It has been a full-circle journey from the family pub in Cobh through the Waldorf Astoria in New York and back to his native Cork for group general manager of Trigon Hotels, Aaron Mansworth.
Trigon has invested €2.5m alone into the iconic Metropole Hotel on Cork’s MacCurtain Street this year, while it also owns the Cork International Hotel and Cork Airport Hotel.
His career started as a young boy and the mantra instilled by his father in the famed Mansworth’s bar in Cobh rings true today -- “Always aim to exceed customer expectations,” while legendary American football coach Vince Lombardo's mantra of striving for perfection every time is always at the forefront of his mind.
“I was born and bred in the industry. I grew up above a pub in Cobh, and from a very young age in the bar, I was collecting glasses. I worked in kitchens in the old Jury’s on Western Road, I went off to Spain for a summer.
"When I did the practical side, then I went down the academic route. After Shannon, I spent a year in Switzerland and was supposed to do a year in New York, which turned into almost eight years.
“What was drilled into me from an early age back in the pub was exceeding customer expectations. It was a working pub -- people from Irish Steel, the dockyard, the navy. I learned that people had a certain amount of income to spend, so you had to give them the very best you could.
“Toilets had to be clean, you had a nice fire lit, there was a newspaper ready for them. My father was almost maniacal about it. I carried that foundation throughout my career. Attention to detail, cleanliness and most importantly, service with a smile. This is a people industry, and you cannot ever forget that.”
The decision to increase the 9% Vat rate to 13.5% in the Budget rankles with Mr Mansworth, who says it will not help tourism and hospitality as the country’s biggest indigenous employer.
“From 2007 onwards, we went into freefall. We dropped so low, getting back to perceived value levels again was a struggle. We dropped in increments of 20s and 30s, it wasn’t gradual, all over the country -- there were people going to Dublin at the height of it, and it was cheaper to get a hotel room than it was to get a taxi home.
“One of the things where we are very underrated, and that we don’t push enough, is through thick and thin, we keep our staff. In the good and bad times, we are an employer. The statistics back that up. Since around 2011, the average wage or payroll has gone up more than 40%. Our cost base has gone through the ceiling too.
“Insurance is crippling us. Absolutely crippling. It is not just public liability insurance, it is all aspects. We are all feeling it. It’s not just us, the Alliance for Insurance Reform’s meeting in Cork was almost like therapy, when you heard of the struggles throughout industry.
“This ties into Vat -- there are a lot of operators out there, whose insurance costs are spiralling, labour costs are spiralling, raw materials, the price of beef and salmon -- these are all going up. We’ve got to try and remain competitive. When you look at the European cities we are competing with, the vast majority are at the 9% mark.
“We’ve delivered on every promise we’ve made. It absolutely has gone back into wages. The biggest challenge in our sector is encouraging people to join. We’ve having to take every single measure and make it work. We’ve formed a management programme within Trigon Hotels, an 18-month accredited course, and it is of massive cost for us. But we want to do as much as we can to develop people, to train and retain,” he said.
Firms like Trigon Hotels would love to see more people choose hospitality as a career, he said.
“I’ve seen in this career you can come at it through all angles -- be it college, or within the industry itself. People who have been given the opportunity. The one thing we can do better is break down the perception that it’s about making beds and carrying plates -- it is absolutely not.
“You need head chefs, digital marketing managers, financial controllers. There are massive opportunities for the person with the right attitude. We’ve seen fantastic people who have changed career, people who have come back to work after families have grown up -- there is no barrier. We’re here to look after guests and make them want to come back.
“You look at the likes of our concierge in the Metropole Hotel, John Coleman. He has been a superstar in looking after guests and is a wonderful Cork ambassador.”
From the worst of times, to be best of times -- Mr Mansworth is convinced Cork has a lot more good times ahead.
“Cork as a city is very lucky with what we have. We have people who are really ingrained in it. If you think about any destination, you always want somewhere that is unmissable. What will motivate people into the city? There is retail and other experiences here in Cork, but it needs that signature attraction. It’s got Nano Nagle, the City Gaol, fantastic things but needs that iconic mark.
“That along with the event centre, we have 1,200 beds in planning or agreed. An event centre is a must. You’ll have all the multinational conferences, we’ve got the room stock coming in, but you’d have a chance to watch Rafael Nadal play Roger Federer in an exhibition, for example. That flexibility all year round is key. It rises all boats. I have friends with young children and they go to stay in City West every year for Disney On Ice. Wouldn’t it be great to house that in Cork? Cork is a city on the way back. It’s a city coming together and the best is yet to come,” he said.
Cork comes into its own when it comes to events, Mr Mansworth said.
“We saw a lot of people come in from all over Europe for Ed Sheeran and Cork was a good value destination. It ticked all the boxes -- good access from the airport, great city and accommodation, good value. The Tuesday that A-Ha played at Live at the Marquee, people came from all over the city. We had almost 100 guests on a Tuesday night at the Metropole. All made a day and night of it, which is good for Cork.
“There is a feelgood factor in Cork. We have so much going on -- you’ve got Spike, the boat tour to Cobh, the Ocean Escapes. How lucky are we to have Spike on our doorstep? Look at festivals in West Cork -- it’s phenomenal. It's a city and a county combining to offer what is Pure Cork, and we should be aiming to rival the best regions in Europe."
“In our business, it has to be about quality and consumer experience. If you impact or affect that, it will kill your longevity. If you drop a few hundred euros, but you have a good time, you feel it was money well spent.”
Traditional areas like MacCurtain Street have been reborn and should serve as a beacon to other such streets, he said.
“To see the lift in MacCurtain Street has been incredible. The traders are phenomenal, the work that is put in together. You have a range of different quality offerings and you can have a wonderful experience without leaving the street. It is a Cork pride that is special.”