The hospitality business is built on our people and this is a fundamental cornerstone for The Dalata Hotel Group, Ireland’s largest collection of hotels. Stephen McNally, Deputy Chief Executive, is passionate about people. It is at the heart of their Maldron and Clayton brands and they walk the talk with their industry standard professional development programmes. 
“Our priority was to immediately engage with our people. One of the first things we did was develop an App so we could be accessible, communicate, give a reliable source of information and listen. This has been a success and is evolving to include training, learning, new skills and we even have virtual tea breaks where we talk about everything other than work”

In every conversation, people are a part of every answer. It’s really what hospitality is all about. Guests and staff, staff and guests. As McNally says “We are absolutely focused on looking after our guests. If they want to rebook, we let them. If they want their money refunded, we make it easy for them”. This is an interesting point. Already, many people have experienced the barriers to getting refunds, especially from holiday hotels abroad. Brands will inflict a lot of damage on their market if they maintain that strategy in the months ahead.
The speed with which this pandemic rolled over our heads was staggering. Wuhan was some remote city that had nothing to do with Ireland. So we thought. In amongst the visionary and practical answers looking into the future, there are stories we might never have known. Stephen McNally recalled one such story “When the airlines suddenly stopped flying, we had a lot of people staying in our airport hotel. We stayed open. If we didn’t, these people would have had nowhere to stay. We weren’t going to let that happen”

Not long ago I likened the hotel business to a theatre “Every night when the lights go down the show is over another day is done. The next day, no matter what has gone before it, the show will have a new audience, often a first time audience, and today’s show must, at the very least, be better than the day before. The actors who will deliver the show are your people. If you do not invest in them in many ways you will have an average show. After all, what is the point of a beautiful comfortable cosy theatre with great sets, great seats and great lighting if the guys on stage have no idea what they are doing?”

Whilst many businesses talk freely about the importance of their people, no business is more visible than hospitality when it comes to seeing people perform.
As Guy Thompson said “This is where the test of leadership comes to the fore” Charlie Sheil, General Manager at Dublin’s five star Marker Hotel agrees “How we communicate with our colleagues has moved to a whole new level. It has never been more important to give hope. The challenge is to create clear, honest and realistic communications. This is not a time for false promises and none of us will take work for granted again”

Hoteliers are true people’s people. It’s the core of what they do, almost their ‘product’. Naturally, everyone is experiencing uncertainty but as Wayne Neilon, General Manager of The Connacht Hospitality Group said “What keeps me awake at night, on a human level, is thinking about the impact on such loyal colleagues. None of us know the future and it takes time to build up a great team”
Perhaps the universal outlook is best summed up by Dalata’s McNally: “Keeping your key leaders employed is the engine room of our business. We need to be accessible, we need to communicate and be ready to open fast”
Hotel people are great managers. Daily life is forever about managing people and motivating them to react quickly to changing situations. Innovation and problem solving is daily bread.

Colin Duggan is the General Manager of Carlow’s Woodford Dolmen hotel. His first thought when this happened was “What do we have that we can’t now use?” It was a smart analysis and the answers followed freely “Right now, we can’t sell bedrooms but many people need to work from home but don’t have the space. They will become short term ‘home offices’. We looked at our two banqueting halls and asked if they could be useful to schools. We have a very big local Sunday lunch business and now we are taking that to them”
Wayne Neilon agrees “Our kitchens will have a one way system and deliveries will be managed in a new way. We will engage differently with our guests. Rather than overload them with signs, we will talk with them and, unlike the recession, this time, the industry will work better together rather than competing. In the meantime, we should all get fit because we are all going to have to work a lot harder”

Rethinking check in, check out, bedroom management, delivery of food, beverage and hotel services is a challenge but its grist to the mill for hotel people. Ciara Treacy summed up these operational challenges “The new procedural norms will just happen because they will have to. Getting through this is not an issue because it will be the same for everyone. This virus has made us re set in every way and that’s no harm”
Zoom, working from home, and virtual celebrations have quickly become the new norm. Social media platforms have never been busier and inevitably, as lockdown creates cabin fever, uncontrolled outbursts are shattering reputations. In lockdown, engagement is through a keyboard.

A clear consequence of the pandemic is that investing in people has to change and marketing too. When this storm arrived, hoteliers really understood the skill, loyalty and expertise of their team. They may have taken too much for granted but smart hoteliers have always put their own people first. It does come back to that cliché “I won’t remember what you said but I will remember how you made me feel”. In a new order, that will apply to employees and guests.

Ivan King, General Manager of Luttrellstown Castle in County Dublin is looking to the future, he takes the operational challenges as a fundamental and already prescribed in the new order of things. The greater challenge he says is “We will have to continue to deliver exceptional service and do that even better than we have done it before”. 
It’s a refreshing view and a constant ‘can do’ thread of everyone I spoke to. Nobody contemplated failure and our toughened Irish skin, battered by recessions, ash clouds and more, has given us a resilient outlook.
“The core principles of hospitality won’t change. Giving our customers authentic Irish service will be the guiding light as to how we interact, deliver and serve. Although operational procedures will change, Irish hospitality can’t. Adapting to change does not mean you can’t deliver exceptional service. You can” 
Hotel people are hardworking, loyal and often industry ‘lifers’. Like every industry, some go with the flow, some don’t. Taking a line from Ivor Kenny’s book, ‘Can You Manage?’ “People don’t resist change, they resist loss”

There is, and will be, some mourning of ‘the old way’ and ‘the good old days’ but younger generations will embrace this new norm and see opportunity. Technology, better engagement, climate change, understanding the value of community and social responsibility as well as being proactive in all things sustainable, will be added into the mix and the future for Irish hotels.
Air travel will eventually recover from this knockout punch and they too will innovate and find solutions. Until then, with imminent opening dates, cabin fever, and time on our hands the ‘staycation’ market will boom and, as Andrew O’Neill says “Irish people will rediscover the very high standards of Irish hotels and this will help us to a future as a reinvented world class safe island destination”.
Some professions are vocational, some chosen but the hotel business is not a choice. You are drawn to it unintentionally and it’s an industry full of stories. They are a cheerful lot who work hard, see opportunity, adore their country and are eternal optimists. They see the good in their community, cope with the bad days and bounce back fast. Even in the darkest days there is humour and their glass is always half full. 
As Ciara Treacy told me about the natural beauty of Kerry throughout our chat it sparked an idea for her “When we are busy, we forget what’s around us and what we would do on a beautiful sunny day if we had the time off. You know what I mean Conor, like barbequing sausages on the beach in Castlegregory”

No doubt they’ll be Irish sausages cooked to perfection and served with humour, elegance and tales of a virus that came and went.

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