As Dublin’s Ashling Hotel is crowned Ireland’s Best City Hotel in a national awards ceremony, GM Ronan Walsh talks about the hotel’s ethos and his own route to the industry.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2023 issue of Hospitality Ireland Magazine, in December of 2023.
Tell us about your own background - where you grow up, studied, etc.
I guess I was destined for a life in hospitality, after a childhood that saw us growing up between Dublin, Galway and Kerry. Initially, I joined the Ryan Hotel Group – seems so long ago, I won’t say exactly when! – and gained invaluable experience in almost every one of the ten Irish hotel and the European properties, too. Working alongside some industry icons, such as Paul McCracken, Patrick Coyle, and even Pat McCann and Charlie Sinnott, I was fortunate to learn from the very best. Of course, there were long hours, missed family occasions and difficult family choices, but, looking back, those experiences formed how I manage teams today. Honestly, I believe I am one of the lucky ones, waking up each day, looking forward to challenges in an industry that offers so much to so many.
What first drew you to hospitality?
During school holidays, I had a summer job on film location catering with none other than George Hook and Matt Dowling.
These were special days for a teenager, working on movies like Excalibur and Educating Rita, and Slane gigs like the Rolling Stones, but that was the late seventies, and from somewhere I thought a more formal training was the mature way to go, and so hotels it was, and I don’t regret that decision for a second – OK, well, maybe for a few ...!
When did you first realise that you wanted to do this professionally?
I was 16, working in Killala, Co. Mayo, on [television serial] The Year of the French, loving the freedom of living away from home with money in my pocket and not a care in the world – well, except to feed 700 a day on a film set!
What was your first big role?
After some amazing years with Ryan Hotels, I was asked by Charlie Sinnott to manage the Connemara Gateway [Hotel] in Oughterard, at the fine old age of 24, and I thought working for a PLC was tough! Charlie had a reputation as being a hard taskmaster, and let’s just say I wouldn’t argue against that, but every single day was like being mentored by the best of the best, and I still use the memory bank from those formative years in my work dealings now.
When did you join the Ashling?
I joined the Ashling Hotel in early March 2020, and within the first few days realised the world was about to go into a tailspin, the likes of which had never been seen before Covid-19. The ideas I had for the next chapter in the RW life cycle were about to be turned upside down and inside out.
Tell us about the Ashling – the ethos, food, service, etc.
The Ashling has had a wonderful history over the years and was always considered a stalwart for people coming up from the country. For decades, Ben Naughton and, since the nineties, the Flannery family from Galway have allowed a true Irish hospitality to develop, and I doubt theres an amateur sporting organisation in the country that hasn’t availed of that hospitality, with the Ashling meeting rooms and access and convenience being key. Heuston Station on our doorstep, the Luas on our doorstep, and a multi-storey car park have all been critical over the years, and continue to be so to this day. Not to forget our location adjacent to the Phoenix Park and the wonderful amenities that offers for guests to relax, have a walk, a picnic, visit the zoo or Farmleigh House, and, of course, home to our president and the US ambassador – lofty neighbours indeed! No wonder we love to say, “In the city by the park!”
The Ashling awakes every day around 6am, when the lights go on and the first guests begin to show for their early coffee or a jog before breakfast in Chesterfields [restaurant]. Our breakfast team are amazing. Our breakfast offering is buffet style, with over 100 items available and a host of smiling faces genuinely delighted to see you and look after you.
Lunch tends to be a more timed affair, with upwards of 300 people to look after from our meetings and events. The casual patron is, of course, enjoying our renowned Iveagh Bar food menu. Whether that’s the simplicity of a genuine home-baked ham and Irish cheese sandwich or a more filling roast of the day, the Ashling has always been the perfect place to meet and relax before heading to Heuston for the 6.30pm train to Galway or wherever.
The backbone of our business are our bedrooms, all 226 of them, beautifully decorated using solid Irish oak furniture and the comfiest beds imaginable – after all, you stay in a hotel primarily to sleep!
All our rooms and public areas are fully air-conditioned. Our superior bathrooms are luxurious, and, in the Ashling, we probably have the most spacious family rooms in the city. Many have a queen double and three full singles and still have space for a couch and coffee table, to unwind and watch the large-screen TV.
Tell us what this award means to you.
Industry awards are a wonderful way to show an independent appreciation to our teams, who work diligently and conscientiously, offering our guests and patrons a professional and friendly service. This makes me immensely proud of everyone in the Ashling.
What is it about the Ashling that you feel the award recognises?
I believe it recognises everything that is positive about Irish hospitality and world- class produce and service, offered in an unpretentious way, with a smile that is genuine.
What makes a great city hotel?
Top of the list has to be the team within, with a dedicated and loyal group of individuals that are developed into a team of professionals who collectively have the same goal – to offer the very best hospitality they can – with a genuine smile on their face and, importantly, by being kind to both themselves and others. Get that right, and the rest follows on.
All the elements must come together, including the people, the service, the product, the attitude, the hunger, the ambition, the dream, the experience, the focus, the education, the belief, the confidence, the knowledge, and the desire to be the best – or at least to strive to be the best – every day. Add location and some wonderful guests and patrons, and you have a great city hotel.
What are the changing trends in hospitality – people’s expectations, new elements, etc.?
The basics of hospitality haven’t really changed that much. It’s more the added individual items or services, such as a spa or a golf course or a riding trail, etc., but the fundamentals remain the same as they always have. Treat guests like you would a friend being welcomed into your home, and you will go a long way to putting a smile on people’s faces. Be kind to them and everyone around you, and you will get a name as a place to return to, time and time again.
What are the major challenges at the moment?
Encouraging young people to choose hospitality as a lifelong career.
What are the main opportunities?
A lifelong sense of achievement and a worthwhile career.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Not enough walking, swimming and exercise, and too much rugby!
Any other plans on the horizon for the next year or so?
Continue to work alongside wonderful owners in the Flannery family, with a fantastic team of professionals.
We have a refurb programme to launch in 2024 – of the restaurant and ground floor of the hotel – which should bring its own logistic challenges, but, as I have found out, the people around me here in Parkgate Street, Dublin 8, are both resilient and kind, and I’m sure we will continue to grow and have further success.