Con Horgan has recently celebrated his 81st birthday and is still putting in an impressive daily shift. He doesn’t seem like the kind of person who’d be comfortable with being described as a Giant in the travel industry, but that’s precisely what he is.
Starting on the eve of his eighteenth birthday back in 1958 with Aer Lingus, the Munster man soon moved into travel retail, working as a booking clerk for a Dublin travel agency before completing a night course at UCD and subsequently becoming the youngest regional manager for Iberia Airlines at the age of 24.
It was for founding the travel agency Abbey Travel in 1979, however, that he will be best remembered. With this company that brought affordable foreign travel to the masses, he truly left an indelible mark on the Irish travel landscape. After that, he moved into the hotel business and was one of the co-founders of the Tower Hotel Group, which had seven hotels around the country at one point.
After 63 years in the business, he has sold off most of his businesses. The one he has held onto is the Castlerosse Park Resort, a hotel with extensive leisure facilities in Killarney.
“It was certainly the intrinsic value of the Castlerosse that attracted me to it in the first place,” says Horgan. “The location is very unique, insofar as it’s right on the edge of the (Killarney) national park, it overlooks the lakes and mountains. For me, it was always much more of an emotional attraction as well as being a commercial venture. We bought it back in the mid-1980s as the Tower Hotel Group from the person who built hotel and who has since passed away – Mrs Beatrice Grosvenor. She was part of the Earl of Kenmare dynasty. They owned everything down there; they owned lakes, they owned mountains.”
The Royal Victoria – a major landmark hotel in its heyday – was on the original site. It fell into disrepair after the First World War and was eventually pulled down. In its place, Mrs Grosvenor built a 40-bedroom motel in 1960.
“They may have thought that Americans like to stay in motels when they travel,” suggests Horgan. “I don’t know.”
After he purchased the place in 1986, Horgan developed it and turned the 40-bedroom motel into 120-room hotel, adding 27 holiday homes and 12 golf lodges to the site. They also built a nine-hole golf course on the grounds.
Purchasing and developing hotels for the international tourist trade was far from straightforward back in economically depressed 1980s Ireland.
“Our first venture into the hotel business was with the Tower Hotel in Waterford in 1981,” says Horgan, “and I do recall how difficult it was to finance a hotel in those days. Banks weren’t enthusiastic at all, and it was our partnership with FBD Insurance and its then managing director Brian Colivet, who supported the concept. They were the ones, if you like, that provided the finance for it. They were 50% shareholders in it, as they were in all the future developments.”
The progression from regional airlines manager to travel agent and then to managing a hotel chain was a natural one, in many ways, with the knowledge and insight gained from his earlier ventures giving Horgan a very unique perspective and powerful advantage in the sector.
“I always considered myself more as a travel marketing person than a hotelier. I can manage hotel managers but my one attempt to manage a hotel wasn’t really very successful. That was when the Ryan Hotel Group bought the Gresham (Hotel in Dublin) back in 1978… I was working in the Ryan Group at the time and I assumed that I could manage a hotel but, it wasn’t my scene. I couldn’t wait to get out of there! I regard hotel management as one of the most demanding of all the managerial positions because you’ve got to be HR, financial, front-of-house… you’ve a lot of hats to wear.”
The Castlerosse certainly seems to combine quite a potent mixture of elements that are a natural fit for a number of market segments. For the families, it’s very much an outdoors experience, with plenty of space and areas to explore on foot or by bike, as well as having the leisure centre indoors. The senior market is also an important one for the hotel and for overseas visitors, it appeals more to the Continental visitor than the American one – courtesy of the fact that its location is just outside town rather than a ‘downtown’ location that Americans tend to prefer. Then there is what one might call the ‘mindfulness’ element of the experience. It doesn’t need a policy on this – it’s all there on its doorstep for anyone to see; from watching the light play on the surface of the lake to finding a fawn grazing outside your window.
“We do get a huge amount of repeat business,” says Horgan – a fact which seems to underline the point. “Our database of returning customers is our number-one market tool, if you like… The two things they come back for are the location and the staff. We’ve spent time building up a core staff, under the management of Danny Bowe who I’ve worked with for over 50 years, who work with us year after year and who build that kind of seasonality into their lives.”
Horgan is slow to cast criticism on how the industry is handling itself at the moment, saying that at this stage of his career, he’s not in much of a position to comment.
Something he is critical of, however, is the ongoing failure of successive governments to treat tourism – Ireland’s largest indigenous industry – with the respect that its position deserves:
“I don’t think that a government who appoints a Minister for Tourism to also be a Minister for the Gaeltacht, Arts and Crafts and God-knows what else, could possible be taking tourism seriously. I remember working very closely with Enda Kenny when he was Minister for Tourism… I was on the board of the Overseas Tourism Marketing Initiative, which was one of the most successful marketing initiatives ever undertaken by the Tourist Board and the tourism industry together. I remember that at that time, the attention that tourism got from having its own minister was wonderful.”
That was 1996 and the minister’s title was simply Minister for Tourism and Trade.
“Having said that, however, I think that the Government does have a very difficult task ahead of it so I wouldn’t be too critical. In fact, one has to say that the Government support we’ve received during this Lockdown has been excellent. We’ve benefitted from that, and we can’t complain.”
As for the future, does he see the market returning and if so, how soon will it return to pre-Covid levels of activity?
“I would see the market return – no doubt – but it is going to take some time. It’s not going to be next year, but I see no reason why it shouldn’t be back the following year. I think that the market here will be faced with a big challenge in 2022. First of all, the home market – or the staycation market, as it’s called – won’t necessarily want to holiday in Ireland next year because the rest of Europe and everywhere else will be open to them. So, we’ll have that situation and the tourism market will not be back to the same level because it takes time; it takes time to get the wheels moving, for tour operators to get back up and running again and I don’t see that being fully back too quickly.”
The loss of connectivity is another important factor, with Government policy in relation to Covid having caused damage to the aviation infrastructure – much of it seemingly irreparable.
“The loss of the Aer Lingus slots to Shannon Airport is going to be very badly felt. We’re not quite so badly exposed to that here because of our greater dependence on the European market… but the fact that Aer Lingus have decided to shut their Shannon base and move aeroplanes to Manchester is really not good for Killarney as a whole.”
As the hotel business does embark on its road to recovery – be it long or short – is there a danger that we’re going to see lots of cases of overpricing in the industry?
“I don’t think so. First of all, the market will always respond to supply and demand anyway. We actually reduced our prices coming into this year – only because of the VAT break in the budget. We felt that was for us to pass onto our customers. It’s effectively a 4% reduction in prices this year. For next year, we’re looking at a 2% increase in prices… To be honest, I don’t see the opportunity being there to increase prices by much more.”
When finally asked whether or not he is happy with what he has achieved to date, he replies sanguinely, “Should I be happy with what I’ve achieved to date? If I could get back about twenty years now, I’d be happier! At 81, you begin to run out of steam a little bit!”