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John Loughran Of The Sandymount Hotel On His Journey

By Robert McHugh
John Loughran Of The Sandymount Hotel On His Journey

Robert McHugh speaks to John Loughran, owner of the Sandymount Hotel, the largest independent, family-run hotel in Dublin.

The four-star award-winning Sandymount Hotel has been run by the Loughran family since 1955, and it is the largest independent, family-run hotel in Dublin.

In 1955, George and Rosaleen (née McConn) Loughran – a young couple from Northern Ireland – set up a small B&B on Herbert Road. Their family members all helped out, even sharing one bedroom at busy times. In the following decades, adjoining properties were acquired, and eventually the business expanded to become a luxury four-star hotel.

In 2010, the hotel rebranded as Sandymount, to identify with the nearby village of Sandymount. The same year, the hotel’s unique five-metre bronze rugby sculpture, Sandymount Line-Out, marked its location as the closest hotel to the Aviva Stadium, the home of Irish rugby.

John Loughran is the eldest son of the original owners. He studied in Trinity College and qualified as a chartered accountant with PwC. He joined his brother in the hotel in 1990 and became sole owner in 1999.

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Audrey, John’s wife of 37 years, was a receptionist in the hotel. They have four children, and their son Gerard works in the hotel as a director.

The Sandymount Hotel will celebrate 70 years as an independent, family-run hotel next year. How does it feel to reach such an impressive milestone?

I feel very proud that we have managed to survive. There are very few family-run hotels in the country, and almost none in the city.

We faced significant challenges to survive as a family hotel. Even back in the seventies, you had the burning of the British Embassy, not far from here.

In 2008, the tourism business collapsed, and almost every hotel in Dublin 4 closed. The difference between us and other hotels is that we were paying back the loans we owed. We were facing competition from hotels that were effectively taken over by NAMA and other operators that did not have a requirement to repay debt. They could afford to charge €20 a night for a room. They were already gone, and so competing in that environment was difficult.

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Covid impacted the hospitality sector hard, and even coming out of that, the recovery has not been as strong in hospitality as [it has been in] other sectors. It has bounced back, and it is much better than it was, but there are still a significant number of corporates working from home. The business model that was there in 2019 before Covid has changed radically.

So, you never know what is going to be thrown at you over 70 years!

You mentioned the after-effects of Covid on the sector. How has this affected staff retention?

Our longest-serving member of staff, Beatrice, has had three children working here. She started here in 1981, so she is 43 years on reception, and she has a great ability to read a customer coming in. Returning customers she will know very well also. They have a sense of belonging when they walk in the door. I think you can coach a professional receptionist in a five-star hotel how to be polite, but 40 years of experience cannot be taught.

My head of housekeeping, Rose, has been here for 36 years, which would be very unusual in housekeeping. My PA is here 25 years. When you have a base of long-term staff who know what they are doing, everything kind of flows around them. Younger people can pick up very quickly from people with experience like that.

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We currently have maybe about 120 to 130 staff, 20 of whom have been with us for longer than Dalata has existed as a company. I think that really comes from being in a family business.

The way in which the businesses runs would be very much in conjunction with the staff, so they have an input across the board. I can have a waiter who makes a suggestion, and he will be listened to and taken seriously. I think the staff who work for me are invested in their jobs. They have the ability to influence what’s going on in their jobs. For example, the canopies that were set up in the outdoor area during Covid – it was Beatrice, our long-term receptionist, who suggested, “It’s so quiet around here. What about doing coffees outside?” and so we started doing that.

Do you think that it creates better job satisfaction for staff if they feel that they have more input into the hotel?

I think we would have higher staff retention than most hotels in Dublin. I think that paying your staff properly is important, but it is not the most important thing. I think showing respect for your staff and having them feel valued as a person is far more important than money.

I have had staff that have left and been offered jobs with more money in a different property, and I couldn’t count the number who have got back in touch and said, “It was a mistake. Can we come back?” Generally, we say no because whatever brought about their decision to leave in the first place, those circumstances are probably with them still.

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It is different in a family-run business. There is no pressure on us to deliver profit this year. If you are working in a group hotel or a corporately owned hotel, it will be profit driven for this year. It drives bonuses for the GM, it drives shareholder value, it drives dividends. The entire focus is on getting to 31 December as profitable as possible.

Our decisions are based on what is in the best long-term interest of the hotel. If that requires sacrificing profit this year to ensure a better product or to drive a long-term strategy, then so be it. A good example of this is when the Garth Brooks concert was on. There were 400,000 tickets sold, and we were fully booked. We had the stage crew booked in here, and they were sold on non-recoverable rates. The concert was cancelled, and we were under no obligation to repay anybody. We decided we would because we felt that, morally, it was the right thing to do. Even though we were taking a hit, we felt that the hotel’s reputation was at stake, and it will impact how you feel about us if we offer no refund. We took that decision because we believe the customer will come back again if you do the right thing.

Tell us about your background – where you grew up, studied, etc.

I grew up here. In 1955, my mother was pregnant with me. My parents were living in a bedsit on Tritonville Road. They had no money. The guy next door to them worked in a bank, and he was from the same town in the North as my parents. He got them a loan that they never should have got, so that brought them in here.

I was born three weeks after they moved in. I attended Roslyn Park, which was a convent, and I then went to St Michael’s. At that time, St Michael’s was like Willow Park. It was a feeder school for Blackrock College, so that’s hard to envisage nowadays. In my time, I was in St Michael’s, and we were going to Junior Cup and Senior Cup matches, cheering for Blackrock!

Both of my parents came from relatively poor farming backgrounds in the North of Ireland, and were adamant that their kids would have a good education. I was sent to Castleknock College – which, at that time, was boarding school only – because my parents were working here.

I went to Trinity College and did what would now be called BESS, it was BBS back then, as a business degree. So, I graduated from Trinity and then joined what is now PwC, and there I qualified as a chartered accountant.

I knew I wasn’t going to be one of the 50 partners – that wasn’t going to be my life – so I left and I set up a financial practice with two school friends of mine from Castleknock College, one of whom was in EY, and the other was in what is now Accenture. The three of us set up an accountancy practice and we ran that for about ten years.

I then sold out my share of the accountancy practice and came in here, to take ownership of the hotel with my brother. He had studied hotel management at Cathal Brugha Street. After 11 years, I acquired his share in 1999. Since then, I have been the sole owner here.

It sounds like you had a well-rounded career outside the hospitality industry. What drew you in?

When I was running my financial practice, it was very successful, and I didn’t need to come back here. It wasn’t particularly on my mind to come back. My father was transferring ownership, and I took a view that the value of the business here was such that it merited my direct involvement, rather than working in a financial practice and doing this on the side. At the time when I bought my brother’s share, he had been working in the hotel for seven or eight years longer than me, even though he’s three years younger than me. He took the decision to go on to other opportunities – this was in 1999, when things were exciting in Dublin. I think we both felt that we should be moving independently.

At that juncture, I took on debt of half the capital value of this business, which wasn’t an insignificant sum, and he received that in cash, but I thought it was from then that I became sole owner of the hotel. So, it wasn’t just that I coasted along and was always in the hotel, and my parents stepped back and I stepped in.

I think maybe there was a sense of family obligation or family duty. When I reflect back on it now, the fact that I was born in the same year that the first building was acquired gives me a sense of growing with the business through my lifetime, so maybe that was there. I’m pretty happy that I could have done other things with my life. I’m pretty sure if I stayed in PwC, I would have made partner, but I would have gone mad. I remember my colleagues did stay and did become partners at PwC. I have known a couple of the managing partners there very well. The same at KPMG – I know a lot of the top guys who have gone through there because of my financial background.

Many hotel owners and managers talk about a certain buzz that is unique to the hospitality industry. Did you ever feel this?

I think no two days are ever going to be the same. Every day you walk in here is different, and you can’t predict what is going to happen, even on a daily basis.

You can plan for what you think is going to happen, but you literally don’t know. For example, if it’s a rugby match day and Ireland are winning in the stadium, you are going to have a massive crowd coming back here. If they lose, people are fed up and they want to go home.

Earlier, you mentioned having a long-term strategy. Is it difficult having a long-term strategy in an industry thats so dependent on external factors as well?

You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but you position yourself to address what might come at you. Because of the challenges that I faced in the financial crash of 2008, Covid was a walk in the park.

Between 2008 and 2013, I had no idea if I was going to survive. When we got to 2013, I knew we would be OK.

Your corporate background must have come in useful during that time?

It came in useful in my negotiations with the banks, and the banks were very keen to put a receiver in here. I had enough financial know-how to take steps to stop that from happening, and the result was I kept my business.

My business would have been sold for a sum of money that would have cleared all my debts – the bank would have been fine, and I wouldn’t – whereas I repaid every cent that I owed to the bank. There were no write-downs. In addition, I needed to change the length term of the loans. I moved them from eight to 15 years, and they charged me increased interest rates and, as a result, it cost me the guts of a million, in addition to what I owed over the period of repayment. So, not only did I pay the banks everything I owed them, but I paid them a million on top of that.

It did not happen on Day One. My loans are only pretty much washing out now, which is 15 years down the road. In the initial stages of all this, the unfairness of it got to me. I recognised that I can whinge and give out, but it needs to be dealt with, and nobody’s going to help me, so you either deal with it or you don’t. So, I rolled up my sleeves and we got stuck in, and Gerard played a key role in that. He had just joined and came in at a very difficult time.

Have you had any mentors in the hospitality industry who influenced your growth and development as a hospitality professional?

Not really. I suppose we are a very individual type of hotel business.

I have had plenty of mentors in my life, but not particular to the industry. The industry is better now than it was at collectively pulling together. Back in the day, everybody kept their cards close to their chest – nobody shared anything with direct competition.

Of which networks have you been a part that have provided vital support and contributed to your career progression?

I was in boarding school. There was a very small number of people in my year in boarding school. Some of those guys are very successful in life, and they have followed various paths, whether it is legal, medical or business. They are a very good bouncing board.

Then I went to Trinity College, and I would still be close to some of the guys that I was in Trinity with. I played rugby in Wanderers [F.C.], and I would know a bunch of guys there. I play golf in Milltown. I can lift the phone and get input from 100 people in different areas. I think the development of personal relationships and nurturing those relationships from the get-go in life is key. I think how you interact with people, how you meet with people, if you are genuinely interested in what they have to say, and their stories – you then form a bond.

In 2005, I went to New Zealand on the Lions Tour, and I met some people who are Northampton supporters, who stayed in the hotel last weekend. We went out for dinner and had a lovely evening. They were talking about how wonderful it was to still have that bond of friendship almost 20 years later.

I had a 60th birthday party, and I invited some of the people that I went on rugby tours with from abroad. I think nurturing relationships is very important, at a business level and in relation to your staff. I think you need to have an interest in their lives because everybody has a story to tell. I talk to my staff about their lives, their families, and their issues.

Everybody has a value, and I suppose if you nurture relationships, support will be there when you need it. If you lift the phone, somebody will be there to be at your side. I know people use the term ‘networking’ now as a kind of a tool to develop your business or develop your career, but I think if you broaden that out into networking to develop yourself as a person, the rest will flow from that. You will have the resources available to you to make decisions.

Looking ahead, what are your career goals and aspirations, and how do you envision making a lasting impact on the hospitality sector?

I’m not overly concerned with making my mark on the industry. The Sandymount Hotel operates very much under the radar. If you were in Galway, Limerick or Cork and asked someone to name ten hotels in Dublin, we may not be on that list. People will talk about the Four Seasons or the Clayton Hotels, but yet we are here far longer than any of those hotels, and we continue to be here.

In terms of the future, what we have done here is run a hotel which is specced up to an incredibly high level. I would suggest it’s as good as any hotel, if not better, than any hotel anywhere in Dublin, including the big names. There is a certain ambiance here. We have a location that, once you’ve been to it, you’re likely to want to come back because it’s quiet, it’s remote. You jump on the DART, you are in the city in five minutes. You can go to Killiney. Landsdowne is just across the road.

Sandymount is probably one of the most beautiful villages in the city, if not the country. You can stroll the beach not far away. Dublin 4 is high-end residential, but it’s not necessarily high-end commercial.

Both my parents came from very poor backgrounds, as I pointed out – small farms in the North of Ireland. The cards fell for them in a way that allowed them to acquire the first property, and then hard work allowed them to acquire other properties, and then because of the way those cards fell, I ended up in Castleknock College, Trinity, PwC, and eventually back here. If they didn’t get that first card in the deck of them getting that loan, I would not be sitting here. I’d be doing something else with my life. I could be a kitchen porter. I could be a waiter. It is not predestined and predetermined.

Many people who succeed in business get an overinflated sense of their own importance, and they are simply a product, yes, of work and commitment, but also of the way cards fell for them – and I think it’s very important to recognise how lucky I am to be in the position I am, and that it could be different. It is important to recognise that with anybody that I’m talking to, the cards could fall for them in a way that would have them either further up the ladder or further down the ladder. I see people in the golf club or I see people in various walks of life who are disrespectful of staff or people serving them, or whatever. I think it reflects really poorly on them, that they don’t recognise that they are not really anybody special.

One of my duty managers asked me last week, “Would you not sell this place? It’s worth a fortune!” We’ve had a number of knocks on the door, but the answer is no. Firstly, I love what I do. Secondly, if you do get a large sum of money, what do you do with it? Do you buy a Ferrari and go up and down the M50? Do you buy a yacht in the Mediterranean and get bored after after two weeks?

You sound like someone who likes to be busy!

Yes, I do. I am also someone who is accepting. I’m in a good place. I don’t need to be having this grand plan for legacy or anything like that.

I’ve got four kids. Hopefully, my wife and I have instilled in them a similar outlook on life, where they are respectful of other people, and I think that’s there.

The fact that this hotel has survived longer than any other hotel in Dublin means there are enough guests and customers who know about us to keep coming back. We have a loyal base of customers. Some of the larger hotels would have a significantly higher turnover than we would because of the strands of business, but the bottom lines are very similar. Realistically, if you are going to stay in business, it’s the bottom line that matters. We have a very tight operation. We don’t have layers of management. We have a loyal staff, a loyal customer base, and our guests know that you will not have a better guest experience anywhere. That’s why we have survived for as long as we have.

What do you like to do when you are not working?

I’m a member of Milltown Golf Club. I’m absolutely useless. I know I’m never going to be any better, but I enjoy it. I enjoy the craic. The social stuff is just as important, if not more important, than the competition.

I love rugby – Irish Rugby in particular. My eldest daughter was marketing manager of London Harlequins from 2005 to 2014, so I’ve gone on a couple of Lions Tours in New Zealand and South Africa.

I seaswim in Seapoint or the Forty Foot. I have a an apartment in France, and I go over there to chill a lot. The week after next, I go to Canada. My son is over there. I’ll see my grandchild.

A couple of years ago, I went back to college and I did a diploma in corporate governance. That was a one-year academic programme.

What motivated you to do that?

I wanted to challenge myself, and I did. I was saying, “Why am I doing this to myself?” I had exam stress that I hadn’t felt for 40 years, but it was still a good experience. One of the guys on my course is Ian Drennan, who is director of corporate enforcement [the Corporate Enforcement Authority] now. He runs that office.

Four weeks ago, I went to my apartment in France, and one of my school friends also has an apartment, so five of us from the same class in school went to France for a week. I meet with a group of friends for dinner every Thursday night, and every Friday night, I meet with a different group, and we have two pints and that’s it! We go home. I have plenty going on in life.

A few years ago, I was approached by Seamus Brennan, who was the then Minister for Social Affairs. I was appointed to the board of the Combat Poverty Agency, so I worked with that agency. I was in directing government policy on poverty. I think we became a bit of a thorn in the side for the Department of Social and Family Affairs, so they shut us down. I was on the inaugural board of governance of Castleknock College. I was on the executive of Wanderers rugby club.

The last car I bought was 21 years ago. I go around 90% of the time on a Piaggio moped. Last December, I flew to Nantes, in France, and bought myself a moped over there. So, I bought a three-year-old moped with all the bells and whistles, and then I took a week to come home. I went to the River Somme. People asked, “Could you not just buy a Piaggio here or buy it over there and have it shipped back to Ireland?” but it’s not just about buying a motorbike. It’s about a life experience.

My wife and I have been married for 44 years. She worked here as a receptionist in the 1970s. I wasn’t here at the time. I was in Trinity, then Pricewaterhouse. So, she was interviewed by my parents for a job here. They didn’t recognise they were interviewing their future daughter-in-law! The family didn’t go out with staff because if it was going going well, it would be fine. If it wasn’t going well, there’d be problems. We kept it under wraps for a bit, and we eventually got rumbled. We had to come clean. When I asked her to marry me, I said, “There’s one condition: you are out of the hotel! I am not going to be married to somebody working for my parents.” She took the option of leaving the hotel. As I’ve often said, if I offered her the same choice today, she might make a different one! Seven grandkids later, here we are.

If I have learned one thing since the recession, it is that I have no control over what other people do. I have no control over what people think about me, what they say about me, what they do to me, but I always have control over how I choose to respond to that. If you can remain focused on your response when you are facing challenges and not get all worked up about the issue, you are able to remain objective and see it for what it is. Equally, you are able to stay focused on your response when you are facing challenges. There’s no point in looking back when you have made a decision. If you have taken a decision, live with it and move on to your next decision.

You have to live in the moment. Two weeks ago, we had a group of guys who have coffee here once a week. One of them would be a fairly eminent legal person in Dublin. Anyway, he had a wobble and collapsed. My receptionist was dead cool. After I came up and established how he was feeling, we got the ambulance out, he was examined. It was suspected to be a heart attack – thankfully, it didn’t work out to be that way. There’s always time to evaluate your response, even if it is split-second.

If a customer comes in and they are a difficult customer, and giving you abuse or whatever, nine out of ten times, that is nothing to do with you and nothing to do with the product. If you have a husband and wife who pull up outside the hotel and they are having a row in the car, there’s a very good chance they are going to find something wrong with the room when they enter it. When dealing with customers, you put your hands up straight away. If the customer has an issue, then you have to recognise that issue, even if you don’t consider it to be valid. It’s not doing you any good to try and argue your corner. You apologise, and you pick an element of what can you do to appease or address the issue with the customer. That’s whether it’s over the counter or whether it’s on TripAdvisor.

Yes, it’s a busy industry, and yes, it can be crazy at times, but it’s never so busy that you can’t deal with a customer. If I’m walking past a cup, it doesn’t matter who I am. If I’m a waiter, if I’m a manager, if I’m financial controller, you lift the cup. You take ownership. If there’s a problem with a guest because his meal is wrong, you take responsibility for addressing the issue. Ownership, accountability and responsibility is key here.

In a larger corporate organisation, an awful lot of people are very concerned with making sure their a** is not exposed on issues. They give more focus to that than taking ownership and resolving the issues and resolving the problems. The same would apply across the public sector and government bodies. If you look at the National Children’s Hospital, €3 billion has been spent on it, and it started at €1 billion. The big concern across the Department of Health or the various other departments is not taking blame, whereas, I think, when you’re in business for yourself, particularly in a family business, I’ve got nowhere to hide. The buck stops with me. I carry the can for decisions that are taken. Not only do I accept responsibility, but I will also receive the consequences of the decisions that I take. Culpability is important.

The team are fantastic at their jobs. They just take ownership of the problem. A couple of weeks ago, I saw that the van from the hotel was out on a soup run in the middle of the night. When I inquired, I found out that one of the local charities who run a soup run could not use their van because it broke down. Two or three of my staff took it upon themselves to take the hotel van and do the run themselves because the charity did not have transport. I’m extremely proud of my staff for taking the initiative to support people who needed that support.

I suppose that is the culture that prevails here in the hotel: the staff know that if they take responsibility, they are not going to be in trouble for it.

Is the local community important to the hotel?

We run the Gingerbread Village at Christmas, which is really spectacular. That raises money for the local Saint Vincent de Paul. We would provide accommodation for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, for example, if somebody is going to the 3Arena to be on stage with an artist, or for things like that.

We are one of the patrons of the IRFU Charitable Trust. We make a lot of money out of rugby and the IRFU from match days, and and it feels good to give back a bit. We run a breakfast every year for them, and they’ll have some of the rugby speakers attending, so we do bits and pieces on that front.

Anything that you would like to add?

We expect to be here for a long time to come. We are not going anywhere!