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It's A Family Affair

Published on Oct 1 2012 8:05 AM in Features

It's A Family Affair

Most people with experience in the industry will agree that running a hotel in Ireland at the present time makes for a challenging task under any circumstances. For some establishments, however, being family owned and run adds a completely different dimension to the business. Peter Molloy reports.

By the time they first expanded into the hotel sector in 1961, Tom Randles' family could already boast a business pedigree dating back four decades. Now, notes the general manager of the Randles Court Hotel in Killarney, County Kerry, the fourth generation of his family has already begun its involvement in the business. The  industry has played a significant role in his own life for as long as he can remember.

“Living across the road from the hotel, it was very much part of our daily life. Looking at the hotel business back then, it was a seasonal business. The hotel was driven full-tilt for around six months, so you didn't get to see your parents that often. Then the winters – when the hotel shut down – were a much quieter time. So it was very much part of what we did.”

That formative business exposure is something that Randles credits as very useful for the involvement in the family trade that he and other members of the younger generation have subsequently had.

“I think being involved in a business environment and dealing with customers from a very early age helped. Being in that environment from when we woke up to when we went to bed and hearing my parents talking about business was certainly an advantage.”

John Burke, managing director of a County Clare hotel group which includes the 4 star Armada Hotel in Spanish Point, is also a second generation hotelier. He works alongside his mother and sister, and recalls a youth spent similarly close to the business originally founded by his parents.

“It was your hobby, and it was your life. From nine, ten, eleven, I was spending my time collecting glasses or pulling weeds. Your summer holidays were spent doing things around the hotel, and when you went into your teens you moved into bar work. As a result, I felt very comfortable taking on management responsibilities. Once you know the operations inside out, once you know the basics inside out, then it's just a case of honing your management skills as you go along. It was a massive advantage to me.”

Today, the Randles Hotel Group has expanded to encompass two 4 star hotels in Killarney: the Randles Hotel, as well as The Dromhall Hotel. Including Tom Randles, four members of the family are involved in the day-to-day management of the business. He is quick to identify the potential advantages that this offers compared to a corporate-run business.

“We certainly find that it is a huge attraction for customers. International tourists can stay in large faceless properties all over the world. For them to go to a property where I would personally introduce myself to the majority of our customers is very important and can really help make an experience. There are also those levels of continuity that you won't necessarily have in a non-family business. There has been a Randle running both of these hotels since 1961. So I think it's a huge advantage.”

With the hotel industry currently feeling the same economic pressure as the rest of the hospitality sector, this consumer perception of continuity and tradition affords family-run businesses like the Randles Group a useful selling point.

“It's a tool that we have that other companies don't have. Other large companies with large managements have benefits that we don't have so we have to use all the tools at our disposal. I'm very quick to point out that in these days when hotels are going to the wall all the time, talking about our family tradition is important. We've been in business since 1921 – we've been there for you in the past and we'll be there for you in the future.”

The point is echoed by John Burke, who observes that in a family-owned business, “you become the brand”.

“Your name and the family name, more than the name of the hotel, become what people associate with the hotel. My mother is still very much involved with guest relations. One of the key things with a family business is that they have that personal contact and they get to know the likes and dislikes of the guests. My mother would know all that inside out. She spends time meting the customers. Things like that mean a lot.”

However, both hoteliers acknowledge that mixing work and family lives does carry the potential to produce problems unless things are carefully managed. For one thing, a clear distinction has to be drawn between business and personal roles, as Tom Randle stresses.

“Something that we're very aware of is running like a business and not a family. That's vital. If you allow family matters into the business, it doesn't help the business. We have very clear roles, which are very clearly structured. Family businesses by their nature can maybe allow things to happen that other businesses wouldn't, such as people being given jobs because they're family and not because of their skills, or decisions being made for family reasons and not for business reasons. I would like to think that, as a company, we run on quite a structured basis.”

Understandably, the same difficulties can also exist in reverse; with care needed to ensure that business doesn't dominate family life outside the workplace.

“You have to make an effort to do it”, says Tom Randle. “We would do our best to ensure that what happens in the hotel stays in the hotel. While none of us live with each other, it's very important when we have family events everything isn't about business.”

John Burke remembers a struggle to separate himself from his work when he originally commenced his management role.

“I lived in the hotel for six years when I took over general management in 2001, and definitely at that stage there was no life outside the four walls. It meant that I got to learn the business in a much shorter space of time than I might have needed, but it takes an awful lot out of you. When you're in that zone, it's hard to have a life outside. I live away from the hotel now, and it's easier to have that separation.”

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