Kerry-based hotel group the O’Donoghue Ring Collection was recently awarded the Operational Excellence in Hospitality, Tourism & Leisure accolade at the Operational Excellence Awards, held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Dublin.
Presided over by a judging panel drawn from industry, academia, and the broader stakeholder community, the annual Operational Excellence Awards aim to recognise and reward the individuals, teams and organisations that have made a commitment to achieving operational excellence and business transformation.
The O’Donoghue Ring Collection, whose portfolio of hotels, apartments, bars and restaurants includes the following – the Killarney Plaza Hotel and Spa, the Killarney Towers Hotel and Leisure Centre, the River Island Hotel, the Killarney Avenue Hotel, the Tan Yard, Café du Parc, and the O’Donoghue Public House – received the award based on its use of ‘operational excellence as a critical driver to meet the demands of the sector and deliver value to its customers over the past 12 months’.
Brian Lawlor, group general manager of the family-run collection, talks to Hospitality Ireland about what winning means to the group and the genesis of the family business.
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2023 issue of Hospitality Ireland Magazine, in October of 2023.
What does this award mean to you?
I am incredibly proud of the collection for winning the Operational Excellence Award in hospitality, tourism and leisure.
The prestigious award recognises and rewards the individuals, teams and organisations who have made a commitment to achieving operational excellence and business transformation.
It’s a testament to our team, who strive daily to deliver an exceptional service and exceed guests’ expectations. It also serves as a reminder of our impressive progress as a collection, while giving an exciting glimpse into what lies ahead.
Tell us about the O’Donoghue Ring Collection. Where did it all start? How did it grow?
The collection’s journey began in 1978, with the unveiling of the East Avenue Hotel, now [the] Killarney Avenue Hotel. It immediately made its mark as a successful wedding venue and became renowned for the Friday night céilí.
Fast-forward a few years, to the eighties, where the hotel has 66 newly built bedrooms and two successful food-and- beverage outlets servicing locals and travellers from all over.
In 1989, the O’Donoghue Ring family bought the Imperial Hotel on College Street – just minutes away – undertaking a phenomenal renovation project with the unveiling of [the] Killarney Towers Hotel. By the year 2000, the River Island Hotel, in Castleisland, and [the] Killarney Plaza Hotel, on the doorstep of Killarney National Park, were both established, totalling four influential hotels within the group’s portfolio, each contributing significantly to the tourism trade in Kerry.
Following nearly four successful decades in business, the group initiated a brand refresh in 2017, with the launch of Café du Parc, followed shortly after by the award-winning Tan Yard restaurant, and, soon after that, [the] O’Donoghue Public House. This transformation saw the former O’Donoghue Ring Hotels evolve into the O’Donoghue Ring Collection, providing a collection of experiences to guests far and wide.
Today, we are extremely proud to have also added an award-winning spa, along with an urban farm in the heart of Killarney Town, to the collection.
Tell us about your own background –where you grew up, studied, etc.
I grew up in the sunny south-east, in Wexford, and the outdoors was always a big part of my life. Thinking back on it now, this is what made me socially confident towards interacting with people, as I was always surrounded by different groups of characters through various activities.
I was very fortunate to have travelled quite a bit when I was young, tasting lots of new foods and developing my curious palate. I was naturally inspired to pursue a career in hospitality, and food and beverage in particular.
In 1999, I graduated from Waterford IT as IHF Graduate of the Year, after studying business studies in hotel and catering management. I then moved to Limerick, to start a work placement position at Adare Manor, where I progressed through the ranks before taking on the role of general manager of the Carriage House [restaurant] in 2018.
During this time, I was fortunate to work on global-scale events while leading and developing a successful operations team across food and beverage.
In 2021, I took on the role of general manager at [the] Killarney Towers Hotel and Leisure Centre, before embarking on the role of group general manager for the O’Donoghue Ring Collection in 2022.
What first drew you to hospitality?
My first initial interest in hospitality was actually working for a company called WB Nunn, who were responsible for taking in the barley for breweries, monitoring the drying process, managing storage, and much more. This really got me interested in how drinks were made and developed.
My family is filled with musicians, so I would often watch them play in different venues and was always amazed by the atmosphere created by not only the musicians, but also the servers and bar staff. I was fascinated by the way these teams could have such an impact on your experience.
I then decided to work in a local hotel in Wexford and soon found that I really enjoyed it. I can honestly say that my first job experience was amazing and really made me realise that this was something I could see myself doing into the future. I will never forget when the owner of that hotel called me over one day and said I had done a great job, and “to remember that if you look after people, they will always look after you.”
Then he gave me 50p for a tip! I won’t say how long ago that was, but it really resonated with me, and still does to this day.
When did you first realise that you wanted to do this professionally?
While working in my first role as a part- time bartender, I realised that this is what I wanted to pursue as a career, so I decided to go to college and gain a qualification. I was also quite passionate about business, so I found a new course that was only being rolled out for its first year in Waterford IT – a blend of business studies and hospitality. I felt that this could provide me with the business support that I was looking for, but also the hospitality knowledge, as there was a mix of classroom and practical lectures to take, covering all aspects of hotel management.
Once the course began, I realised that I was not only gaining practical skills, but also the background information around financials, marketing, and other elements, which enabled me to have a better understanding of the industry. I knew that I had found a passion, and one that I could see becoming a career.
What was your first big role?
My first big role came to me when I had just completed my college placement, and I was offered the bar manager position in Adare Manor. I was surprised, but, of course, accepted! I was quite nervous, as I was only 20, and it was a huge responsibility to take on, with the level of experience that I had. It was a challenge, and, thankfully, one which I can say was successful. It enabled me to grow my career within the same property and eventually has led me to come to my current role, here in the O’Donoghue Ring Collection.
I was afforded what I would see as my single-biggest role, in 2018, as the general manager of the Killarney Towers Hotel and Leisure Centre, and through the support and belief from within the company, I have been able to fulfil a position which I always aspired to reach, which is as group general manager of the collection.
What was that like?
I believe that each new role brings its own learnings and challenges. Otherwise, they would all mirror one another and stagnate progression. For me, it comes down to the new levels of detail within each role – the more responsibility the role carries, the more detail that is required to fulfil the role to its full potential. I soon realised the importance of business acumen as I began to progress into bigger roles, and that, to some degree, the hands-on service moves aside. It becomes about managing not only the business, but the people.
The importance of mentoring, training and developing becomes paramount to success.
Tell us about the ethos of the O’Donoghue Ring Collection.
Our ethos is built upon three key pillars: the employee experience, the guest experience, and our key standards of excellence.
On an employee level, our people always come first, and we are committed to nurturing and empowering our talent through supportive training and development, continuous opportunities for progression, and recognition of our teams. On a guest experience level, we aspire to exceed our guests’ expectations by offering an immersive and sensory experience, delivered in a genuine and authentic way.
Through our standards-of-excellence framework, we try to operate to the highest level of industry standards, acting responsibly and with accountability, and giving back where we can.
What makes a great hotel?
Many factors contribute to making a great hotel.
Across Ireland, we are surrounded by exceptional properties and have set a global standard in many ways when it comes to operational excellence and service standards. The true hallmark of a great hotel, however, is something instilled in a team’s culture, and that’s the continuous anticipation of guests’ needs and the magical moments that we, as hospitality professionals, strive to deliver and exceed – day in, day out.
It’s the ability to create lasting memories and experiences that sets a property apart.
Here in the collection, we strive to create an environment where guests can relax and feel comfortable, knowing that their every wish will be taken care of.
How was this summer for your hotels?
We are very grateful to have seen an exceptional summer across the collection, right through from our bars and restaurants to our hotels.
Following two years of adversity across the industry, it was refreshing to see Killarney come back to life and welcome guests, both from near and far, back to the heart of the Kingdom.
What are the changing trends in hospitality – people’s expectations, new elements, etc.?
In relation to trends, there [has been] an obvious spotlight on sustainability since pre-pandemic times. It’s at the forefront of every industry and has effectively ‘disrupted’ hotels and hospitality businesses.
Travellers from all areas of business – from leisure guests to corporate groups to tour operators – are all seeking eco-conscious stays and consider it a huge element of the decision-making process when choosing accommodation.
Wellness has also become a significant focus for guests. A growing emphasis can be seen towards healthier-eating options, expanded spa offerings, and wellness-centric amenities across a plethora of traveller types and demographics.
What are the major challenges at the moment?
Covid-19 impacted businesses everywhere, and this is something we are still recovering from in hospitality – in particular, when it comes to talent acquisition, with many having had no choice but to leave the industry during that time.
Hotels have to refocus their efforts on recruitment and training and adapt to a new era of recruitment and onboarding that blends both digital and remote aspects.
What are the main opportunities?
There are huge opportunities across the hospitality industry today. Integration with advanced technology offers endless possibilities for businesses to innovate and create unique experiences.
Personalised recommendations through AI and CRM system integration are a promising avenue for enhanced experiences, and, more importantly, one that is guaranteed to add value for the guest. Not only does this offer endless opportunities from a service capacity, but also operationally, through automating tasks behind the scenes.
What do you do when you’re not working?
When I’m not working, I love spending time with my family – my wife, Saundra, and two boys. Thankfully, we share the same passion for dining out, enjoying a nice meal, and, of course, a bottle of wine to accompany it!
I love to relax on the golf course when I find the time, and I still manage to play a bit of sport locally.
Any other plans on the horizon for the next year or so?
We are working on opening an exciting new venue very, very soon – a new food- and-beverage concept, which will complement our existing portfolio of bars and restaurants. This promises to be one of the most exciting openings – not only in Killarney, but in the country, and on which we are all extremely excited about.
We are continuously striving to improve, and therefore always looking at opportunities to develop and enhance our properties, bars and restaurants.