Bucking the trend in hard-hit hotel sector
FUTURE PROOF: Fitzwilliam Hotel:The Fitzwilliam Hotel is experiencing higher occupancy levels than at the height of the boom, according to general manager Fergal O’Connell
VISITOR NUMBERS to Ireland may be down in recent years but one hotel that is bucking the trend of the turbulent recession is the Fitzwilliam in Dublin.
The hotel is experiencing higher occupancy levels than at the height of the boom, according to general manager Fergal O’Connell, and has recently received planning permission to add an extra 34 rooms.
“The number of Irish people staying in our hotel is up 10 per cent as is the number of people coming from the US,” he says.
“We’re also getting visitors from India, Australia and the Middle East, which we didn’t really have before. The good thing about them is that they tend to stay longer than Irish guests due to the distance they’ve travelled.”
O’Connell joined the Fitzwilliam in July 2008 having previously managed the Great Southern Hotel at Dublin Airport (now the Radisson) and the Great Southern in Galway.
“The timing could not have been worse. For the first six months, I was blamed for everything as things were not going well, but it was due to the downturn.”
The hotel’s occupancy rate dropped 20 per cent between the boom times and 2009, but this has since been clawed back, according to O’Connell.
“We had just completed €2 million renovations when the recession hit, so the pressure was really on for us to survive.
“We sat down with all our suppliers and renegotiated prices. We got a huge buy-in from all our staff who had to take pay cuts. We also had to look at the cost of promoting our product – for example advertising on websites and in brochures.”
O’Connell is quick to point out though that the one thing not compromised on was the guest experience. “For example, fresh flowers are still put into all the guest bedrooms,” he says.
The hotel doubled the size of its sales team and set about building relationships with travel agencies in the US, Britain, Scandinavia and mainland Europe.
“We had to go into new markets and get more out of the markets we were already in. We took on marketing partners in the UK and US and got knocking on doors. You can’t do lots of cost cutting and expect business to just come to you.”
O’Connell now visits the US several times a year, where he meets industry leaders, tour operators and travel agents, in an effort to promote the hotel.
“We have found that we have to sell Ireland as a destination as much as our product. First we convince people to come to Ireland, and then we go about promoting the hotel to them.”
Locally, the hotel has started promoting staycations.
“It’s not good enough to advertise a room on your website or on the back of a newspaper. You have to be innovative. People want an experience now. They want their stay to be memorable.”
The hotel started doing gourmet food packages, which involve a stroll through Dublin with head chef Matt Fuller. Guests are taken on a tour of suppliers. They get to try products at Sheridan’s cheesemongers, Cocoa Atelier, Fallon Byrne and so on.
They then enjoy a three-course meal back at the hotel restaurant prepared by Fuller using ingredients from the suppliers visited.
“You can have the glossiest of brochures but people will want a person to deal with in an organisation. They want personal contact. When they phone up they want to speak to a person and not a machine.”
The hotel is now looking at doing a shopping trail for guests in the run-up to Christmas.
O’Connell says now has been the most interesting time in the 15 years he has been managing hotels.
While he experienced downturns in the industry in the past, especially while working in New York, nothing was as difficult as now, he says.
“The economic crisis has brought us back to basics in terms of selling and management. There was a dip in tourism back in 2001 due to the Iraq war and Sars, but the bounce back was quicker than now.”
He believes the main challenge currently facing Dublin businesses and hotels is local authority rates.
“Local rates are a huge challenge for us and other businesses. They are excessive.”