Deirdre McGlone, her family and team passionately ran the award-winning Harvey’s Point hotel in County Donegal for 30 years. Sold this year, ThinkBusiness talks to Deirdre about what she learned from her long career in the sector, as well as her plans for the future.
Harvey’s Point hotel started life as an old cottage converted into a four-bedroom guesthouse by Swiss man, Jody Gysling, when a holiday in Donegal turned into a lifetime there. In 1989, Harvey’s Point was opened to the public with 20 bedrooms and a small restaurant. At this time Jody’s brother, Marc had joined him. Just before the hotel opened, Jody offered a young local girl called Deirdre a job for the summer and what a long summer it has been!
And now 30 years later, she talks about a lifetime of learning in hospitality.
“The magic for me was surrounding myself with a good team and I wasn’t afraid to hire somebody better than me at certain things”
How did you end up buying Harvey’s Point?
I took a job in March 1989, which was going to be for the summer. Harvey’s Point was just opening and I was delighted to get an opportunity to come back home to beautiful Donegal, where I’m from. At the beginning, I cleaned bedrooms and did reception work. Soon after I arrived, I fell in love with Marc and we bought the place in 1996.
“Understanding people’s strengths is a strength in itself”
Did you come from a business background or learn on your feet?
I learnt the business. My dad was a schoolteacher but my mother was entrepreneurial from the kitchen table. The magic for me was surrounding myself with a good team and I wasn’t afraid to hire somebody better than me at certain things, such as KPIs and day to day processes. Understanding people’s strengths is a strength in itself, having everybody in the right place and in tune with the vision of the business.
Did you grow along with the business and if so in what ways?
The business got bigger and busier over the years. I had no management experience or training so we had to learn as we went along. The business evolved organically. Every year it did well and there was a bit more to invest back into it. Both Marc and I grew with the business, which was a lovely experience and frightening at times too.
“It was hard at times, just making ends meet, paying bills, keeping the bank manager and VAT man happy, as well as staff and suppliers”
What were the challenges of running a business with little experience of the sector?
Building a business from scratch without much experience and nobody to bounce ideas off was difficult at times. The fact that the business was in such a rural, isolated location was originally seen as a weakness but it ended up being a strength, it became a destination for people.
It was hard at times, just making ends meet – paying bills, keeping the bank manager and vat man happy, as well as staff and suppliers. Especially in winter when there were no customers but we still had to pay bills. As the years went on, we were able to create revenue during the winter and be an all year-round destination hotel.
How did you get through tough times, especially in such a rural location?
The recession, as bad as it was, taught us to make decisions in the interest of the survival, not just the growth of the business. We didn’t go down the cash discount route, operating through third party sites. Instead we gathered our team, which was 90-100 people at the time, and thought creatively about how we could attract more people with just what we had – no pool, no spa, no golf course and in a rural location. We focused on customer service and the warm Irish welcome and high standards at all times. Food was a big part of the offering. We packaged all that together for our target market.
In the winter our bread and butter was local business for Sunday lunch and weddings and short midweek breaks. We did value added things like wine tasting and cookery demonstrations – things that took time but didn’t cost a lot but needed discipline and routine and people appointed to do them. This together with giving consistently good and personalised customer service, meant we were able to build up a loyal customer base and that grew. We also looked for new markets through social media marketing, to attract younger guests. We had to manage our finances but also really excel at being best in class so that people would choose Harvey’s Point over anywhere else.
“The recession, as bad as it was, taught us to make decisions in the interest of the survival, not just the growth of the business”
What were the best things about running Harvey’s Point?
There was a great sense of camaraderie, teamwork and satisfaction from all being in it together. Building the team was the key to our success. Everything else – the rooms, the lovely view and the food were all very important but the most important thing for me and our guests was the family ethos. It filtered through to all of the team. The culture of any organisation starts at the top and has to go across the board, rather than just at the front-of-house. The biggest satisfaction I got was seeing the team grow and us grow with it. We celebrated the highs together and stuck together in the lows.
How did you make Harvey’s Point stand out from other hotels?
Our USP was the high-level of attention we gave our guests. Going the extra mile for customers. Every member of the team, front and back-of-house knew their likes and dislikes and tried to adapt to what their needs were. We wanted our guests to feel part of our story. We gave them a really good experience every time.
“We focused on customer service and the warm Irish welcome and high standards at all times”
What are you most proud of in your career?
When I worked in Harvey’s Point for what I thought was a summer job, in my early twenties, I didn’t have a career plan. I’m most proud that I helped Harvey’s Point grow, but it helped me grow as well and to know what I wanted.
What do you think of the hospitality sector in Ireland and do you think things could be done better?
There’s a good bit of work to be done to make our industry more attractive to the next generation. The perception is still that it involves long hours and hard work. But I know first-hand that it’s also a very rewarding career and the skills young people have learned at Harvey’s Point, they can take with them anywhere in the world, even if they don’t stay in the industry.
More has to be done to perceive the industry as cool, attractive and a good place to work with career progression. At Harvey’s Point, we often tried to promote from within, many of us worked our way up the ladder. If there was training or online courses for professional development, we invested in that. It is important that people see our industry as a place they can make a career, not just to earn a few pounds going through college. We need to start earlier, in secondary school, telling students that hospitality is a good trade to be in, that the crazy hours are a thing of the past.
“The biggest satisfaction I got was seeing the team grow and us grow with it. We celebrated the highs together and stuck together in the lows”
What are your tips for people in hospitality?
Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Consider their journey, from the website through to check-in and check-out and beyond. Build a good team because in a hotel, it’s a team effort. Somebody washing the pots is as important as somebody serving the food. Build a culture of customer care but also care for each other as well as the customer.
Why did you sell up and what are you doing now?
We wanted to focus on family first, because for 30 years our family was Harvey’s Point and our real family came second. We decided to leave on a happy high, in the knowledge that the business was in safe hands under the same management and that there would be planned investment in the hotel and its people.
On a personal level, I have other things I’m interested in. I’m on the board of Donegal Tourism, promoting the county. I’m president of the Donegal Women in Business Network and I love doing that. I’m also working with the ACORNs programme, a government-led initiative to support female entrepreneurs in rural Ireland. We had a huge amount of applications from Donegal this year, the highest in all of rural Ireland. I love doing it because I can give back and share some of my experiences.
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Written by Liv McGill
Published: 4 November, 2019