Bridgestone author John McKenna forced to eat his words

A TRAVEL writer and food critic who sparked an outrage 11 years ago when he said Killarney was a town best seen through a rear-view mirror has now conceded that the Kerry holiday hotspot has improved enormously and is the undisputed capital of Irish tourism.

Bridgestone Guide author John McKenna caused a storm of controversy in 2000 when he slated Killarney in a review but he returned to the town this week to assure local captains of industry that they have done a good job in the interim.

Mr McKenna was the keynote speaker at a public meeting organised by Killarney Chamber of Tourism and Commerce following the bombshell closure of several well-established local businesses in a matter of weeks.

The critic said that while remarkable progress has been made and Killarney has an enormous advantage in terms of natural beauty, businesses have to get their priorities right and avoid complacency if they hope to prosper going forward.

“Killarney is the main tourism destination, but remember Fianna Fáil used to be the main political party and the Catholic church used to be where we all were on Sunday mornings,” he said. “The other thing we all did was go to the pub but the Irish pubs are dying like snow on a ditch because they have no concept of service,” said McKenna.

“There is no specialisation within the pub trade and that is a real weakness. That is the real reason they are dying. Even though they are individually owned and run, they are all providing the same service.”

Mr McKenna said the emphasis for Irish tourism should be on ensuring visitors have a happy, inclusive experience and are getting exactly what they want.

It should never be solely about bed nights and visitor numbers as ensuring visitors are happy will result in them returning again and spreading the word to other potential guests, he insisted.

“If your customer is returning, bringing other people and tweeting that they had a great experience then you have a sustainable product. Modern tourism and travel in Ireland is based on the experience. If people don’t get an experience they feel hard done by,” he said.

“When somebody turns up to your hotel or restaurant you have about two seconds to win them over and if you screw up in that blink moment, you’ve lost them. The businesses that are succeeding are doing the right thing and giving customers what they want. If you have what they want, they will come and they won’t even haggle.”

Mr McKenna said while he detests TripAdvisor as a ratings forum, it cannot be ignored and he told Killarney business leaders everybody that passes through their doors should now be considered a critic.

“Everybody is on Facebook, Twitter or TripAdvisor. Many tweeters have absolutely massive audiences and you have to acknowledge the fact that people have that influence. You have to partake in social media. You cannot ignore it. If people don’t like your hotel they go outside the door and start tweeting straight away,” he remarked.

The Bridgestone Guide author said food tourism was now a major consideration and every effort should be made to source only local produce.

“When I come to Killarney I want to eat Kerry food and nothing but Kerry food. There are many problems in areas of hospitality where people are over-extended and there is a lot of resentment in relation to places that are being run by banks but there is no recession in speciality food in Ireland whatsoever,” he said.

“In Kinsale Martin Shanahan of Fishy Fishy gives people exactly what they want to eat — local fish, a nice chilled glass of white wine, a decent price and a lovely room and he has 2,500 customers a week, or more at the high season. You have to ask what is it people want when they come to Killarney,” he added.

“Every tourism economy has to look at the local produce. If you are not buying Kerry food, you are fooling yourself. You have got to make sure that the money stays locally.”

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