His former Dublin senior hurling manager summed up Conal Keaney’s attitude to top-level sport — he didn’t just want to play for Dublin, he wanted to win for Dublin.
The dual GAA star with seven Leinster inter-county titles has taken a similar attitude to life in business. A stylist with finesse and elegance at times on the football field, a warrior with ferocious intent with a hurley in hand. You don’t play at the highest level of hurling or football — let alone both codes — for 15 years without an extraordinary amount of character. You might say the same about any successful business person.
Conal has had a business in the Phoenix Park for almost three years. Phoenix Park Bikes does bike rentals, tours, safety courses, and more. However, the striking location of Ireland’s majestic jewel in the heart of the city centre should mean more visitors, especially Irish ones in Conal’s eyes.
He and his colleagues spent more than €15,000 of their own cash to produce 50,000 Phoenix Park passports to distribute to park visitors and all around the city to let folk know of the resource on the doorstep and of the businesses inside.
“Our biggest thing was trying to hang onto the people who were coming to the park,” he says. “We knew exactly what was in the park but people coming in the gate didn’t necessarily know. We thought it would be a better idea to have something to give to people coming in as they went around. So they could experience everything, with an aim to making it a day out. The zoo is obviously a huge one for visitors but surely we could make the park itself an attraction — to have people come for the day or half a day.”
Producing 50,000 park passports was an onerous task but one Conal feels can pay off handsomely.
“We brought the businesses in the park together and proposed the passport,” he says. “It took an awfully long time getting everyone on board to getting the booklet out. Yes, it was a lot of work but it’s probably been worth it considering where we are today.
“I’m living in Dublin all my life. I would have obviously known about the park, I would have went to the park maybe once a year, coming up to Christmas Eve when the kids wanted to go and see the deer, or when they wanted to go to the zoo. I didn’t even know what else was in the park. It never occurred to me to go and get a bike.”
Phoenix Park is one of the largest enclosed parks in Europe at some 1,750 acres. It is the home of Dublin Zoo, the home of the President of Ireland, and of wild deer. It is also home to a range of businesses that Conal feels should be lauded more.
“Since we took it over, I would say 80% of people coming in the door are all tourists,” he says. “They are coming from England, Italy, Spain, America — all around the world. They are the kind of people who gravitate to the park anyway.
“What we are trying to do is trying to let more Irish people know what you can do with your kids. Everyone wants to go and do something at the weekend or the evenings with their kids but they don’t know what to do. A lot of our time is spent talking to people when they come in. They don’t even realise just how big the park actually is. They cannot grasp that. There’s so much they can do.”
Within the passport, categories are broken down for visitors.
“Some are maybe a little bit older who really enjoy the history of it all, and like to take certain routes,” says Conal. “Some younger people like coming with their kids to seek out picnic areas, or go and see the deer in a safe place. They can do tours of Farmleigh House, or Áras an Úachtaráin on a Saturday, which is all free. What we are trying to do is getting people aware of the whole thing. Obviously we are trying to attract people to our own business but if we do so, then others will benefit.”
The Office of Public Works has seen the merit of the project .
“The OPW supported us all the way and I hope they continue that support in the future with all the different initiatives we might try and put forward in the park,” says Conal. “In the first meeting with the other businesses, we found people were a little reluctant to get involved because they’ve been to so many meetings and many turned into talking shops. But they see there’s been a lot of work done behind the scenes that it’s only coming to fruition on the surface now.”
He learned from many managers over the years at Dublin GAA club Ballyboden St Enda’s.
“I felt we just had to give it a go,” he says. “If it worked, then the next time we go into print, we will have more people involved and maybe even go down the road of sponsorship. We didn’t want to wait too long because before you know it, the season would be over. We have half of the 50,000 gone already and we want another run at it for June and July.”
A born winner on the pitch, Conal doesn’t just want to be in business in the Phoenix Park, he also wants to win business for the Phoenix Park.