Irish hotelier John Fitzpatrick has been chosen as the recipient of the Distinguished Leader in Business award at the fifth annual Irish Times Business Awards, held in association with Bank of Ireland.
Mr Fitzpatrick owns and operates two leading four-star hotels in New York – the Fitzpatrick Manhattan and the Fitzpatrick Grand Central – and hails from a family steeped in the hospitality industry. His sister Eithne Scott-Lennon runs the Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel in Killiney, which was bought by their parents in 1977.
Mr Fitzpatrick received the award at a ceremony in the Round Room of the Mansion House in Dublin on Thursday. In his acceptance speech, he recalled beginning his career at the age of 14, with summer jobs in the family business.
When he left school, he completed a hotel management course that his father Paddy Fitzpatrick had set up. This included working in every department of the hotel. “My father insisted that if we were going to work in this industry, we have to work in every single department.”
In 1989, the family set about searching for a hotel in the US, scouting in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. “It was always my dad’s dream to open a hotel there,” Mr Fitzpatrick said. “I remember him saying many times that you’ll find an Irish pub on every corner in the United States, but you won’t find an Irish hotel.”
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In 1991, the family purchased what is now the Fitzpatrick Manhattan hotel on Lexington Avenue in New York. The property has since gone on to host many well-known Irish and international politicians, celebrities and sports stars, and has become a place of choice for many Irish visitors to the city.
“President Mary Robinson was our first Irish dignitary to stay, followed shortly afterwards by Albert Reynolds, who was Taoiseach at the time. Since then, I am proud to say, we have hosted every president and taoiseach who followed,” he said.
Mr Fitzpatrick described the early days in New York as a “hard slog, knocking on doors and competing with big, well-known brands such as the Hilton and Sheraton”.
“Business was really slow and we weren’t hitting our targets,” he said. Mr Fitzpatrick changed strategy by focusing on nearby offices blocks and the companies that occupied them to drum up business. The strategy paid off and the hotel’s occupancy soon exceeded 90 per cent.
It became such a success that the family decided to open a second hotel in 1998, the Fitzpatrick Grand Central on 44th Street. They expanded into Chicago in 2001 but “got the timing wrong”, opening shortly before 9/11, which devastated the hospitality trade. Business picked up but the hotel was sold five years later.
I remember my dad saying many times that you’ll find an Irish pub on every corner in the United States, but you won’t find an Irish hotel
Having been a 50 per cent owner in the three US hotels, Mr Fitzpatrick used the proceeds from Chicago to buy his family out of the New York properties, making him the sole owner.
Mr Fitzpatrick also referenced the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on his business. It forced the closure of one of his hotels as the city was subjected to lockdown restrictions. “We had to pay real estate taxes, known as rates in Ireland, which meant we had a $1.2 million bill to pay every six month, even while the hotels were closed,” he said.
They both reopened fully last year and are once again trading well, with New York “buzzing again”.
“Thankfully we are on the other side of things and life is getting back to normal,” said Mr Fitzpatrick.