My job: Family values at heart of tourism business

Name: Padraig McGillicuddy.

Occupation: Proprietor and general manager, Ballygarry House Hotel, Tralee.

Background: Employing 140 staff, the business has undergone a series of refurbishment totalling €11m in recent years. It has been rated one of Ireland’s Top 10 hotels for 2019 by TripAdvisor.

BALLYGARRY House Hotel proprietor and general manager, Padraig McGillicuddy, has the tourism business running deep in his veins.

Raised in the family business, Ballygarry House Hotel in Tralee, he studied Hotel Management at the Galway/Mayo Institute of Technology, and went on to fashion his career experience at Lausanne in Switzerland and Sydney, Australia.

Returning to Ireland in 1999, he helped manage both Maryborough House and Hayfield Manor in Cork, before returning to Tralee to take over the family business in 2002. While the business was well established, and particularly as a wedding venue, he opted on a major refurbishment of the premises, in tandem with the addition of a luxury spa, extra hotel rooms and suites, and The Pavilion at Ballygarry.

“Our wedding business is very important because it is reliable, predictable and rewarding. However, we started diversifying over 10 years ago as we felt all our business was over reliant on the wedding sector, so we have spent €11 million in capital developing our leisure, spa, restaurant and accommodation markets — which we are continually evolving. As part of this, we will next week launch ‘Balance’ at Ballygarry, our new Fitness & Wellness area for one-to-one training for rehabilitation and conditioning.”

Active in all areas of the development of the tourism industry in Kerry, he was Chairperson of Holiday Tralee from 2006 to 2012, and served as President of Tralee Chamber Alliance from 2012 to 2015.

Looking to the 2019 season as the summer business begins moves into its traditional ramp up, he takes a cautiously optimistic view.

“There’s no doubt that consumer confidence is taking a hit and the ripple effect of Brexit is being felt. We are feeling a slight decline in business so far and we estimate a 5% drop in 2019. Thankfully we are largely reliant on the domestic market, which lends itself to the shoulder and off peak seasons. We also have a strong international market that supplements the Irish market in the peak season, so in a sense it’s like the jam on top,” he adds.

In an industry where consumer demand and changing trends dictate management decisions, he notes new challenges on the immediate horizon: “While we did get it right ten years ago with our leisure and recreation investment, the future from 2019 onwards will be challenging. Staffing will be the greatest challenge and we need to be very mindful of how we treat those that are entering the industry. The country is near full employment so it’s even more of a focus than ever.”

The sourcing and keeping of staff remains an ongoing problem in the industry, and one which needs careful nurturing, he believes: “There are plenty of nationalities who would love to work here, develop a career and make a life in Ireland. The Minister for employment needs to wake up fast or we are under serious threat of losing our foothold as a major tourist destination. Chefs are a rare and valued trade, and if we can’t get more of them food will end up going further down the mass production route and threaten our appeal as a foodie destination.”

He also predicts the continued need for technological progress, and cites Ballygarry’s recent €250,000 deal with Tesla to become the first supercharging station in the south West of Ireland.

Recent CSO data shows that the number of overseas visits to Ireland for the first quarter of 2019 increased by 5.5% compared to the same period in 2018. Overall trips to Ireland were up, with visits from North America up by 10.7% to 367,200.

Mainland Europe was up by 7.6% to 730,000 visits, while Britain registered an increase of 1.4% to 809,100 visits. In its aim to help the industry manage the Brexit challenge, Fáilte Ireland has developed a series of initiatives, including the investment of €5 million in a comprehensive programme of supports and commercial development to help tourism diversify to other markets, thereby reducing their reliance on the British market.

The key message to the sector is a proactive ‘prepare and diversify’ approach. The agency’s ‘Get China Ready’ programme is geared toward exploiting the opportunities offered by one of the fastest-growing outbound travel markets in the world, with numbers predicted to grow to 200 million by 2020. Last year, an estimated 70,000 Chinese visitors travelled to Ireland, but with the advent of the new direct flights from Beijing and Hong Kong that number is expected to substantially increase.

“There are new emerging markets with complete cultural shifts from the traditional Western visitor, and in this regard the Chinese markets are clearly building, as are the Emirates. These cultures often have a different set of criteria to satisfy, for example, the Emiratis don’t like chilled water and Chinese won’t sleep on the 4th floor as it’s an unlucky number. We need to adapt to these new demands and Failte Ireland’s programmes are helping the industry adapt.”

As one of the country’s major tourist destinations, Kerry continues to attract significant visitor traffic, though always as a result of being constantly refined by the local stakeholders on the ground.

“We are all heavily invested through centuries and generations of families building businesses around tourism. We need to mind it, grow it, continually improve it and respect the value it has to local economies,” he maintains.

An abundance of natural attractions and its legendary scenery continue to make ‘the Kingdom’ a ‘must see’ location on many tourists’ agenda.

“Without a doubt the future is bright. Here at Ballygarry we have a super product with plenty of diversity, less external influences due to land acquisitions, a super product which is completely renovated and we are in a strong financial position going forward. There have always been challenges in every industry, they keep changing and we must rise to meet them. That’s what keeps us alert and top of our game.”

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