The Conrad Dublin's Nicky Blake-Knox On Her Journey

By Robert McHugh
The Conrad Dublin's Nicky Blake-Knox On Her Journey

Robert McHugh catches up with Nicky Blake-Knox, commercial director at The Conrad Dublin, 'a luxury offering within the city centre.'

Nicky Blake-Knox, commercial director at The Conrad Dublin, has spoken to Hospitality Ireland about Conrad Dublin's evolution and her professional journey thus far.

Originally from Belfast, Nicky relocated to Edinburgh for university and joined the Hilton Hotels group shortly before graduating. Starting as a C&E sales executive, she progressed through various roles within the commercial department during her fifteen-year tenure with the group.

Having garnered a broad global perspective on luxury hospitality through her engagements at Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh, Hilton Ageas Bowl, and the pre-opening phase of Hilton Woking, she eventually assumed the role of commercial director at Conrad Dublin.

During her time with Hilton, Nicky has been involved in several career highlights, collaborating on significant projects such as the 2019 Cricket World Cup, interactions with Barack Obama, and even engagements related to the Avengers franchise.


• What was your first job in the hospitality industry, and how did that experience shape your passion and commitment to the field?

My first job in the hospitality industry was actually working behind the bar in the local rugby club.

I started off as a glass collector and then worked in the bar there until I left for university, I loved this job! It taught me so much about the industry and it was when I realised just how much hard work it was but also how much fun.

The camaraderie and mentality to pull together to get through busy match days and being on your feet for over 16 hours pouring Guinness after Guinness was a great learning curve and life experience.

It also gave me a great basis for the future because we held lots of events and a Sunday lunch carvery etc, so it was more than working behind the bar and it gave me invaluable experience that I took with me through all my operational roles.


• Who was your first mentor in hospitality, and how did their guidance influence your growth and development as a hospitality professional?

I’ve had some amazing mentors during my career and have learned so much from them. I’ve also been really lucky to work with great general manager’s and I would say that all of them have been influenced by development.

The general manager at my first hotel probably made me realise this was something I loved, and more importantly that I was capable and had potential. I think without that encouragement and validation so early in my career I wouldn’t be where I am today.

I certainly wouldn’t have had the confidence to go for the next role I did without it.

Most of the key mentors for me were the female leaders I worked with. Dale MacPhee my general manager at Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh was a major influence for me, as seeing a woman as the general manager of a luxury hotel really made me realise that it was possible early in my career.


Seeing her succeed, having worked her way up in a similar career path to me was very influential on me and opened my eyes to what was possible in a career in hospitality. I am not sure I had considered that until I worked with her.

In fact it’s one of things that I love and am very proud of, working for Hilton, is that there are so many inspirational female leaders throughout the business to look up to and learn from.

Dale was always honest and straightforward and the feedback she gave me helped shape the leader I am today. There are so many people I can rely on for advice and in the Hilton UK & Ireland regional team there are a lot of amazing female leaders that I rely on for advice both for my day to day job but my career as well, and having that network is invaluable.

In fact, it was their advice and feedback that encouraged me to take this role, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.

Now I am a mentor for the Hilton EMEA Women in Leadership development program, and I hope I am able to provide some valuable advice and help to future female leaders, as I can testify to how much that has helped me in my career.


• Can you elaborate on the factors that led you to decide on your career direction? Were there any influential individuals or experiences that encouraged you to take the route you have taken?

I studied Event Management at University and had spent the time during my studies working in various operational roles in hotels, bars and events venues.

As much as I loved the operational side, I really wanted to be on the other side of the things. I would see the commercial teams meeting clients and how they got to sell the dream as well as design and create the event and I wanted to do that too.

Before I graduated, I went to see the careers clinic in my University (Queen Margaret University Edinburgh) as I wasn’t really familiar with the broader hotel industry other than in C&E ops roles.

Here, I talked to them about career paths in hospitality and how my degree would be relevant to different roles and career paths. By chance, the day I was there I saw a flyer on the job board for a conference and events sales executive with Hilton, I picked up the flyer and applied the next day.

The rest is history really, I got the job and started at Hilton at Edinburgh Airport three weeks later and have been with Hilton ever since! The variety of the Commercial side of the business had me hooked, and from there I really couldn’t see myself doing anything else, so I focussed my learning and development on how I could progress along this career path.

I didn’t really have an end goal in mind, I just knew this was what I wanted to keep doing.

• Throughout your journey, could you walk us through the various roles you have held in your career and the significant lessons you have learned from each experience?

I started off in the C&E Sales department and the roles I did there really taught me about revenue management and sales. Without that base knowledge and learning, I don’t think I would be as effective in my current role.

When I was an assistant C&E sales manager, the hotel went into a refurb and rebrand to a luxury brand and I was thrown into the deep end, as such with no marketing teams on property, and a skeleton commercial team.

I had to figure it out and I find situations like that are where I learn the most and actually enjoy a lot!

Social media was just becoming a tool for businesses to use (showing my age now!) and I remember trying to convince the general manager at the time that I had to be allowed to access Facebook on my work computer as it was for marketing! Now you would never create a marketing strategy that didn’t include social media.

I have also been part of the pre opening team for a hotel that was significantly delayed due to building issues and the challenges that came with that were new and unexpected at times. I was lucky that we had a great team who really banded together and dealt with everything head on and were of great support to each other in the uncertainty, especially when so much is out of your control.

The role that taught me the most overall was as reservations, group, conference and events manager, as this is when I really learnt what people management was about.

Learning to manage different specialties within one team and align everyone to a common goal, was one of the most important experiences for me, and is something that has been with me in every role since then.

In fact, it’s probably the most important part of every role as without my team, I wouldn’t achieve anything and I know that if I do that part of my job right, then the rest should follow.

• In your experience, what are the most significant challenges you have faced while working in the hospitality industry, and how did you navigate through them?

Well I started my first role with Hilton right in the middle of the 2008 financial crash so there were a lot of great lessons learned so early in my career. The hotel’s biggest clients were all major banks and right from the outset the challenge was replacing that business.

It taught me a lot about the industry in a short space of time especially in terms of profitability and rate strategy. How you manage the business in this kind of situation gives you a really solid foundation for when the market recovers, and I found my competitive nature thrived in this environment, helping me develop quickly. I still rely on lessons I learnt during this time in my day to day.

Another priceless experience was when I was Hilton at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton, which is built into a cricket stadium, the home of Hampshire Cricket and an international cricket ground.

During the Covid Pandemic, we were selected to be the host of the first international sporting event to take place since the pandemic began. Creating a 'biosecure bubble' around the hotel and stadium was a new challenge for everyone involved, and had never been done before, so it was a phenomenal learning experience.

The hotel housed the teams and the press and we had to keep everyone completely separated, whilst looking after them and providing a home away from home, when they were in the bubble, unable to leave to see their families etc.

Managing the hotel team, undergoing covid testing every three days, having thermal cameras monitoring everyone’s temperatures and working with the broadcasters who were filming the match from the hotel, is not something you really expect from your daily life as a commercial director but that’s why I love hospitality so much, you can never predict what you will be doing next! Working with the stadium team and the England Cricket Board to pull everything off was a really rewarding time.

In another hotel, we operated continually throughout a major £24 million refurbishment which obviously brought daily challenges. Some of which make me laugh when I look back on them, although they didn’t seem that way at the time! For example, I can remember escorting Jim Broadbent, who was in town for a film festival, through the reception under a a golf umbrella as the builders had chosen that exact moment to strip the paint from the ceiling but you learn to handle these things.

It’s times like these, that really demonstrate the power of hospitality to provide a genuine service and that real connection that can overcome material and situational issues, and result in a happy guest and a good experience.

Challenges are what makes this industry so rewarding and there are challenges in every role, but finding solutions and ensuring a successful outcome at the end is where I thrive.

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

I think the next goal in my career will be to become general manager in a luxury hotel, but I don’t like to put timelines on goals, as for me, it’s not about getting to the end goal as quickly as possible.

I enjoy what I do every day, so as long as that is the case, then I will be happy and for now I am extremely lucky to work in a hotel with an unparalleled culture which I don’t take for granted.

My favourite part of luxury hospitality is creating experiences and being able to see a guest's expectations be exceeded, and for me that is the lasting impression that I want to make. To be part of creating lifetime memories for guests and clients and seeing the joy on people’s faces, is what makes it so rewarding, and I think as long as I can keep doing that then I will feel fulfilled.

Taking a business forward commercially and achieving results is also a big driver for me, and I usually choose roles where I feel I can really make a worthy impact, and there’s something to get my teeth stuck into.