Allen Flynn, proprietor of the Old Ground, Ennis

Allen Flynn, proprietor of the Old Ground Hotel, Ennis, Co Clare. Photograph:  Eamon Ward

Allen Flynn, proprietor of the Old Ground Hotel, Ennis, Co Clare. Photograph: Eamon Ward

Sat, Jun 8, 2013, 01:00

A llen Flynn is a calm, still point at the centre of the bustle in the Old Ground’s lobby. Children in Communion dresses move between newly arrived American tourists. A funeral party has arrived and there’s a wedding later. He ushers me to a comfortable couch and rustles up a sandwich and coffee for me. In the background someone drops a plate. “They’re smashing things up for you!” he says.

Flynn and his brothers, who together own three other hotels – the Park Hotel in Dungarvan, the Imperial hotel in Cork and the Newpark in Kilkenny – are, he says, “ground-floor people first and foremost”.

They learned about the business from a young age, working at the Park Hotel, which was owned by their parents. “We’d be up before breakfast preparing rooms and then in the evening there were chips to be cut – this was the days before frozen chips – and bottles to be sorted. That was from the age of four to five upwards. It was before child-labour laws,” he laughs. “I don’t think it ever did us any harm.”

Flynn didn’t immediately enter the hotel business. On graduating from a business degree in UL, he spent eight years working for Price Waterhouse in New York. “All 21-year-olds should spend time in New York,” he says, but in 1995 his breeding asserted itself, and he and his brother John bought the Old Ground from the international Trust House Forte hotel group.

“In the Park we always aspired to the level of service of places like the Old Ground,” he says. The hotel dates back to 1895. In the 1940s then-owners the O’Regan family expanded the hotel to cater for US airline crews. “You hear fantastic stories from older people,” says Flynn. “Flight attendant was a very glamorous job back then and it was also a lot of people’s first exposure to the American style. Let’s just say they weren’t as quiet as the locals.”

A blow-in to Ennis himself, Flynn still can’t get over how welcoming people were. “I arrived on a Friday and on the Sunday, Clare won the All-Ireland after 85 years of a hiatus,” he says. “Within 72 hours 100,000 people descended on Ennis. It was a baptism of fire. I don’t think we closed the bar for 34 hours. I was behind the counter and it was never less than seven deep. I remember at seven the following morning looking across the counter at men and women in their 70s still celebrating.”

He didn’t have a master-plan, but it was a great time for hotels.

“The Irish customer base just grew. People were willing to take more than one holiday. You could see the movement of money through Irish society. From 1997 to 2007 it was very rare that we would have had anything less than 100 per cent occupancy at weekends.”

In contrast, “this year we’ve only been two or three Saturday nights with 100 per cent occupancy. Our average room rates would have gone down 15 or 20 per cent.”

It’s not the only thing that’s changed in the industry. Thirty per cent of their bookings are now made through the internet, and 64 per cent of their guests consult Trip Advisor (they did a survey).

“I’m the odd man out in my family,” he says. “I have four brothers who ate and slept for horseracing. I’m more interested in theatre.” It began when doing pro bono work for a theatre group in New York. Now each year he both acts and directs with the Ennis Players, takes a regular holiday to see the Edinburgh Fringe and he’s just spent a week at the RTÉ All-Ireland Drama Awards. “I often wonder do I spend more time acting on stage or in the hotels dealing with customers,” he says.

He takes me on a tour. There are four sections. The original building, two extensions, one built in the 1940s and one in the 1960s, as well as the former Ennis Town Hall, which now contains a bistro. There he points out a Tom Climent canvas measuring the exact dimensions of the travelling cinema screens older Ennis residents will remember being hoisted into the same spot.

In the lobby there are black-and-white photos of traditional Clare life and up in the banquet suite, past some children joyously banging on a piano, is a fireplace dating from 1533. It’s from Lemanagh Castle, explains Flynn, and will return there if that building is ever restored.

Flynn feels they’re doing well. Unofficial family “gatherings” have led to solid business and an increase in flights to Shannon has seen the return of a phenomenon Flynn relishes: “people checking in at 6.30 in the morning after an early flight”.

He laments the plethora of “build-them-and-they’ll-come” boom-time hotels with no business plans, but feels Irish family hotels are unique (he singles out Longville House and the Quay House in Clifden).

He has a simple ethos: “We don’t treat our guests as customers but as friends staying the night . . . Our parents always taught us this: take care of your customer. Whether they’re in for a cup of coffee or a conference for €100,000, treat everyone the same.” Patrick Freyne