Europe Hotel Ahead of the Curve

Tuesday, March 26, 2024. 3:48pm

The Liebherr name is synonymous with Killarney. The Swiss-German container crane manufacturer has been an enduring and rare presence of heavy engineering in the Kerry town since 1958. Besides the manufacture of construction cranes, the 100% family-owned company also has a hospitality arm, with a chain of hotels – two in Austria, one in Germany and three in Ireland. All three Irish hotels owned by the Liebherr Group are in Kerry, including the landmark Europe Hotel & Resort in Killarney, whose General Manager is Dubliner Michael Brennan.

“I thought that I was coming here for just a few years and that I’d be moving back to the big city and bright lights of Dublin,” says Michael. “23 years later, I’m still here and as enthusiast as I was on the first day.”

Michael Brennan

Michael’s father had the honour of opening the Burlington Hotel for legendary hotelier P V Doyle, meaning that Michael was literally steeped in Irish hospitality legend.

“Before that, my father worked in the first Intercontinental Hotel in Dublin, which opened in the early 1960s,” says Michael. “My brother John and I spent a lot of time surrounded by hotels in Dublin – in the Burlington, the (now demolished) Berkeley Court, the Westbury… our parents included us in everything, so we were working in the hotel industry at a very early age. I started off working behind the bar in the Burlington when I was barely 15… when that was legal!”

After obtaining a degree in Hotel & Catering from Cathal Brugha Street, Michael briefly flirted with the non-hospitality world (working for an accountancy practice one summer) before coming back to the business he knew inside and out.

“The nine-to-five wasn’t for me,” says Michael, who knew after two weeks of life at the accountancy firm that his heart lay in hospitality. “A hotel never sleeps… it’s a 24-hour business that you can immerse yourself in fully. It’s always challenging, never boring and there’s always something to be done.”

Michael’s hotel career path brought him to England, Philadelphia, Toronto, Paris, the Côte d’Azur and Switzerland, before returning home to the Doyle Hotel Group. This was the late 1980s and Michael was working on computerising the front office in the group’s Dublin hotels – a veritable revolution at the time.

“The first computer screens were black and green – they weren’t even colour,” says Michael. “It was a great challenge, though, and I went on to do special projects for both David and Bernie Doyle, renovating the Berkeley Court and the Westbury.”

Back then, the high-end hotel business was in a different era, where compulsory tie-wearing was the norm and when GMs changed into evening attire at the appropriate hour. Today, customer experience is on a different level, with automated systems to both enhance the comfort of the customer and save energy. Maintaining the correct balance in a world increasingly focused on curbing emissions and reducing energy consumption.

“That’s a very difficult thing to achieve,” says Michael of the challenge. “It’s harder to achieve when things aren’t going so well and easier when business is good. And, thankfully, we’re having a very good run of it at the moment.

“The challenge involves watching all the costs on our energy bills, our labour costs… trying to be more efficient, trying to constantly change things, putting in solar panels on the roofs of the tennis courts, individual air-conditioning controls in each room, heat recovery pumps…”

The Europe Hotel

The Europe has its own cattle and sheep, keeping the carbon kilometres to an absolute minimum. Even the journey to the nearest abattoir is only a few kilometres.

“That’s farm-to-fork in the truest sense,” says Michael. “It doesn’t even leave the area of Fossa, not to mind Kerry.”

But it’s the Liehberr group’s commitment to staff that sets it apart amongst its competitors. At the height of the season, over 400 staff are employed in the three hotels

“We’re very lucky,” says Michael. “We have three distinct groups of employees in our hotels. About a third of them have been with us a very long time (in excess of 20 years). Another third of them have been with us 2-5 years and then we’ve about another third of the workforce that come on board with us for a year. They might be in college and on work experience, for example, or they might stay on another year or so. But we’ve a very strong core base of people that are here a long time.

“We probably have one of the best pension plans of any hotel group in the country. We match up to 10% of their salary in contributions. We also match the Government’s maternity leave, which is something not very common within the hospitality sector, and we’ve also invested a huge amount of money providing staff accommodation.

We’re currently just finishing the second phase of the staff accommodation block at the Europe. Over the last five years, we will have spent €12 million on staff accommodation… without accommodation, you’ve no chance of getting anybody.”

Even though the accommodation problems have reached crisis point in the country in general, the provision of accommodation for staff has always been a feature of the Europe Hotel, going back to the 1960s. It’s just that nowadays, the ante has been upped and the shared-room accommodation of 60 years ago has given way to a veritable village with ensuite individual rooms. Employees have their own laundry room and gym.

“It’s absolutely state-of-the-art accommodation and that’s what helps us get the right people,” says Michael, adding that numerous hoteliers have made a point of coming to see the set-up at the Europe; testament to the fact that this issue occupies the minds of all hoteliers in Ireland.

“The easiest thing is to build the hotel but a hotel needs a heart and the heart comes from the customers and the staff. The staff are the key to it. (If they are looked after properly), they go the extra mile for the customer, they have genuine warmth and enthusiasm and truly want the customer to have a good time.”

This feeds into creating very strong customer loyalty and repeat business, Michael adds, noting that their biggest market is the domestic one, which wasn’t always the case. There was something of a philosophy changed with the repositioning of the hotel in the marketplace when it reopened in 2008, adding a spa to their service portfolio for the first time.

“Sometimes, people don’t realise how big the Liebherr group is,” says Michael. “Their annual turnover is in excess of €12 billion and it employs almost 60,000 people around the world. It’s the second-largest manufacturer of domestic fridges in Europe, they make the landing gear for the A380 Airbus, they make systems for trains, mobile cranes, maritime cranes…”

Constant training is another important feature of the hotel, Michael says, with regular training modules through Skillnet and other resources. It’s very much part of the group’s philosophy of how essential that is.

“Reinvesting in the product and the people are never a waste of money – it’s always the right thing to do,” says Michael. “Our owners always take a long-term view of things. They look at things not in terms of 5-10 years; they look at things generationally… People don’t stay in a company for 45 or 50 years unless they’re with a very good employer.”

From a national point of view, Michael is at one with the vast majority of colleagues in the hotel sector in acknowledging that the Government did an excellent job of handling things in the Pandemic period, but also feels that hospitality needs to be more strategically placed within the Cabinet.

“I think that it’s a very valid point that tourism is thrown in with a number of other departments at the moment and that it doesn’t get as high a profile as it should.”

He says that there was valid justification for the push to separate the food and accommodation sectors in the battle over the 9% / 13.5% VAT rates but also feels that the Irish tourism industry still manages to offer good value for money.

“I firmly believe that five-star hotels in Ireland offer the best value,” he says. “My story on that is very simple: I like a cup of coffee in the morning. I go to a petrol station and get my coffee and it costs me €3.50. I don’t see anybody, I just hand over my money and go. I can come here to the Europe and pay €4.50 for a coffee. I sit down and get a complimentary copy of the Irish Times or the Irish Independent, I can catch up on my emails with complimentary WiFi, my coffee is served by a waiter in a specially-designed cup and saucer that costs €30. I’ve met a doorman on the way in and when I’m finished, the cup and saucer will be taken away and washed carefully by someone in the kitchen. So where is the better value in those two scenarios?”

There’s no doubt that the long-term philosophy of the Liebherr Group has served Killarney and the Irish hospitality scene very well, setting some very interesting examples in their commitment to investing in people and property. It is, perhaps, a template from which our legislators should take inspiration.


Read more news HERE

Share this:

Explore topics: