Veteran hotelier Ciaran Kelly tells us about his career path, passion for the industry, and how the Landmark Hotel in Carrick-on-Shannon started as a flooded field!
Ciaran Kelly grew up in hospitality, from childhood right through to his current role as co-owner with his brother John of the Landmark Hotel in Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Leitrim. It’s fair to say he’s seen it all and his vast experience has led to great stories and a deep and valuable insight into the industry. Hotel & Restaurant Times was delighted to meet this industry stalwart to learn about his career, his views on what makes a good hotelier, and his passion for collaboration and destination marketing.
Ciaran’s path can be described as full circle. He started in the industry in Ireland; spent two decades abroad building his career; and 23 years ago, returned to Ireland to start the Landmark Hotel in his home county.
“I’m from a family hotel background and have been in the business from day one,” Ciaran tells us. “When a new bank was being built in Mohill, Co. Leitrim, my grandmother bought the old bank building and turned it into a B&B, which eventually became Kelly’s Hotel. That hotel was run by my parents and I grew up in it. When I was old enough, I went to Rockwell’s Hotel & Catering School to train.”
Next came a period of 20 years working in hotels in Europe, North America and Asia. “Even though I went abroad to work my way up in the big hotels, I always wanted to eventually come home,” Ciaran tells us. “I was MD of the Marco Polo in Singapore, but decided to come back to Ireland as my kids were at an age when they needed to be settled instead of constantly moving around. I had a second interview in Dublin for an opening GM role, and I rang my brother John and told him I was going to be in Ireland soon. He called the next day and said he’d found a site for a hotel and would I be interested? It was a flooded field but he saw an opportunity. In the end I didn’t pursue the other role and we decided we’d do this together, and the result is the Landmark Hotel.”
Ciaran says setting up the hotel was a big risk, but he and John decided not to play it safe. “I remember we had a meeting with Fáilte Ireland and were told to keep it small, but we believed things were changing, especially in terms of what country hotels had been doing historically, so we built a big size hotel on the property, maybe not in terms of rooms – we have 51 – but in terms of facilities.” This decision paid off hugely over the years, Ciaran tells us, as it allowed the hotel to diversify and not be dependent on any one market. “We have the Boardwalk Restaurant, weddings, meetings, Landmark Live which hosts stand-up comedy, plays and music concerts, and a teen disco once a month called Hush.”
Setting up the hotel came with its challenges, but Ciaran attributes its success to his working relationship with his brother. “It was a huge learning curve for me coming from abroad and learning the local market, but I was fortunate my brother was here and together we brought strength to the business in different areas. Key were the simple things: we both agreed from day one the focus would be on providing a quality product, friendly service and making sure the hotel was always clean and looking good. We steadily built a reputation, stayed focused, and never compromised, even in the hard times, which is something we got from our parents – they wouldn’t dream of cutting corners.”
Ciaran tells us looking after staff is also key to the success of the business. “It’s a two-way street, treat people well and they’ll look after your business. I remember starting off and working Christmas Day and my Christmas dinner was leftover canapés from reception. At the time I said when I grow up and have my own hotel, I’ll make sure the staff have good food. I’ve followed through on that: in the Landmark Hotel, all staff eat the same food as the guests, we don’t have a separate staff canteen. That’s just one thing, but overall, good operators and owners must develop a culture of looking after people. It all starts with good communication, a friendly working environment, and involving staff in decisions. People need sufficient time off and they want to be treated with fairness, respect, kindness and understanding. In terms of turnover, we’ve had good retention, a lot of people have worked here 10 or 20 years and that’s a good testament to our work culture.”
So, there’s a tick each for a quality product and positive work culture – but what else does Ciaran think a hotelier needs to succeed? He says it’s crucial, particularly for rural areas, to collaborate with and support other local hospitality and tourism businesses. Carrick-on-Shannon is known as the gateway to the Northwest and Ciaran tells us it has grown tremendously in the Landmark Hotel’s 23 years, with the town offering a vast choice of restaurants and amenities. With the goal to replicate the incredible success of the Wild Atlantic Way, the town and surrounding region has been branded Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands, and its lakes, rivers, walks and cycleways has opened the area to international visitors as well as new domestic tourist that wants outdoor activities and water sports and leisure.
“While we’re very aware of the local marketplace, as predominately our business is local within a 50-mile radius, it’s also vital to develop an area’s tourism offering,” says Ciaran. “There has been good support and cooperation from Fáilte Ireland, with more being spent developing the area and raising awareness about what’s here. Tidy Towns and County Council improvements are also making a big difference. Tourists aren’t coming here to stay in the Landmark Hotel, they’re coming to enjoy the region and its attractions, and that is why it’s so important for all businesses in the region to collectively work on the destination marketing of the area. I say in Chamber of Commerce meetings: no business is bigger than the town – if we all promote the destination, we’ll all benefit. We need to support and promote one another. For example, we worked with the golf club to put a package together, which is a win-win for us both.”
We asked Ciaran what other supports he think should be in place for the tourism industry. “A separate Ministry of Tourism,” he says immediately. “Tourism is so important to Ireland’s economy and future, so it needs to put it forward as a strong recommendation, with the onus on hoteliers and tourism businesses to lobby for it with politicians wherever possible. It’s of critical importance. For example, we have 147 staff here in the Landmark Hotel. It’s a lot of employment for a small town in rural Ireland, which is terrific for the area.”
So, what’s next for the Ciaran and the Landmark Hotel? He says it’s all about staying focused and true to the hotel’s original goals. “I came back to Ireland as the market was taking off, so we’ve seen the ups and downs: boom times, slow down, crash time and the pandemic, and here we are today, we’ve survived. We have a good business model and a good reputation and we’re focused on a quality product and taking care of and developing our team. It’s about someone coming to stay and having a positive experience and good quality food. That’s we what focus on here – the guest leaving and saying they had a good time.”