John Ryan, the owner of the Pembroke hotel in Kilkenny, delivers a great guide on how to start and run a boutique hotel.
In 2009, businessman and quantity surveyor, John Ryan took back the reins of his hotel property, the Pembroke Kilkenny, located in the heart of the medieval city of Kilkenny. In the midst of the recession and using an innovative style of management, he outlines how he has helped transform the property into one of the leading boutique hotels in the South East of Ireland.
How are you different?
Boutique doesn’t necessarily mean small, but it is a niche in many respects. It’s somewhere you should find a superior standard of service, where the personal touch and customer service are pronounced and quite tangible. The Pembroke is a hotel that listens intently to its customers, because really listening to feedback, whether positive or negative, provides excellent learning and insight.
“I decided to take back direct control of the hotel.”
Building the hotel
The property had been a garage-site, formerly known as Statham’s, which had been vacant for many years – and I could see that the location had significant potential for a quality hotel from the first-hand experience, project-managing a large number of hotels across the country. In 2004, I was fortunate to end up buying the property, and the Pembroke Kilkenny now stands on the site where the Statham’s garage used to be located.
At that stage, as managing partner, I was heavily involved in professional services within the Nolan Ryan Partnership, one of the leading practices in the country, which we went on to sell in 2005. During this period, I built the hotel and leased it out to a hotel operator. In 2009, during the early stages of the recession, I decided to take back direct control of the hotel because of market difficulties being experienced by the operator at the time.
“Our next step is to aim for level five in the EQFM awards and to have established ourselves as the training hotel of choice.”
Training and innovation
When we took over the hotel and right during the recession, we have always believed in the value of training. Our ethos has been to bring people into the business, with the right attitude and to train them to their potential.
I believe that staff and management training are of equal importance. So in 2009, in the middle of it all, I went to Cornell University with a group of hoteliers, restaurant owners and people in various management positions, on a Failte Ireland / Cornell University course. The course presented case studies from multiple industries, such as the airline industry, the oil industry and how these industries dealt with and overcame massive shock waves in their revenue streams. On the course, I became involved with a group of like-minded people, and we were all very keen to innovate and drive our businesses forward, which was particularly relevant at that time.
Our hotel has since gone on to achieve the EFQM 4 Star Excellence Award, becoming the only large hotel in the south-east with a level four award, in recognition of our management systems. Our next step is to aim for level five in the EQFM awards and to have established ourselves as the training hotel of choice.
“The market we focus on is predominately for couples and singles.”
60% of the population is one hour away in Dublin, so most of our business is from there, with the balance from across the country. Our customers want to experience the heart of Kilkenny, and that is why they stay with us. The market we focus on is predominately for couples and singles. That initial focus removed the need to provide family facilities such as the additional cost of expensive family rooms and swimming pools.
We are part of a hotel marketing group called Manor House Hotels, who look after our overseas marketing and reach into markets that we couldn’t achieve on our own. We firmly believe in being part of the local community and find that word of mouth is still a very useful form of marketing, both in the traditional sales sense and within social media.
“Third-party websites are incredibly powerful and can afford to buy keywords like ‘Kilkenny.’ As a result, no single hotel can compete directly with them.”
The more significant marketing challenges are with the national and international customer. Third-party websites are incredibly powerful and can afford to buy keywords like ‘Kilkenny.’ As a result, no single hotel can compete directly with them, and they are in the position to be able to charge a large chunk of commission.
So the challenge is to keep optimising and developing our website. In the last year, we have rebuilt the site, to make it into the best communication and booking tool possible – all styled around a Kilkenny experience.
An increasing challenge that businesses face today is the habit where some people, as an option, book accommodation and then cancel the day before. Unfortunately it’s a growing issue; however, we are lucky that we always have the opportunity to sell at the last minute, as there is such a demand from people interested in staying in Kilkenny.
“They competed in a Statham’s Ford Special, a racing car from that era.”
We have a rooftop terrace, and along with our trained tour guide, we can take groups up there to view the city’s historic buildings, such as Kilkenny Castle and St. Canice’s Cathedral. We also provide a dedicated business centre, and a medispa called Mint.
We have researched into the heritage of the site, exploring the history of the Stathams and discovered that they were involved in racing cars back in the 1930s. They were quite competitive, winning a race in the Phoenix Park back in 1934 and coming seventh in a major Grand Prix, in Limerick in 1935. They competed in a Statham’s Ford Special, a racing car from that era. The trophies, now on display in the hotel, are the original trophies that they won back in the 1930s.
“It’s all about knowing and believing that you will get there.”
Vision and strategy
I think what’s essential, starting or moving into a new area of business, is to understand the culture within that sector, getting to know the KPIs and to really appreciate what the drivers are behind them. If you don’t have the relevant data or information, you are not going to make well-informed decisions.
In the early stages, if you are not meeting industry standard KPIs, don’t to be too hard on yourself. Having a vision and strategy can help you overcome short-term problems. It’s all about knowing and believing that you will get there – if you keep on doing the right thing.
Interview by Brendan Byrne.
Did you know there are around 820 licensed hotels providing visitors with 58,000 bedrooms across Ireland? Read more here in the latest hotel sector update from Bank of Ireland’s head of hospitality, Gerardo Larios Rizo.