How do you get from Switzerland in the 1960s to China today? By following the story of the Kellys, of course. Gordon Hunt speaks with Mike and David, a father and son duo who have established glittering careers in hotel management.
here is news abounding throughout our industry that it is becoming too difficult and challenging to appeal to fresh blood, the youths of today viewing the whole world of hospitality as a poisoned chalice. While it is true that we do face a growing number of challenges, from Hospitality Ireland’s perspective, hotels and restaurants that have survived the last few years deserve huge credit. Every report points to growing levels of customer care within our hotels, bars and restaurants, we still have excellent hospitality management courses in numerous colleges around Ireland and the opportunities which have arisen for new workers into the industry in recent years have no doubt revitalised many aspects of our sector. However, nothing inspires a hotelier or a restaurateur like a family bond.
And, in Ireland, this is a strong link. Publicans pass their bars down through the family line like perhaps no other business, for example. Similarly restaurants are run by siblings in many cases, with entire families often behind truly great eateries. However, when it comes to the Kellys, hotels are in their DNA.
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“When I trained in Switzerland in the 1960s, it was the place to be,” explains Mike Kelly, beverage manager at the Talbot Hotel in Wexford. “It was an amazing experience, a world away from what goes on today.” Mike, at 67, has had a long career in hotels. He became assistant manager in the Limerick Ryan before becoming manager at the Killarney Ryan in the late sixties. “Then in 1971 I opened and became manager of the London Ryan and stayed there for a few years before coming back to manage Whites in Wexford.” After running his own restaurant in Limerick, Mike took over the family business in Wexford, Kelly’s Corner pub. He then had a spell at the Great Southern before his move to the Talbot Hotel. But Mike’s family roots in the hotel
industry stretch further than I ever could have thought. “My brother in law Liam retired, but he worked at The Three Lakes Hotel in Killarney, and was also at the International Hotel. My son David works in China with the Hilton Group, and his grandfather had the Devonshire Arms Hotel in Dungarvan. We like our hotels,” he quips, without hesitation.
And here is where our story really starts. Mike’s son David is regional manager for North China with the Hilton Hotel group. He has so far worked in various positions in more countries than most of us will visit in our lifetimes and Mike is quick to stress how this should show just what is possible for younger entrants into our industry. “David’s story is great, he has been everywhere, I just hope people hear about things like this and get into the hotel trade because it is such a rewarding industry.”David started out in the Newpark Hotel in Kilkenny and, from there, he moved to the Jurys Hotel in Galway before his Hilton adventure took off. “I moved to New York after a year in Galway to join Hilton HotelsCorporation back in 1995,” says David, who stayed in the Big Apple for five years honing his craft, and has since acquired an accent that sounds like a Venn diagram of geographical influences, with Ireland at the core. “In the US, I was largely working in operational roles – food and beverage manager, restaurant manager, catering, etc.” From New York, David made the move to Australia where he went all around the houses. A similar role in Sydney lead him towards a director of development role in Melbourne Airport, before returning to Sydney in 2004 to reopen a hotel which had received significant investment. From there David went, as GM, to Cairns, where his experiences perhaps mirrored those of many back here, struggling to adapt to an Ireland without UK visitors. “That was a very interesting time because in Cairns we were very dependent on the Japanese market in particular, and it was faltering, so we had to battle to get the custom. It was a great experience,” he says. David’s final role in Australia brought him East to open up a Hilton in Surfers Paradise, about an hour from Brisbane. “For anyone in Ireland planning on heading over to the Lions tour, I highly recommend Surfers Paradise. It’s a great place to be.” David’s time there was a considerable success, helping the hotel to its first major award accolade, the 2012 Hotel Management ‘Best New Hotel’.
Now David is based in Beijing as regional general manager, North China, his young family in tow, and what he has learned so far on his travels is sage advice for those looking to enter the industry in Ireland. “Ihave a very simple philosophy,” he tells me. “You will hear it time and again, but that’s because it’s true. Look after your customers and look after your team. If you are doing that right, then you will be fine. Of course you need to look after the owner or owners of the hotel, but if you have the customers and staff happy, then the battle is nearly won.” So how has David moved around so much? Again, the answer is simple. “I put the work in. Maximum input gets you maximum output from the company. The great thing about working for Hilton is that if you put in the hard work and show you can develop and grow the business, the opportunities elsewhere are opened up to you.” Of course, these movements are fine and dandy while you have the freedom to hop from one place to another, but with a six-year-old son to look after, David knows that soon he will need to choose a more secure setting. “When they are young, they are very flexible. I’m sure when my son gets to high school or secondary school it will get harder, when he has friends and that, but at the moment we are being exposed to such a beautiful multicultural society, it is great for him.”China is becoming a trendsetter for almost every corporate business in the world, with its hospitality industry booming as the imagined barriers of previous decades fall into insignificance. At the moment, growth in the country has slowed to 7 per cent – slowed, imagine that! Also, given the double-digit growth that the country has experienced over the past decade, this 7 percent is an increase on a huge original core base. Compare that to Ireland, where growth is a word cast into pre-bust mythology. “The opportunities over here are endless,” David tells me, before citing a similar key area experienced by Irish hoteliers in today’s hospitality industry: local customers. “We have some great hotels and a pretty diversified mix of customers. Westerners who are developing their own business over here are important, but the domestic client base is becoming more and more pronounced.” Similarities to the Irish market don’t end there. Where here hoteliers are seeking out a local-produce approach, in China, it is no different, with Cantonese restaurants populous in the North, and Sichuan influences heavily felt in the South. “You have to cater for the location, and you are always looking for the best local produce that you can find.” The mirroring of such a trend in Ireland is not something to which David necessarily pays attention, though. “No, I wouldn’t, really. It is very important to be aware of your surrounding market. That is paramount. I tend to focus on what’s going on here, then expand it to the Asia-Pacific region, and only then start looking at Europe or North America. From a business sense, you have to stay focused on the locality. You have to be true to your business.”
Having travelled as extensively as he has, and despite family lines in the industry still going strong here in Ireland, David sees no reason to return to Ireland anytime soon. He looks after 11 Hiltons in North China, with more openings due in the next 18 months. “Our expansion in China is pretty rapid and exciting, so I couldn’t see myself going back to Ireland any time soon. Maybe I will go elsewhere in Asia next, and I would like to return to the US one day.”
David’s father admits to being in the twilight of his career, “but I’m 67, and I have no plans to retire just yet. I still love it,” he says. This same bug looks set to keep David going for a long time yet, in an industry phenomenal for its capacity to keep driven people driving on. “What my dad does is incredible, but, in truth, the more active you keep your mind, the better you are in the job and in your health. I want to retire some day, but we’ve got great people in our business – vice-presidents well into their sixties. As long as you are delivering great results, age is just a number at the end of the day.” And, just before he makes it in for his 07.00 start in Beijing, his final bit of advice to youngsters entering the trade as managers here in Ireland: “Simple – run the place as if it was your own. By doing that, you are acutely aware of every cent going in and out of the business.”