Paula Carroll is a force of nature, a petite woman with a booming voice and an undeniable presence. When she is in the room, everybody knows it. Heads swivel as she passes. "I feel like the Queen of Sheeba today," she says, posing for our photographer with an ease that goes back to her days as a child model at the Violet Collins agency in Dublin.
In hospitality terms, she is indeed royalty – a senior member of a select group, dominated by women, whose job it is to sell Ireland’s five-star hotels, at home and abroad. “All of the sales and marketing directors know each other and support each other as women tremendously,” she says.
Carroll is originally from Dublin, but has been living in the west of Ireland since taking up the position of director of sales and marketing at Ashford Castle 31 years ago. Her initial entry into the hospitality business was with what was then bord fáilte, working as a travel adviser based in London and then Manchester. She also worked for Trusthouse Forte at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, before being headhunted to join the team at Ashford Castle. "I have only ever had three employers," she says of her long and distinguished hotel career.
Her counterpart at the Shelbourne today is Yvonne Donohue, another industry highflyer, who left rural Co Galway in the late 1980s to pursue a career in hospitality that began at Mary Bowe's Marlfield House in Co Wexford.
"I did everything from turn down to check-in. Mary was phenomenal, she'd have you flower arranging one minute, and feeding the ducks the next. She really epitomised Irish hospitality at the time." Nuremore, Radisson, Conrad and Westin hotel roles followed followed, and nine years ago Donohue received a telephone call, asking if she was interested in joining the Shelbourne.
I realised that a lot of people were dependent on how successful we were
“It’s such an iconic hotel, you feel like you’re minding it for the period of time that you’re here,” she says of the grande dame of St Stephen’s Green, which has been a hotel for 195 years.
Carroll, too, expresses a sense of responsibility for the Ashford Castle estate and its more than 400 employees. “I took it very seriously from day one. I realised that a lot of people were dependent on how successful we were.”
She says that the property being acquired six years ago by Red Carnation Hotels, founded by South African-born hotelier Beatrice Tollman, "is probably the best thing that has happened during my time here. They have spent €100 million reinvesting in Ashford Castle."
As well as directing sales and marketing teams at their respective bases, Carroll and Donohue also travel the world, promoting Ireland as a tourism destination, and their respective hotels as the best places from which to see it. “We get such a great reception, selling Ireland,” Donohue says. “The Ireland of today is in the top 10 safest destinations in the world, which for Americans is really important.”
Carroll remembers a time when perceptions were different. “It has become a lot easier to sell Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement; we are not pointing to a map and saying, ‘we’re not in that part, up there’.”
They both agree that while Ireland’s scenery is a big draw, it is the people that make the biggest contribution to the country’s success as a tourism destination. “The feedback I get is that the country is beautiful, but it is the people that spark lasting memories; Dublin is fundamentally still a very friendly city, and outside the city people are inquisitive and will engage with visitors,” Donohue says.
For Carroll, the appeal of Ashford Castle goes beyond its stunning location and stately rooms – to the “passion and professionalism” of the people who work there, and their desire for “everyone who visits us to have a wonderful experience.”
Donohue mentions a string of strong female role models in her family, who 'encouraged me to be my own person'
Neither woman is married, “ and I’ve no regrets about it either,” Carroll quips, and neither do they have children. Donohue mentions a string of strong female role models in her family, who “encouraged me to be my own person” and not feel pressure to conform to expectations.
“Technically it is supposed to be an eight-hour day, but it’s not, and the hours are long. I couldn’t do my job if I had small children at home,” Donohue says. She is aware of the demands family life makes on her colleagues, and says “there has to be flexibility”. That extends to male colleagues, too. “I never want to be seen to be favouring women over men, or vice versa.”
There are four men in Donohue’s team of 16, including one who when asked at interview where he saw himself in five years, said he wanted her job, eventually – “and that was exactly the answer I was looking for”.