Nothing has been ‘normal’ within the hospitality industry for a good long while now, but among the many unexpected and unpredictable happenings, taking over as general manager of a five-star resort hotel must rank highly. But that’s exactly what Paul Heery, new GM and CEO of the K Club has done, he tells Hospitality Ireland.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of Hospitality Ireland Magazine, in July of 2021.
So, the first question of course is – how is reopening going? “It’s going very, very well. It's probably slightly different maybe from other hotels in that we're reopening with a new ownership. Our new owner, Michael Fetherston, bought it last year in February, but sure it was closed. And it re-opened and closed again four times during his first year in ownership, so, his anniversary was February just gone. What a year for a new owner to go into a business. But I think it's probably been more positive than anything, because it has given a great opportunity to rebuild and refocus; to give a little bit of a vision of where we wanted to go, and we probably wouldn't have gotten as much done if we were trading during that time. So that is a positive.”
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But, he says, that said, “it is like reopening a new hotel again. Because of building a new team. That, for me, personally, has been the most rewarding bit, because I've been part of that decision, helping that and moulding that. A lot of people have been retained, but a lot of new people have also come on board. The energy has been to get the right people around the team to move this forward. We're going through that. We've had some great new additions filled, including Brad Rowan in the kitchen, overseeing everything; Andy Nolan in the Palmer kitchen who has come from the Shelburne; Alan Vallely, in food and beverage, has come from Mount Juliet; Conor Russell, over our golf, has to come from Portmarnock. So we've had some great people to come on this journey of reshaping the K Club a little bit. And that has been exciting.”
You have to take the positives, I suggest? “You do. Because every day in the world at the moment, there's some sort of setback, isn't there? So you have to look at this and say, ‘how can we make sense of it?’ Business is trading really good. We're doing really well. I guess, like every other hotel out there it's a lot about finding staff at the moment. Staffing is a big problem. We've got about a headcount of 250 employees at the moment. And out of that 200-250 people, about 80 are new staff. So that's where we are. It's about bringing them on board and getting them comfortable with the K Club, and training them. It's time, effort, commitment. And you have to give time and energy, you have to give focus to it. Otherwise, it just won't reward. We're spending a lot of effort in that, talking to our employees and making sure they're comfortable and asking the questions – ‘may we help with anything? How can we help?’ They're simple questions, but I feel that they're important ones, to be able to find out how can we help them perform a little bit better. Ultimately,” he says, “all we're trying to do is just give genuine, meaningful hospitality here at the hotel, so that people feel very comfortable. We want to break down that barrier a little bit and have a very friendly approach here, very welcoming; we want people to walk or drive out the gate wanting to come back or to talk positively about the experience.”
Does he have a sense that our needs from hospitality may have changed ever so slightly over the course of the pandemic? “Yes. I think people are very content, they appreciate the nice things. You can see the smiles on the guest's faces coming in the door. You nearly can see the relief when they're checking in. Now, obviously, you have to deliver on that. You have to give them a great time. But yeah, definitely the guest is more receptive and delighted to be getting away. I think that’s true for all of us – speaking for myself, I've two young kids and my wife, and we went for lunch last week for the first time in so long. And in many ways it was the nicest lunch we've ever had.”
The sheer joy of being out? “Yes. We were all just happy sitting there having our lunch and talking. Appreciating our space and company. And so I think, yes, it has brought home the value a little bit more – people maybe will appreciate hospitality ever so slightly more, and have that sense of occasion and purpose. At the hotel we had a small little wedding last night. Just the immediate family, and you could see that they were all delighted. The bride and groom were overjoyed. So, we’re delighted to be open, and delighted to have challenges in front of us. We're going through a little soft refurbishment, we've done certain areas of the hotel, and we refurbished our clubhouse. So it's great to see change happening, to see investment happening into the K Club.”
The Right Direction
In terms of the next three or four months, does he feel troubled by residual uncertainty around further reopening? “Personally I think we're going in the right direction. I think we will get through. My gut feeling is that the vaccines are doing a great job. And I think that will get us through this hurdle on the business. From our figures, we don't see concern in our figures. We see encouragement and positivity each day with the number of bookings that are coming through for the future. We're slowly starting to see meeting and events inquiries coming through. They're not confirming yet, but the inquiries are coming and we're having to look at our staffing in that area to be able to resource that. And we are slowly starting to see booking confirming for the last quarter of this year from the US. Single figure bookings, but they are coming. And we're delighted with that.”
In terms of the biggest challenge at the moment, is it still staffing? “It probably is. It's getting people. During the lockdown – and Kildare had a further lockdown – people had to make other choices in their lives. So yes staffing, getting people back to work, is a challenge. And the pandemic payments, as much as it's very helpful on a financial side, is also a slight hindrance with that.”
There is a cohort for whom, frankly, working is not worth it for them? “Yes, once that gets phased out, that will help. But we hear of people wanting to work three days a week, two days a week, four days a week now, and we have to become receptive to the needs of people with family or other cares, and embrace that side of things. Because people may not want to work five days anymore.”
The hours that would have been traditionally associated with hospitality are just not appealing anymore? After half a decade or more of working in that kind of way, people have now spent so much time at home that a lot of them will not want to go back to the way they were working. But is it feasible for the industry to accommodate that? “It’s not ideal,” he admits, “However, I don't feel we have a choice but to try and get solutions to this. Because these are all great people. People who work in this industry have passion and love and care. They want to be with people, they're people-people. So how do we become creative? How do we work with them? How can we help them? And that's where I go back to breaking down barriers, it's a winwin for all of us; if we can help our employees have a good quality of life, they're happy. For me, taking care of your employees means that your guests have a great time. If the employee has the right tools, you have the chance of ensuring that the guests have a great experience and in hospitality that’s what it's all about.”
For Paul personally, presumably these were not the challenges he was expecting when he said yes to the role? “Yeah, no,” he laughs. “But you're only in control of what you're in control of. You know, I'm a glass half full, how can we keep moving forward type person. It's not ideal, but the question is, how can you make the best of it? And I think we've done a really, really good job. We opened on the second of June. And we're very proud of what we've done. The team have been brilliant. They've jumped back in. Some people carried that little bit of nervousness coming back to work, so we had to help them with that and support them and listen to them and get through any anxiety. And for me, personally, I’m delighted because the opportunity for me and for my family of moving back home.”
He seems to me a perfect example of the type of personality I feel is attracted to the hospitality industry – resilient, cheerful, able to look on the bright side, ready to reconfigure, switch things up at quite short notice. In some senses, I think that this is the industry best equipped to deal with the pandemic and the fallout from that. “If you look at the hospitality industry,” Heery agrees, “it's remarkable, really isn't it when you think about it? I'm sure in 20 or 30 years’ time, there'll the books written about this. Because you can't just turn on a hotel or a guest house. You just can't switch something back on. It’s about the heart, the soul, the people and the culture. That's what makes these places. Whether it's Adare Manor or the K Club, or Dromoland Castle, or the Merrion or any big properties. They're all beautiful. But it's the people who care and love these places, who make them what they are. We have two employees who recently celebrated 30 years’ service. The HR department still have their application letters and CVs, 30 years later. We had a cup of tea and cake together, and it was so nice to see that the same energy of 30 years ago was still there. That's what makes the resilience of this industry - the people. That's what the tourism industry has. A really special bunch of people.
So looking ahead to this time next year, what would he hope and expect will be happening at the K Club?
“This time next year, I hope we will be in a place of maturity in our business, and consistency. Where we are today, we're rebuilding, we're doing a great job. But I hope that we will have learnt and moved forward a little bit. That we will be even more knowledgeable, we'll be even more equipped. We'll be even stronger as a business and a team, because of what we've just come through. I hope our guest satisfaction will have increased, because we have improved in our guest experiences. I hope we will be continuing to evolve as a business and putting new experiences in. We've just introduced Segways around the estate, we have paddle-boarding on the Liffey now, we've introduced the golf simulator room over in our clubhouse, we've refurbished and we're putting in a golf stretching gym, so that when people come, they can do a warm up.
“These are all things that we've done over the last couple of months, during closure. And I hope that this time next year, we'll have two or three new experiences that we will have created between now and then. Everybody in hospitality is changing, and coming up with new experiences to be able to capture the domestic market. The domestic market is so important, right? Keeping our people holidaying in Ireland, as much as we can. But to do that, we have to give experiences and we have to create new experiences. So I hope that will continue.
“I also hope we will be in a position where we're hosting golf events, and international golf events. We're at the design stage of building a new ballroom, so I hope that we will be further down the line with that, which is another new segment we can we can go after. So I guess the answer is, evolving our business and giving great experiences for our guests to come and visit and reasons for them to come back to the K Club.
“And continuing to shine a light on the people that have carried this property for the last 30 years, because it's 30 years on the go. There's incredible history here. My objective is really to bring the focus back onto the people who have done what they've done, because their history has been amazing. But then moving into giving them the energy and the freedom to move forward. And doing that in a really fun way; breaking down any of that stuffiness or tiredness.”
There is, he admits, a little left-over ‘baggage’ in the K Club, from previous owners. A perception, I suggest, of the K Club, as somewhere inhabited solely by a certain type of property developer flashing their cash. The way to combat that, Heery says, “is the people who work here; the warmth, the genuine care and attention that they bring to their jobs. My biggest thing would be to allow them the freedom, the ownership, and the accountability; to let them help us reimagine the K Club to where it should be. And to have a little fun along the way.”
We certainly deserve fun, I say, after so little of it for so long. “Yes,” he agrees, “And maybe we were too serious? Now, whatever we enjoy, let's enjoy it. Have a good time. Life's for living isn't it?”
It surely is..
K CLUB AT A GLANCE
NO OF BEDROOMS: 130
NO OF STAFF (FRONT AND BACK OF HOUSE): 260
NO OF RESTAURANTS/ BARS: 3 RESTAURANTS; 3 BARS; 2 LOUNGES AND 1 PUB IN THE VILLAGE
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