New York hotelier has no plans to check out just yet
Hotelier John Fitzpatrick bounds into the Residence private members club on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin with a broad smile, a warm handshake and an apology for being late.
He was on a pre-Christmas trip home in advance of US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Ireland.
Fitzpatrick is a prominent member of Irish-America and a long-time member of the Clinton’s circle.
He has much to smile about. Profits at his two New York hotels rose by 18.5 per cent last year to €3.2 million as the economic recovery continues in the US.
It was his 21st year in business in the city and a fitting coming of age.
Fitzpatrick owns the freehold on his two four-star hotels and estimates they are worth $140 million “and going up”.
The stellar profit performance is all the more impressive when you consider that an additional 6,000 hotel rooms were added to the market in New York last year.
He has also received a tap on the shoulder to become chairman in 2014 of the American Hotel Lodging Association, which represents 55,000 hotels in the US which generate $140 billion in revenue annually from 5 million rooms.
It’s a rare honour for the owner of a small hotel chain in the US.
Fitzpatrick is currently serving a third two-year term as chairman of the Hotel Association of New York City. Not bad for an out-of-towner.
It’s hasn’t been all plain sailing, of course.
Superstorm Sandy in late October threatened to blow a big hole in his business plan but, like 9/11 and various other crises over the two decades he has done business in Manhattan, Fitzpatrick survived.
“It was a disaster operationally,” he says. “Some hotels had no hot water or heat for five days. Subways were a mess.
“The biggest problem was deliveries. Simple things like our laundry, getting sheets and towels delivered. People were great about not having their sheets cleaned every day but after a certain time you have to change them. Then the companies were ripping you off.”
Fitzpatrick’s regular laundry provider was flooded, forcing him into the arms of an alternative company.
“They knew we were in trouble. We were getting sheets cleaned at 80c a sheet and they were charging us $8 a sheet.”
His Manhattan hotel between 56th and 57th street and the Grand Central on East 44th Street survived the worst of the storm and became a refuge for those in the city without power who were desperate to charge their phones and computers.
“That’s how tough it was. Then the [New York] marathon came in the middle of it. [Calling it off] was the right thing to do but if we’d had more notice it would have been better.”
Fitzpatrick praises his staff for rising to the occasion. Many of them made the journey into Manhattan before the storm hit and hunkered down for the duration.
“The ones who came in on Thursday didn’t get home till Sunday. There were no subways. We had to put them up in rooms, which put more pressure on the hotels.”
Fitzpatrick’s two hotels in New York are famous with the travelling Irish.
They are like a rasher hajj for hungry Paddies in search of a traditional full Irish in the Big Apple.
The Fitzpatricks are renowned for their traditional personal service.
He has a number of Irish staff working the front of house, which he believes gives him an edge on his rivals when it comes to hospitality.
“Somebody once said to me there’s more Irish working in this hotel than there are in Ireland,” he says.
Hosting Ian Paisley
His most senior lieutenants are also Irish: chief financial officer Peter Kidd, area manager Shane Cookman and Patrick Leyden, who runs the Grand Central Hotel.
“I have the best team around me that I’ve ever had. A few years ago I couldn’t have left the hotels for more than a couple of days without worrying about them.”
Fitzpatrick has hosted the three most recent Irish presidents and numerous taoisigh and ministers.
His hotels have also become a popular place to lodge for Northern Ireland ministers of both persuasions and British government officials.