Supporting Hospitality – Paul Kelly CEO of Fáilte Ireland

Wednesday, April 03, 2024. 11:26am
Paul Kelly, CEO, Fáilte Ireland

Supporting Hospitality – An interview with Paul Kelly CEO of Fáilte Ireland

Prior to becoming the Chief Executive of Fáilte Ireland in 2017, Paul Kelly had cut a varied and impressive career mainly in the private sector.

“I started out in the family retail business,” says Paul. “My father had an independent electrical shop in Wexford town. You might say that I grew up on the shop floor there… learning about things like dealing with the public and how a small family business was run.”

After obtaining a degree in Commerce from UCD, Paul joined American consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble in the UK. After a number of years there, he returned to Ireland to work with Diageo. He was with the Guinness owners for a decade, becoming their Marketing Director before moving to insurance company Aviva. Here, he worked for over five years in a marketing and consultancy role until he secured his current position; working in the tourism sector for the very first time in his career and entering at the top. It was his strong background in marketing and strategy that got him the job, he says – something that speaks volumes of what the role of CEO of Fáilte Ireland actually involves.

“It’s essentially about understanding what people are looking for,” says Paul, “and trying to work out the best way of delivering that to them and communicating it to them.”

From the marketing point of view, there’s no doubt that Fáilte Ireland have been punching very much above their weight in the tourism sector in recent years, scoring strong successes on a stripped-down budget.

The challenge of training people for the sector and attracting people into it has been another key component of industry. It’s one that has come in for a lot of controversy in recent decades. There is a clear lack of trainees in the sector and many point to the end of CERT and other factors as evidence that the Government effectively abdicated responsibility of ensuring adequate training for our largest indigenous industry; pushing Fáilte Ireland into a role more concerned with marketing the country, to the detriment of training people for the industry. Paul feels that while there are certainly challenges to address, the situation is more nuanced than that.

“The Government made the decision that the training side of the industry would be left to the education experts – to the ETB, for example,” says Paul. “It’s not like the training has stopped. It still goes on through the likes of the ETBs and Fáilte Ireland still focuses on upskilling and capability building in areas most critical to business performance. A key focus for us is also on supporting employees to shape and drive their professional development and upskilling whether that’s for new starters into the sector, people wanting to progress their careers, as well as managers looking to upskill and develop. We are looking at how we work with other arms of Government to ensure that the wider skills needs of the industry are being met to ensure we’re reducing gaps and duplication in provision. We’re constantly looking down the line at emerging trends and industry needs to see what the gaps are and how we can support the sector to build the knowledge and expertise of their teams to meet evolving business challenges and to be in a really competitive and resilient position.”

In terms of the loss of skill sets and staff during the Covid period, Paul says that that situation is well on its way to recovery, pointing in evidence to what he says is a “significant drop in the number of vacancies advertised at this point this year, compared with last year. We still have skills shortages and staff shortages, as every industry does, but I think that the levels are now a bit more normal.”

On the broader issue of the rash of restaurant closures that have occurred this year and whether or not the Government needs something of a re-focus on supporting the tourism industry, Paul is at pains to point out that Fáilte Ireland’s role is not one of dictating Government policy.

Fáilte Ireland’s First National Conference on Driving Climate Action in Tourism Businesses.
Picture by Shane O’Neill, Coalesce.

“Our role, as the national tourism agency, is to gather the evidence. We don’t make policy decisions on areas like this and it’s also important to say that our legislative remit is tourism. A lot of hospitality is not tourism – it’s the likes of you and I going down to our local restaurant or pub. It’s important that these businesses are kept alive so that tourists visiting the area can visit them. It’s a complicated area, so it’s up to us to ensure that those who do make the policies have got the right information.”

On the question of tourism sustainability, Paul says that there are two main strands of activity: there’s the Climate Action Programme where Fáilte Ireland is supporting businesses by providing advisors who work hand-in-hand with them to help them understand how to approach the process of becoming more sustainable.

“The second bit is our all-island sustainability certification assurance scheme,” says Paul. “What’s really important to understand is that we’re not getting into the business of certifying businesses for sustainability – there are lots of certifiers already out there who are doing that. The issue is that the visitor and the consumer don’t understand what these different certifications mean, however, because there are lots of different ones. What we’re looking to do is map those certifiers into an overall assurance scheme and then provide a badge for visitors.”

It’s effectively a rating system that will allow visitors to get a straight opinion of the principal tourism authorities on the island of Ireland as to whether or not a product’s sustainability credentials are reasonable. The operation of the scheme will be overseen by Northern Ireland Tourism in Northern Ireland and by Fáilte Ireland in the Republic.

In terms of the number of hotels being used to accommodate asylum-seekers and refugees, Paul says that there is little that can be done in the face of the sudden invasion of the Ukraine.

“I think that a lot of people in tourism are now saying, ‘it’s two years on now and we should be looking at alternatives to accommodation other than tourist accommodation’… once again, our expertise is in the tourism sector and our job is to make people who are making those decisions aware of the impact it’s having on the tourism sector.

“I think that one of the big concerns we would have is in terms of the impact that Government policy (with regard to housing refugees and asylum seekers) would have on tourism towns around the country. If you have a town where a lot of the tourism accommodation is taken out, then the town becomes less of a tourism town. And it takes a while to get that back.”

On the question of whether or not the tourism minister’s brief is too broad to be effective, Paul is not going to be drawn:

“That’s not really a question for us. I’ve heard lots of people saying things like, ‘Tourism should be a ministry on its own… tourism should be only with arts and culture… tourism should be with transport… tourism should be with enterprise…’ There are pros and cons to all these permutations of combinations. Inevitably, there is a lot of negotiation that goes on post-election and we’re simply happy to support the sector and do the best for it.”

With regard to how the role of Fáilte Ireland might evolve in the future, Paul points out that the role has already dynamically evolved since he has been in it:

“About two thirds of what we do now, we didn’t do about five or six years ago,” he says. “We’ve massively expanded the offering that we’ve given to businesses.”

He cites the expansion of the zonal branding exercise that began with the Wild Atlantic Way as one of the principal evolutions in the state tourism body’s role and the fact that staffing numbers at Fáilte Ireland have increased from about 320 to 450 people under his tenure.

“Five or six years ago, we didn’t have the tourism careers promotion or the employment excellence programmes. We’ve a whole new Industry Digitisation Team that we didn’t have before… We’ve brought back in the Activities & Attractions Team and this year we’re stepping up sustainability..”

Inclusion and accessibility are buzzwords that loom large on the Irish tourism horizon, with the imminent arrival of European legislation that will compel tourism businesses to make their products more inclusive to the disabled sector.

“There’s certainly opportunity for us to do an awful lot better in this regard,” says Paul. “It’s really important from an equality and human rights point of view that we do make tourism inclusive and accessible to all, regardless of disabilities or additional needs. But also, there’s a huge market in it.”

Taking on the leadership of the organisation charged with the promotion of our national tourism sector could be compared with, say, the manager of the national football team: Everyone has their own idea of what the role should involve and the style in which the role is carried out. At the end of the day, however, you can only play what’s in front of you and play to win.

“I’m positive about the coming year,” says Paul. “The air-access picture is tracking at about 105% ahead of this time last year, which is the best ever. So as long as we don’t end up in a situation where we can’t match that need because of caps at Dublin Airport… it’s really important that a solution is found there, and one that works.

“For the domestic market and the European market, I think that value for money is critical… The one area I’m a little bit concerned about is corporate travel. I think that the business conference sector is looking healthy but it’s the day-to-day corporate travel that’s looking a bit softer. In any case, Fáilte Ireland is as committed as ever to doing everything we can to drive the tourism industry on an ongoing basis.”

Find out more about Fáilte Ireland’s Climate Action Programme and tourism business supports at

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