Ireland’s carefully cultivated tourism image as the land of a hundred thousand welcomes took a hit this week when one of the big names in the hospitality sector suggested that the welcomes awaiting guests at some high-end hotels are not as they should be.
"When carrying out our independent and anonymous assessments around the country, we have encountered disappointments once again, and particularly with some four- and five-star hotels, where there really should be no excuses," Georgina Campbell said at her annual Food & Hospitality Awards in Dublin.
“There is a worrying lack of a sense of hospitality in some cases and poor training, or indeed no apparent training at all,” she continued and described as “baffling” the low standards she has observed at top establishments each year.
What is it with the invisible general manager? It can't be budget cuts, not with the prices they charge
The Irish hospitality sector prides itself on the uniqueness of its welcome. It is seen as one of the key reasons more than 10 million people come from overseas to Ireland each year and pay high prices to stay in nice hotels. Take away the welcomes and what do we have? The weather? The value? The stunning architecture? Wonders of the world?
When contacted after the event by The Irish Times, Campbell expanded on her point.
“The lack of a host or a general manager is sometimes really striking,” she says. “You don’t know who is in charge.”
She travels widely and says too many four- and five-star hotels are offering service that is anything but stellar. “The receptionists might be perfectly pleasant, and the staff might have all the fancy uniforms and the formality, but we are in danger of losing the hospitality, and that is everything.”
People expect better standards, she argues. “What is it with the invisible general manager? It can’t be budget cuts, not with the prices they charge. I think some hotels have just forgotten themselves and what they are about.”
She cites good examples of great customer experiences including the Park Hotel in Kenmare, Harvey's Point in Donegal and Ashford Castle on the Galway-Mayo border.
Marlfield House in Co Wexford, run by the same family for 40 years, took Campbell'a Hotel of the Year award. She describes it as "an extraordinary place which is just so focused on high standards but they have a great warmth to them as well".
The sector must remember that “hospitality is what Ireland does best, and when it is not done right it really stands out”.
Nevertheless, these are the best of days for Irish tourism. One of the shiniest jewels in the Irish economic crown, it employs more than 300,000 people and generates billions of euro in revenue. Last year it was worth more than €6 billion, a 10 per cent increase on the previous year, while the number of visitors climbed above 11 million, a 6 per cent jump on 2017, with growth recorded from all markets.
But it is a fragile sector, and Campbell’s gentle criticism will echo through the industry. It was certainly noted in the Abbeyglen Castle Hotel in Galway, a place where the management could never be described as invisible.
Guests arriving at the Abbeyglen are greeted by the beaming owner Brian Hughes who will more often than not cajole them into sitting in an ornate chair – more of a throne really – at the entrance to the castle to have their picture taken. He hosts welcome receptions in the bar and regales guests with tales about the hotel and the town it overlooks. He is to be found at breakfast and dinner and will sing to his supper guests at the drop of a hat.
His lived experience echoes what Campbell says. “I have been in the hotel business all my life, and this year more than any other I have noticed people saying how rare it is to see the owner of the hotel actually in the hotel,” he says.
“The business has changed dramatically since I started out. What you need in this game is a bit of flair and a lot of enthusiasm and a genuine love of talking to people, but sometimes now I think what those running hotels want is a degree in accountancy or law. It is becoming a very different game.”
He says that sometimes at trade conferences he is regarded by some of his peers as somewhat anachronistic or, to use his own words, “a bit mad and very odd”.
Hughes accepts he does things out of the norm. “A lot of hotel managers now just sit in their offices and have a chain of command which they rely on to get things right. That’s not our way. I think you have to lead by example, that is the best training you can give people. If they see me behaving in a certain way then they will replicate that but if they see that I don’t care then they won’t care either.”
Many of his staff are from overseas but he scoffs at any notion they lack the warmth that tourists who come to Ireland are looking for because their passport says they were born in Cracow and not Clifden. "Ireland is much more multicultural now than in the past, and a lot of our staff are eastern Europe but they are married into Clifden or their children go to school in Clifden," he says.
“If a person is anchored to a community they are more likely to be here for the long haul. A local person is no longer somebody with an Irish accent but someone who is part of our community.”
Niall Rochford is the general manager of Ashford Castle in Cong, one of the most highly-regarded hotels in Ireland and a place used to dealing with demanding customers with high expectations – a significant percentage of its guests are well-heeled Americans, who are not afraid to complain if they are displeased.
Rochford says a good hotel employee is born not made. “Ensuring we have the highest levels of service comes down to recruiting the right people,” he says.
“They need a work ethic, they need the right aptitude and they need the right attitude. Once they have those three traits it is up to us to train them. I think you can tell within five minutes of meeting someone if they are a people person and if they have those traits.”
He says the Red Carnation Hotel group which now owns Ashford takes service seriously and sends six secret shoppers to stay in the hotel each year, each one with a long checklist to make sure that things are just so.
“The most important thing is to have your managers visible,” Rochford says. The hotel employs more than 400 people and he expects “all my managers to be on the floor when the operation needs them”.
He leads by example. “We are in the people business and have to treat people well. That is what keeps them coming back, that authentic and genuine engagement. In Ireland when we do it well we are the best in the world – but maybe we are not doing enough.”
What hotel guests say
We asked social media users if they had experienced any particularly good or bad customer service in a hotel in Ireland? Of almost 300 responses in less than 24 hours, more than 90 per cent were positive.
"Driving late one night from Dublin to Limerick in 2001. Passing Racket Hall, Roscrea and had to stop," wrote Richard Kennedy. "Went to check out after breakfast. No charge. Owner at desk and knew I arrived late. Said he was happy that I stopped and didn't fall asleep at the wheel."
Gerry Mongey described Adare Manor as being "utterly spectacular on service, staff, food and rooms. Never experienced anything like it. Specifically John at the front entrance was so friendly, down to earth and knowledgeable, such a pleasure to have a chat with him".
There was also the not so good. "One particularly bad experience we had in a Mayo hotel was when we ordered breakfast to our room," recalled Niamh Fitzpatrick. "My veggie breakfast had black pudding on it. Before the waiter left I asked him to take it back and he said 'What's the problem? It's blood not meat'."