We speak to Castleknock Hotel GM Guy Thompson about the challenges of the past two years
The past two years have been some of the most challenging the hospitality industry has ever experienced, but despite the pandemic’s uncertainty and fear, the industry has kicked into gear and is adapting, evolving, and meeting the challenges head-on. Hotel & Restaurant Times was delighted to meet with Castleknock Hotel’s General Manager Guy Thompson to talk about how the hotel has weathered the storm, and why going above and beyond for staff is so crucial to a hotel’s success.
Castleknock Hotel is a 4-star property located on the doorstep of Phoenix Park in Dublin City. It’s a 190-bedroom hotel set on lush grounds, and features a spa, bar and restaurant, leisure facilities, and several function rooms for meetings, weddings and events. It is part of the FBD Hotels & Resorts family, which also encompasses Faithlegg Hotel in Co. Waterford, The Heritage in Co. Laois, and La Cala and Sunset Beach Club, both located in Spain.
According to Guy, Castleknock Hotel has certainly had to weather the storm, but now, almost two years after that first shutdown, he feels there is a lot to be grateful for.
“We’ve been very lucky in that FBD and our board have been so supportive,” he tells us. “One of the hardest things I’ve had to do was close the hotel and lay off 240 staff but I think it’s made us stronger and more resilient, because the day after closing, it was all about the reopening. The managers and senior team were positive straight away about not only getting the business back up and running and getting the team back, but growing the business, and when we reopened, we reopened with a bang. We were straight up to 70 per cent occupancy and traded very well, largely due to great local support and a strong marketing campaign.”
Key to this success, Guy tells us, was their approach in keeping staff informed and engaged every step of the way: “We were lucky that we retained 90 per cent off our staff. We kept in constant contact with our staff throughout the closure and had Zoom calls and kept them informed and involved. Two weeks before we reopened on both occasions, we got them in for training on the COVID-19 safety protocols, and when we went to recruit new staff, we found our existing team members recruited for us in the local area. They are our ambassadors, and we think there’s no better way to recruit staff that your current team going out and recommending us a place to work.”
During the closure, Guy and the team also sprang into action to come up with a plan to adapt the hotel to these new and unexpected circumstances. They invested in a patio dining area to the back of the property which features a covered roof and heaters, making it suitable for use 365 days a year. “We are pretty much full out there every day,” Guy tells us. “People love sitting outside in a wide-open space. The patio was such an amazing investment for us that on the strength of that, we put a new terrace area in the front of the hotel which is very popular with the locals.”
This past summer, Castleknock Hotel room occupancy was 80 per cent, up 20 per cent on last year, and according to Guy, the trade was mostly domestic. The hotel’s facilities and its location close to both Dublin and the quiet of Phoenix Park has certainly made it an attractive proposition for Irish holidaymakers seeking a staycation.“Spending was strong as there was a pent-up demand for people to get out and enjoy themselves, stay in a hotel and enjoy food and service, and socialise again,” Guy says. “Earth and Vine, our fine dining a la carte restaurant is full at the weekend and at about 50 per cent capacity during the week. Staycations was the lifesaver and we think that market will continue to be strong going forward.”
Outside of the staycation market, there is burgeoning growth in other areas, Guy tells us. The corporate market has started to come back again and is expected it to grow next year, and they have recently engaged with UK representation, which was on hold for two years. Guy also expects the EU market to come back strong, thanks to the hard work of Tourism Ireland in highlighting that Ireland is back open for business.
The Castleknock Hotel is also a popular wedding venue and bookings on that side of the business are going from strength to strength too. “We’re lucky we have such a strong wedding business,” Guys says. “We are doing 45 weddings this year and are on track to do 80 next year and 85 in 2023. A lot of this business is down to word-of-mouth recommendations; feedback and support from the local market really feeds the development of the hotel. This success all goes back to the team, the passion, the attention to detail, and the standards. We are very proud of our staff.”
Guy strongly believes that investing in a hotel’s staff is the bedrock of exceptional service and in turn, a successful hotel. FBD Hotels & Resorts and the Castleknock Hotel employ numerous processes to engage with staff and develop their careers.
“Training and feedback are key,” Guy tells us. “We have a very proactive approach. We engage with staff on a regular basis and do bi-annual staff surveys regarding appraisals, training, communications, and culture in the hotel, and from that we format plans within the departments. We have about 40 staff here out of 260 who have been here more than 10 years. Many started in operational roles and have developed into senior management roles, which is fantastic. You need to take the time to identify the talented, passionate people who have a love for customer care, and help them train and grow in the industry.”
While practically helping staff achieve career goals is crucial, ensuring they are valued and appreciated is also fundamental to retention and well-being, Guys says. For example, CEO of FBD Hotels & Resorts Dave Kelly arranged to give five holidays to Spain away to staff as a thank you, and they will be raffled on a special staff appreciation day. These gestures of thanks are consistent and frequent, Guy tells us, and they go a long way in keeping staff happy and motivated.
“We chat with staff on a weekly and monthly basis,” he says. “We do Treat Fridays, so Krispy Kreme doughnuts, pizza, and ice cream vans in summer, and we would have regular days recognizing birthdays and special events. We do staff member and manager of the month and quarter, and five and ten-year parties and dinners. We also have a tuck shop outside our HR office so staff can walk past and help themselves. It’s another little thing to say, we know you’re working hard, thank you. You can have a beautiful hotel and constant reinvestment in the product, unless the staff and managers engaged and happy working here, it won’t work.”
Constant reinvestment is crucial too however at the Castleknock Hotel, Guy says. They have just signed off on a project for next year refurbishing bedrooms, upgrading fixtures and fittings, and putting Dyson hairdryers and Nespresso coffee machines in the rooms. Following this will be proposing an expansion of the spa, and potentially extra bedrooms to bring the hotel up to 200 bedrooms.
“We never stop,” says Guy. “You can never stand still in this industry and always have to better yourself and the product offering, because the guests’ expectations never stand still. We always try to stay one step ahead, and I’m lucky I work with amazing people who come up with great ideas to constantly better the hotel and the service. Yes, it’s going to be a challenging 18 months going forward but I think the hospitality industry is in a very good place, medium-term, and myself and the team are looking forward to the challenges that face us.”
We wish them the very best of luck!