Current Fáilte Ireland Chairman Paul Carty is seen as one of the most ideal candidates for the position in years; Many see him as the public embodiment of what one can achieve by taking the opportunities offered by a career in tourism.
A graduate of the Shannon College of Hotel Management (now part of NUI Galway), his progressive career path to the top job in Irish tourism has brought him through international hotel groups and the Guinness Storehouse.
“I started with Rockwell Hotel School in 1975 and trained to be a chef through CERT,” says Paul. Just as with CERT, the college is no more but while it was running, it produced a slew of successful personalities in the hotel & catering sector, including Steven McNally, Martin Shanahan and Noel Cunningham. “I then went to Shannon College of Hotel Management and graduated from there.”
Like all students of Shannon at the time, Paul went on international placement to Switzerland, where he worked with Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts. From there he moved to Heathrow, where he worked for Trusthouse Forte.
After working with the Trusthouse Forte group over the next number of years at various other UK locations, he moved back to Ireland in 1989 to the Dublin Airport Hotel.
“That was a very important time for me,” recalls Paul. “I was very proud to come back and very proud for my parents, because that was quite an impressive hotel at the time.”
Three and a half years later, Paul was on the move again – taking over a Rocco Forte hotel at Gatwick Airport.
“Rocco Forte were leasing it from the airport,” says Paul. “It wasn’t doing well and I was sent in there. I had two great years there, where we turned it around. That was a great experience – a big hotel with about 560 rooms.”
While he was still in Gatwick, he received a phone call from Ger Lawless, who was working for Forte in Bahrain. He asked Paul if he would consider a move to the Middle East to work at the Diplomat Hotel there.
“I jumped at the chance,” says Paul. “Even though I loved being in Gatwick, I also loved the idea of working in the Middle East and of working for Ger Lawless – he was a great hotelier.”
From a family point of view, it wasn’t the easiest of upheavals. At this point, Paul was married with two young children who were settled in school in England. Having uprooted from Dublin to move to London and then from London to move to Bahrain, he is very appreciative of the sacrifices his wife made in facilitating his career development:
“I owe a lot to my wife Aggie, who was always supportive of me and who was always willing to travel.”
The couple had met in Switzerland, where Aggie had been training as a receptionist and when both were just twenty years old. By the ages of 24, they were married. Their youngest child – a daughter – was born in Bahrain in 1994.
After four and a half years at the Diplomat, Paul was next asked to manage the Changi Hotel in Singapore (also an airport hotel) on behalf of the Le Mérdien group – newly acquired by Forte.
“Aggie and the kids loved Singapore even more than Bahrain,” says Paul. “Singapore has a lot going for it. It’s very colourful and vibrant… the Middle East is beautiful but when you go to Asia, the colours are different – the foods, the spices… it’s just a beautiful place, and they’re lovely people.”
The next move was back to the Middle East and to another Le Méridien hotel Saudi Arabia. He was barely installed there when a call came through from Ireland inviting him to come home to manage a visitor centre.
Although his initial reaction was to reject the offer of moving to visitor centre management from international five-star hotel management but he was persuaded otherwise, for this was no ordinary visitor centre – it was the Guinness Storehouse.
“This was like a five-star hotel without beds,” he recalls. “It had everything else – customer service, sales, food-and-beverage… it had it all there and also, there was massive ambition from Diageo to make this truly a world-class attraction and they had the investment to back it up.”
The visitor centre quickly became Ireland’s Number One visitor centre, winning international recognition for its excellence and becoming the go-to stopover for visiting dignitaries and celebrities. Under his 20-year tenure, it went from tens of thousands of visitors to 1.8 million annually.
It was while still Managing Director at the Guinness Storehouse that he became Chairman of the ITIC. He also became active in setting up the all-Ireland grouping AVEA (Association of Visitor Experiences and Attractions), which he chaired and which now has over 100 members. He was awarded the President’s Award by Tim Fenn for his contribution to Irish tourism in 2016. He then received the inaugural Eileen O’Meara Walsh Award from ITIC.
“It was nice to receive that level of recognition in my retirement,” says Paul, “and I don’t think that I would have got that kind of recognition had I stayed in hotels.”
Paul is enthusiastic about how the quality of the Irish tourism product has improved over the years in all areas. Visitor centres too, he says, are getting better and better. He cites the Avondale Visitor Park in Wicklow as an example.
“I went up to see that facility and it is absolutely amazing. It’s beautiful. And Fáilte Ireland was a partner in that. That’s the level of visitor experience that we’re now getting. I think we’re maturing as a country in our tourism product.”
On the thornier question of whether or not tourism is ever really taken seriously as the largest indigenous industry that it is, Paul is as expansive on the subject as his position in Fáilte Ireland will allow:
“I’ve always said it – I often think that tourism doesn’t get the attention or recognition it deserves as a major economic engine by policymakers or the wider public. It deserves more. The Government’s attention on high-value jobs and foreign direct investment is of course understandable as FDI is critical to a vibrant economy but so too is tourism. Without tourism, regional development and job creation suffers. When you look at the facts, tourism goes into every parish around the country, it lifts the whole community and provides much needed local jobs. We need to move our sector higher up the economic power list so our worth is really appreciated and understood. I think we need to change the narrative with our dialogue with government to get them to appreciate that tourism is an export industry. It is an invisible export industry. This way it may help our tourism industry to have a stronger voice at the table as we are an export industry. “
Paul also agrees that this image feeds into the dearth of education for the sector too. While he acknowledges that certain practices have to change in the industry (such as having clear planned work rosters and looking after staff better), there’s a significant job to do in changing the image of the industry as a career which Fáilte Ireland and others are currently working on. Personally, I think that it’s to do with the image of the industry as having low-value jobs, for example young students coming in and going out.”
“That all needs to change,” he says. “We’ve improved so much in that area – there are great careers in our industry and very highly paid ones now, but that message hasn’t got through yet to the young people.
“I may be wrong on this but I don’t see many parents sitting down with their kids at the kitchen table when they’re filling in their CEO forms, suggesting that they go into hotel management. My parents did because that was the era where they saw the value of it but I’m not sure that kids are being encouraged or want to go into our industry right now.”
While many feel that Fáilte Ireland need to get involved in training staff again (since CERT was removed from their remit and effectively dissolved over a decade ago), Paul points out that it is not going to go back to the way it was.
“Whilst many in industry feel that Fáilte Ireland needs to be more involved and take responsibility for the training of staff for hospitality, this is simply not going to happen as it is not part of Fáilte Ireland’s remit. This function was given to Solus many years ago. CERT in its format at the time served our industry very well but it was of its time. It isn’t going to go back that way so we have to all find another way around the problem to make it work,” he says in reference to conversations he has had with industry heads. “Unless the Government changes the policy and instructs Fáilte Ireland to take on the role of overseeing training in the industry. But right now, it’s not part of our job.
“Sometimes, I think that industry needs to hold a mirror up to itself because the Government can’t be held responsible for retaining staff in hotels and restaurants. That’s up to the operators and the industry to change things; to give them better terms and conditions and all of that; to make it a career for young people.”
Fáilte Ireland has embarked on a series of initiatives on the back of their research: They introduced an Excellent Employer programme – something that employers can brandish as a competitive badge of honour whilst also enticing more people to work with them and with the industry in general. There is a Transition Year Programme too; an initiative aimed to encourage more young people to consider a career in tourism, as well as engendering awareness amongst the educators of the opportunities in the sector.
From his own experience on the ground in the tourism industry, Paul is acutely aware of the very narrow margins that restaurants operate under; and that there is only so much of the cake to go around.
“I remember a Michelin-star Chef telling me years ago that he was making 3% net ,” says Paul, recalling that at the time, people were incredulous for a restaurant that was charging €50 or more for a main course. “But he stood over it. He was absolutely right because at that time, Michelin-starred chefs were on maybe €60,000 or €70,000 per year.”
It’s a small point but it makes the much bigger point that when people look at tourism or tourism services and their variant components, most people only see the façade. Paul Carty might be one of the best-placed tourism heads of recent times to be in a position where he has a very clear experience of what goes on behind those façades.
“Collaborative effort is at the heart of everything we do at Fáilte Ireland, so for example, we have several strategic partners, including Coillte, the OPW, to mention the most recent.
“What I want to do is make sure that I provide strategic direction and leadership to the Board and to the team – and work with Paul Kelly and his leadership team to make sure that they deliver the five-year strategy and develop great visitor experiences.
“What I would like personally is to work closely with the industry players and to make sure that they thrive and survive through some pretty horrific times right now.”
He also believes that those in the industry – including himself – need to tap into the vast wealth of knowledge and research that Fáilte Ireland has built up over the years. The tourism organisation is often seen mainly as a source of grant aid. However, the well of information and education it possesses at no cost is a highly valuable resource that many often overlook, so he would like to see it being used more.
“I think that it will be 2025 before we come back to pre-Covid levels. For that, we need to accelerate domestic tourism and value for money will be critical for that. That worries me a bit because once you lose your reputation for value for money, it’s very hard to get it back… the reports where the room is €700 per night gets accentuated and it creates a negative image in the minds of Irish people.”
Paul is very praiseworthy of the passion for tourism displayed by the current Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin TD. But given tourism’s vital importance to the nation, what of the notion of having one Ministry of Tourism, free of any other distracting portfolios?
“That’s an interesting question and of course it would be a political decision. When I was at ITIC, we would have called for that to happen on a regular basis. It’s our biggest indigenous industry generating more than 7 billion euros for the Exchequer and 230,000 jobs. So, I think that it would be amazing if we had a minister solely devoted to tourism… In an ideal world, it would be fantastic if we had a Minister for Tourism, dedicated solely to tourism but either way Minister Martin is very hardworking and committed to our sector.
And as for his personal thoughts on a lifetime spent in the tourism sector? “Tourism is a great opportunity for a varied and satisfying career. Just look at the countries I’ve lived in and the education my children have received. What other career would give you that? It’s fantastic and a passport to the world.”