Robert McHugh catches up with Conor Dillon, general manager at the Dylan, ‘an historic hotel with a contemporary spirit.’
The background story of the Dylan Hotel, in Dublin, is fascinating.
Its foundation stone was laid by Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Helena of Schleswig-Holstein, in 1900. The building was originally designed by Victorian architect Albert Edward Murray to house the trainee nurses employed in the hospital around the corner, on Baggot Street.
The Dylan opened as Dublin’s first boutique hotel in 2006, and it has seen significant investment since then. In 2017, the boutique hotel finished off a €10 million extension, increasing the number of bedrooms from 44 to 72.
The Dylan also completed a comprehensive refurbishment in September of this year, which included the original bedrooms and suites, along with all guest corridors.
The owners of the hotel said that the new design combines historical elements with classic influences and a contemporary, colour-forward style.
For the last five years and throughout this exciting process, Conor Dillon has been general manager of the Dylan. Hospitality Ireland decided to interview Dillon about what inspires him, his hospitality journey, and what his plans are for the future.
What was your first job in the hospitality industry, and how did that experience shape your passion and commitment to the field?
My first experience in the hospitality industry was a summer job in a bar/restaurant/nightclub complex back home in Limerick. I spent the summer stocking shelves, sorting out the bottle skips, and collecting glasses.
It wasn’t glamourous, but it taught me the lesson of hard work. It also gave me great confidence and ignited my drive. I wanted to be a bartender, so I learnt whatever I could from my colleagues when it was quiet, and I was behind the bar full time by the end of the summer.
It was fun and exciting, and I got a great buzz out of working with the public, and I knew it was something I wanted to progress in. I could also see the potential for a career and progression, and the ability to travel the world.
Who was your first mentor in hospitality, and how did his/her/their guidance influence your growth and development as a hospitality professional?
I have been lucky enough to work with some incredible hoteliers over the last 20 years, and a handful of these have been instrumental in shaping my career and my development.
I owe a lot of it to Padraic Frawley, owner of the Cornstore Group. He gave me my start in hospitality, invested heavily in my development, and gave me numerous opportunities, including my first supervisor and management roles.
His passion for service, constant improvement and standards laid the foundations for so much of what I know and do today. He also introduced me to hotels, and I can honestly say I am where I am today because of him.
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 that you have taken?
Once I had my first taste of working in hotels, I was bitten by the bug – the environment was so exciting and challenging. I initially was focused on food and beverage – seeing an empty room transformed into a 200-seater function, the coordination in plating-up and serving that many people seamlessly – all the different strings that had to be executed with precision was just so exciting.
Kate Walsh – she was my first supervisor, and now one of my closest friends – works for Hilton Worldwide, currently as senior director, luxury sales, EMEA. Kate constantly pushed me outside my comfort zone at the start of my career.
She helped me secure my first hotel management role in Dublin and encouraged me to gain international experience in Bermuda – a job that has been one of the greatest experiences and assets to me as a hospitality manager.
She has been a great mentor and supporter, and the Bermuda opportunity opened up the world of luxury hotels to me, and it is where I found my passion: rooms. I went in with zero front-office and rooms experience and learnt so much in the three years there – skills I still use to this day.
Jon Crellin was our GM in the Fairmont Hamilton Princess, in Bermuda. I would consider him another huge influence. At the time, the hotel had new ownership and investment, and he was brought in on a mission to take the guest experience from good to great.
At 22 years old, I was given the opportunity to run the front-office division of a 410-bedroom resort property, with a team of over 40 colleagues between all the different departments. It was a great challenge and a fantastic project to be part of, being part of the management team and forming the framework, to bring the vision to life.
Starting with back to basics, over the course of two years, we saw our guest satisfaction scores – our ranking within the brand – grow phenomenally, and we secured the AAA Four-Diamond recognition, among others.
Jon’s management style was so encouraging – and his unwavering passion for improving the guest experience, the quality of service and product, along with encouraging and rewarding the entire team. I could see the results of his management style, and it definitely helped form my own.
That entire experience definitely cemented the career path I was on – I was rooms focused and in the luxury hotel business.
Throughout your journey, could you walk us through the various roles that you have held in your career and the significant lessons that you have learned from each experience?
For the last five years, I have been general manager of Dylan. Prior to that, I was director of rooms for over three.
There have been multiple learning points over that period, from building and refurbishment projects and the challenges that brings when operating a live business, to growing the business as the property expanded, but the pandemic had probably been the biggest lesson – professionally and personally.
Professionally, managing a business through such uncertainty, and the change coming out the other end, has been an experience that taught me so much and that I continue to learn from.
The rule books were torn up – old ways of doing business were changed for good. You have to adapt and be flexible, or get left behind, and approach everything with as positive an attitude as possible.
Taking care of the team around me […] when this is done properly, builds a stronger team and benefits the business in the long term. From the very start, we were very open with communication on what was happening. Whatever information I had at my disposal, I made sure the team knew.
Looking after and supporting those that were struggling, mentally or financially, keeping in constant contact and being flexible with return to work and introducing work-from-home flexibility meant that we kept nearly our entire team throughout the numerous lockdowns and did not experience the staffing shortages that some other properties did when things reopened and business returned.
Personally, I learned the value of taking care of yourself – making sure that time for family/friends and your interests are prioritised. I have a much more balanced, healthier and happier life than before, and I would have not even realised that prior to the experience.
Prior to Dylan, I worked for Choice Hotel Group, as operations manager in the Clarion Hotel IFSC. This was my first senior management role. Aside from learning how to manage a large team of various disciplines, it was the exposure I got into the financial running of a business that was my biggest takeaway from that role.
From budgeting, forecasting, managing costs, and having to report and defend performance, monthly or quarterly, to a management company was invaluable, and such a foundation stone.
I also gained exposure to the sale of a property and the changeover of ownership and management, from which I also gained many valuable lessons. I stayed with Choice Hotel Group and moved for a brief period to Carton House, as food-and-beverage manager, after the sale of Clarion.
Prior to Choice, I was front-of-house manager in Dunboyne Castle Hotel & Spa – at the time, a sister property to Dylan.
I returned from four years abroad in November of 2010. The country had just been bailed out, and everyone told me I was mad to come back. It was certainly an interesting time to be in the hotel business, for sure. Lessons learnt from that experience: tight control of costs and maximising every revenue opportunity available to you!
Duty manager at O’Callaghan Hotels. The Mont Clare was my first hotel management role. It gave me exposure to meetings, events, functions, accommodation, front office – aspects of operations that I didn’t have huge experience in prior.
Which industry networks have you been a part of that have provided vital support and contributed to your career progression?
This is an area I need to improve in, for sure. It’s important to meet industry peers and colleagues regularly, to share insights and experience and build relationships.
I haven’t been very active in any of the formal networks, however, that said, I have built a pretty extensive network of industry colleagues through my various roles and in the last few years, from travelling internationally on sales missions and to trade shows.
This was an area I hadn’t any experience in prior to taking over as GM. These contacts have been invaluable to me in educating me on the market, the best ways to present, who’s who, and where to focus my efforts. I have definitely upskilled from being in their presence.
In your experience, what are the most significant challenges that you have faced while working in the hospitality industry, and how did you navigate through them?
In this industry, the next challenge is only around the corner, regardless if it’s changes in the global economic outlook, pandemics, or more local challenges, like the availability of the workforce.
Approaching every challenge as an opportunity is key, and taking the time to really explore your options with the information that’s available to you. Being open to thinking outside the box and changing your approach, if needed – that’s what’s worked well for me so far, and staying positive!
Looking ahead, what are your career goals and aspirations, and how do you envision making a lasting impact on the hospitality sector?
I love my current role. It’s a fantastic property. I have a great team around me, and owners that have a great passion for the hotel and will continue to invest and develop it.
I am constantly challenged, and that makes it extremely satisfying. In the future, if the opportunity arose to take on more responsibility, and perhaps oversee multiple projects, that would be great.
I think where I would like to see myself make a lasting impact is helping others with a passion for hospitality to get the same foundation and opportunities I had, coming up the ranks.
Mentoring and developing colleagues and seeing them progress is an area I am very passionate about. Any opportunity to provide high-performing individuals with additional skills, training and promotion opportunities is a key pillar of what we do already in Dylan.
I hope, at the end of my career, there will be a number of very successful hotel managers out there that I can say I helped on their way, like the few mentioned earlier, that helped me.