Robert McHugh catches up with Michael Davern, general manager of Anantara the Marker Dublin Hotel, ‘a sleek, contemporary landmark overlooking the waterfront of Grand Canal Square.’
Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas officially made its debut in Ireland in 2023, with the opening of Anantara the Marker Dublin Hotel.
Previously known as the award-winning Marker, the hotel overlooks the waterfront on Grand Canal Square and is the only five-star hotel in the area.
The Dublin hotel is the eighth Anantara in Europe, joining Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort, in Portugal, the Anantara Villa Padierna Palace Benahavís Marbella Resort, in Spain, the Anantara New York Palace Budapest, in Hungary, the Anantara Palazzo Naiadi Rome Hotel and Anantara Convento di Amalfi Grand Hotel, both in Italy, the Anantara Plaza Nice Hotel, in France, and the Anantara Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky Amsterdam, in the Netherlands.
Anantara the Marker Dublin Hotel completed a multimillion-euro refurbishment this year and also opened a destination restaurant, Forbes Street by Gareth Mullins.
Hospitality Ireland recently caught up with Michael Davern, general manager of Anantara the Marker Dublin Hotel, to look back on a remarkable 12 months.
It was a busy year for Anantara the Marker Dublin Hotel in 2023. What were your main highlights?
We started the refurbishment in October last year. We refurbished all the bedrooms – all six floors – floor by floor.
The whole hotel was finished around April. All the bedrooms have new wallpaper, lamps, lighting and features. This includes wood panelling, to give a lovely, luxurious feel.
In January, February and March, we concentrated on the public area, so we did the Marker Bar and Lounge, along with the terrace. We launched the restaurant, Forbes Street by Gareth Mullins, in June.
Meanwhile, we launched the Anantara the Marker in May, which was the first Anantara in Ireland, so that was exciting.
We refurbished the whole front entrance as well – that was completed in April. Prior to that, we updated all our mechanical and electrical components, to make them more sustainable.
We have been very busy, and we have been spending plenty of capital. It is an exciting time for the team and for the staff.
What does your job entail?
I am involved in all things and an expert in none!
I am involved in the day-to-day, strategic running of the hotel, and every aspect that comes with that.
Obviously, we have a good team of professionals here as well. We have expertise in food and beverage, sales, marketing and finance. I am backed up by a very competent and capable team.
What do you see as the most important part of your role?
Anticipating customers’ needs and satisfaction.
We strive to exceed customer expectations in every aspect of our business. There are various segments to our business. We have leisure and business travellers. We deal with meetings, conferences, and people coming from all over the world.
We are also a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, so we have to make sure we succeed the expectations of both the Anantara customer and the Leading Hotels of the World customer. We have to maintain the key to our brand pillars, which is basically being genuine, authentic, indigenous and local.
Much of this is based around ensuring that we are allowing people to immerse themselves in our culture and having exciting experiences around that. A huge amount of team-building and training goes into that. We are constantly training and encouraging our teams, to make sure they are knowledgeable and able to deliver on those promises that we believe in.
It is very exciting that we are part of an international luxury brand originally from Bangkok, in Asia. The belief of the brand is that we identify ourselves through our service levels. We want to offer a luxury hotel experience to the guest, no matter what segment they come from.
When tourists come to Dublin, they expect an Irish experience, and hospitality is a key part of that because we are synonymous with a warm welcome. That is important for our company because we are very aligned with our neighbours in Bangkok, who are famous for their hospitality, service levels, and the warmth of the people.
This is a reputation that Ireland has and lives up to all the time.
Tell us about your background – where you grew up, studied, etc.
I grew up in Cashel, County Tipperary. I went to school in the seventies.
When I was a child, I was lucky enough to experience the Cashel Palace Hotel. Back then, it was a one-of-a-kind hotel near the Rock Of Cashel. Plenty of tourists were around back then, particularly domestic tourists, because Cashel was a halfway stop between Dublin and Cork.
My grandmother had a retail store there, which is still in the family now – my cousin has it. I got used to customers dropping in. My aunt had a pub next door, called Davern’s Bar, and from a young age, I worked there. I pulled pints and cleaned glasses.
I went to college in Shannon and did hotel management. I then went to the UK and worked for Trusthouse Forte. I found myself back in Ireland in 1991, for the opening of the K Club, where I stayed for six years.
I then travelled to South Africa, to work at the Fancourt golf resort, where I stayed for five years. After this, I went to Sandy Lane, in Barbados, for another five years. I returned to the K Club about a year before the Ryder Cup.
What brought you to South Africa?
I had been there on holidays, and it was an exciting destination. It was 1997 – the new government had transitioned about two years previously. It was an amazing opportunity to develop – international hotels were coming out of a long period of apartheid, and it was an exciting time.
An opportunity arose, where I was offered the chance to run Fancourt, which was a beautiful golf resort developed by Hasso Plattner and his wife. He is the founder of SAP software.
What makes a great guest experience?
The people, a great level of comfort, excellent food, and quality standards. That is expected at Anantara, and as a member of the Leading Hotels of the World. The key to a good guest experience is the interaction with the people – the warmth, hospitality, storytelling.
When we travel, we want to engage with people and the destination. You want to hear the stories and gain the knowledge of the locale. It is having that level of hospitality that that goes beyond service. That’s the key – real hospitality. You have to make people feel very welcome, and this comes with the confidence of the team and how they are engaging with customers.
For example, every day at 4.30pm, our guests are invited to partake in an end-of-day ceremony, where we show them how to make an Irish coffee and we tell them its history and how it came about. The ceilings in our bar are inspired by the Giant’s Causeway. The floor is inspired by the Burren, in County Clare. Through the storytelling of the Irish coffee, you are able to explain [that] the whiskey comes from Bushmills, near the Giant’s Causeway, and the Irish coffee was invented in Foynes, Shannon, near the Burren.
So, it is engaging with people. It goes way beyond an Irish coffee. Real hospitality goes beyond service.
The ‘Wild Swimming’ package sounds like a very distinct offering.
We have a magnificent spa and swimming pool. This is unique in a city environment. When you walk into our spa, there is a beautiful printed picture of the Forty Foot.
After Covid, people have taken more notice of their local cities – I think it is really important for us to realise that as an urban retreat. I have a resort background, really, from my time in the Caribbean and South Africa.
People want immersive experiences. If you were here for a couple of nights on business, wouldn’t it be amazing to go and jump into the sea? You can go for a walk or a cycle here and do whatever you want to do. Even a business trip can be turned into a memorable experience.
We have a swimming guide that is there to help people, depending on their ability. It really gets people’s imaginations going. It’s great to be able to jump on a bicycle and go to Sandycove and go to the beach. You can see the sea from our rooftop – you can see Dun Laoghaire, the mountains. It is a great way of encouraging people to partake and immerse themselves in the local experience.
What are the major challenges at the moment?
The whole industry was shut down during Covid, and that was challenging. Recruitment and retention has been tough for hospitality. That is something that all of us in the industry are working very hard on. It is getting better now and improving.
Housing, or lack of it, is very difficult for people who are travelling to Ireland to work in hospitality.
What are the main opportunities?
Everybody wants travel and new experiences. There is a pent-up demand after Covid – people want to go to different countries and experience different cultures.
Ireland is a very accessible country. We have magnificent air routes into the country. We have a great reputation as a safe, English-speaking country on the edge of Europe, with close connections to America.
We have flights every day coming in from Dubai, Etihad [Airways] and Qatar. The connections we have globally are amazing. There are huge opportunities.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I play a bit of golf.
In my career, I have been involved with a lot of golf resorts.
They say, “The nearer to church, the closer to God,” so I like to play a bit of golf if I can.
I also enjoy walking.
How will you spend this Christmas?
We will be open for the first time ever. In the history of the Marker, we never normally opened.
We are open this Christmas, and we will be nice and busy. There are a lot of guests coming in on 22, 23 [December], and we have an exciting programme over Christmas. I will be here on Christmas Day and will also spend time with my family.
It is not too unusual for someone who ran resorts for so long. Christmas in resorts in the Caribbean or Africa [is] always busy. Christmas in the K Club was busy as well.
Christmas was a peak period in South Africa – everybody would come to the resort. It is strange seeing Santa Claus in 32-degrees-Celsius heat with a woolly hat on!
What are your new-year resolutions for 2024?
The Anantara group is expanding in Europe. A key issue for us will be to continue growth – getting refurbishment and development out of the way. We want to exceed the expectations of our international customers.
From my own point of view, I would like to improve my golf game.