The Fitzwilliam Hotel looks to the Future
Fergal O’Connell, the General Manager of the iconic Fitzwilliam Hotel in Dublin is passionate about the hotel industry. Having experienced the challenges of the past two years, he feels positive about how the industry is rebounding and on the wider future of this vital sector.
Fergal doesn’t come from a hotel background but entered the industry at an early age. His first job in the business was in a bar in Drogheda, owned by Dan Heary. His first hotel job was in the Connemara Coast Hotel in 1992, a property he worked with on three occasions. He then moved to Fitzpatricks Hotels, working in both New York and Dublin, as well as with the Great Southern Hotels in Galway and Dublin Airport.
He joined the Fitzwilliam Hotel 14 years ago, and will be celebrating the hotel’s 25 years in operation in 2023. To celebrate that significant milestone, the hotel will be completing a renovation that was started in November 2019 but was stopped temporarily because of Covid. “I’m delighted to say it’s started again, and we’re making great progress with the rooms, and that will then follow into the public spaces, the lobby bar and restaurant”, says Fergal. “It’s a huge investment and our owner is committed to the hotels he owns. It’s not only an investment in confidence in the hotel, but it’s also an investment in the industry. I think Dublin is a great city, and the fact that one individual is making this investment is testament to that.”
Like everyone in the hotel sector, the Fitzwilliam Hotel has experienced challenges as a result of the pandemic. “Coming out of Covid, there were very challenges that had to be met”, he says. “But over the last 3-4 months, trading has been good and robust, staffing has levelled out, and our focus has shifted from recruitment to retention. We’re now facing into newer challenges, but I’m happier to be facing the challenges I’m currently facing than the challenges I was two years ago, which is a good place to be. And the great thing about this industry is that it’s resilient.”
Staff retention is a major area of focus for Fergal, as he outlines: “The strategy of retention is vitally important, particularly for us as we’re a privately owned hotel. It’s a bit more challenging for us as the opportunities for promotion may not be as visible as they might be in bigger chain properties. It’s important to give people an opportunity to engage and get involved and to believe in themselves, try something and develop their own skills.”
The Fitzwilliam is taking a fresh approach to staff retention. As Fergal says: “It doesn’t revolve around the usual things you might do to retain staff. Staff coming into the industry are more aware of what’s available out there. They’re more dynamic, they’re more demanding when it comes to promotion opportunities and skills training – and rightly so. That’s where we as hoteliers need to be more dynamic in providing those opportunities to them.”
Fergal is also a strong advocate of wellbeing. “I’m a huge believer in wellbeing. I think that Covid brought to the fore the challenges that we as individuals in the hotel sector face on a day-to-day basis. And you don’t have to face these challenges alone. We work collectively as a team at work to identify quicker where people are facing some challenges. I’m glad to see that the industry, and the IHF have been a leader in this, have been driving that over the last couple of years, and will continue to.”
Fergal feels that the current negative perception of the hotel industry is a biased view and believes that it’s important to talk to people who have been working in the industry to hear their experience.
He says: “I’ve seen people who have come into this sector in the last 12 months who have had amazing opportunities to be successful very quickly, have learnt new skills very quickly. I would hope that whether they stay with this hotel or go on and work in other hotels that they stay in the sector. It’s an amazing industry where you can try different things, you can get the opportunity to learn different skillsets.
“I look back to when I started out in the industry in 1992, and over that time I’ve seen immense changes in terms of work life balance, opportunities and even how the industry is structured. There are so many opportunities for people who come in at an entry level but can succeed and grow within the industry. We’ve participated quite extensively in the Skillnet programme that the IHF are running, and a good 50% of our staff have been sent on online courses. We have some people who have worked in the industry for 20-25 years, and who are now going back as mature students to get primary degrees or masters, which I think is amazing. It’s a huge part of our retention programme in the hotel.”
While pay is an important factor, Fergal feels that there’s more to this conversation. “I think people need to get a fair wage, and there’s more to it than just basic salary, such as work life balance, and the opportunities to grow and develop. There’s more to the argument than the one-sided, biased view of poor pay and long hours. That day is long gone”.
Fergal believes that there’s an opportunity for skills training, with the responsibility lying with the industry to drive this. “I think there’s a huge onus on individual hoteliers to really take skills training seriously and take responsibility for that. We first and foremost have to take advantage of the different opportunities that are there, and to identify the people who we feel can progress within the industry and give them that platform and opportunity.”
Passion is a vital ingredient where staff development is concerned. “This industry is based on passion isn’t it. Passion, ambition, teamwork, striving for excellence. They are our values in the Fitzwilliam Hotel. Where we see people, individual staff members that exude those values, we will focus on them and try to promote them. We will give everyone the opportunity to succeed; that’s our mantra.”
Educating young people on the reality of the hotel industry would be a positive approach to improve the general perception of the sector, and Fergal would like to see engagement begin with secondary students. “As hoteliers, we can influence the mindset of students at a secondary school level by giving them a structured programme in terms of TY”, he says. “We do a lot of TY programmes in the hotel and we give them a nice week of scheduled work in various different departments. We want to give them a good sense of what the industry is all about.”
Fergal believes that it’s essential to target students at a young age and demonstrate to them that this is a career and an industry that values its workforce and is worth getting involved in. As he says, “Working in hospitality gives you the opportunity to build your self-confidence, learn socialisation skills, learn operational skills and business skills that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your career whether you choose to stay in hospitality or not. And I think that’s vitally important – we’re talking about people’s wellbeing, and self-confidence is what wellbeing is all about, and I think if we can start that conversation as early as possible in secondary school in a positive way, I think that’s important”.
Most importantly, Fergal wants to see a change in the perception of the hotel industry as a future career. “Conversations have to be based more around the facts of hotels in terms of the career opportunities, rather than the perception of it being a transient job that you do in college whilst you’re learning to be something else.
One development that Fergal is actively calling for is to have a dedicated Minister for Tourism. “Without question we need a dedicated minister, and I think anyone in this industry would say that. It’s something that’s way overdue and is urgently needed”, he says. “Having it combined with the number of briefs it’s currently combined with is a poor reflection on how serious the government currently takes tourism. And yet when you look at the figures that the sector was contributing prior to Covid, it was a serious contributor to the economy, will continue to be a serious contributor”.
He acknowledges that the government do recognise the importance of tourism, saying: “The government were supportive of tourism over the Covid period, there were great supports there. And every person in the hotel sector would acknowledge that the government supports given during the Covid period were good; it allowed us to survive.
He continues: “From the point of view of having a dedicated tourism minister, until there is one a clear understanding of the challenges we face as an industry, these are not going to be recognised and are not going to be argued at the cabinet table. With the proper investment in it, proper marketing of it, the benefits that come from it are spread right across the country.
“And we see the benefits of where there is a proper thought-out strategy executed well. Wild Atlantic Way is one example. That’s an amazing success. As is the Convention Centre in Dublin. But these are one off pieces. We need a dedicated minister with a dedicated strategy that is continuously looking at the strategic implications of tourism.
It’s important to recognise the value of the industry to the country. “It’s important, not only because of the employment it gives but the importance it does provide in terms of the social fabric of every community in Ireland. The fabric of every Irish community has a hospitality venue at the heart of it. Without hospitality in its wider form, there would be a huge void in the social fabric of every community in Ireland.”