‘When Cluxton slotted that free, the whole building seemed to shake’

Wicklow native Alan Smullen has been working at The Croke Park Hotel since 2005 – and is now general manager. This weekend promises to be a busy one for Smullen and his team, as fans of Mayo, Dublin, Kerry, and Derry descend on Croke Park for the All-Ireland football finals. So what lies in store?

Q: Alan, how long have you been working at The Croke Park Hotel?

A: I started in 2005, a few weeks after we opened. I started as a receptionist and worked my way up, and was made general manager in August 2010. I’m directly responsible for everything to do with business — sales, revenue, customer satisfaction, health and safety — but it all boils down to managing people.

Q: How many staff do you oversee?

A: At the moment, we have just over 200 hard-working members on the team but after the summer season that will reduce down to about 180.

Q: What will the atmosphere be like over All-Ireland final weekend?

A: Electric. The build-up started around Wednesday with different GAA people in and out of the hotel, all wanting to talk about the match. All-Ireland Fridays are always busy days as guests are arriving to check in for the weekend while the Saturdays are brilliant days to be in the hotel — the mix of excitement and nervous energy makes the atmosphere just incredible. Then comes Sunday and this will be the busiest trading day of the year for us. The atmosphere in the hotel needs to be experienced to be believed.

Q: What are the main challenges that you and your staff will encounter over the weekend?

A: There are so many challenges right across the business on such a busy weekend. The hotel is fully booked and the food and beverage outlets will be extremely busy with supporters going to the match. Health and safety is a huge priority on such busy days, along with trying to create a buzzing environment for guests and patrons to enjoy the pre-match build up. One of the main challenges is explaining to people that we cannot accept tickets to be collected by someone else later in the day. If we did offer this service, I would need an extra 20 people just to manage that!

Q: Would you draft in any extra staff given the weekend that’s in it?

A: We have an events team, all on duty this weekend along with virtually every other member of the team. As my bar manager would say — ‘We got this.’

Q: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?

A: I get huge satisfaction watching young hospitality professionals grow and develop in our team, moving into team leader roles and then on to management. We pride ourselves here on growing talent, not many hotels in the country can offer such busy event experience coupled with busy 4* hotel experience. Also, when I come in to work on the Monday after a busy event weekend and the hotel is back to ‘normal’, I get immense pride in welcoming guests from all over the world who have no idea what went on in the hotel only 24 hours previous.

Q: What have the last few days been like for you?

A: They have been both very busy and demanding in terms of long hours in preparation for the crowds that will descend on The Croke Park Hotel this Sunday. Operational preparations for the weekend are expertly managed by my deputy manager, Seán Reid, but the usual requests come in thick and fast on a week like this to myself – room bookings, VIP access, car parking, tables in the restaurant, tickets (even though I don’t have access to any!) and multiple other requests, too many to mention. We try to accommodate as many as possible but it is difficult to keep everyone happy.

Q: You’re obviously a big GAA fan yourself and have played a bit?

A: I grew up with our local GAA pitch only a minute’s walk from my home, we spent every available minute after school down there. My family were all heavily involved in the GAA and I played underage hurling and Gaelic football for St Patrick’s, Wicklow. Unfortunately, I was never good enough to play senior football when finished at minor, but my years playing Junior B football in Wicklow definitely gave me some great life experiences!

Q: What are your standout memories from your time at the hotel?

A: This Sunday will be my 28th All-Ireland final (hurling and football, including replays) working in the hotel and some of them brought fantastic experiences. One that sticks out was the football final in 2011, the bar was full during the game that day with Dublin supporters who couldn’t source a ticket.

When Cluxton slotted that free, I have never heard a roar like it — the whole building seemed to shake, an amazing experience. On a personal note, back in May 2008, Wicklow played Kildare in Croke Park and my own clubman, and former teammate, Paul Earls, scored an extraordinary point from under the Hogan Stand. Wicklow went on to win our first ever Championship game in Croke Park that day. Seeing the long-suffering Wicklow GAA crowd coming back into the hotel afterwards was a great feeling.

Q: How much do you liaise with the crew across the road in the stadium to ensure that pre- and post-match arrangements run smoothly?

A: We have a great relationship with the team in the stadium. They all work extremely hard to make sure every eventuality is considered and planned for, I often think they do not get half the credit they deserve. Not many other stadiums in the world cater for such huge numbers on such a regular basis, with little or no incidents, with the supporters all mingling before, during and after the matches. The GAA is a unique organisation, and while it is not perfect, its positive contribution to Irish society should be supported and championed by all.

Q: Will you get a holiday after the GAA season?

A: Holidays are booked and I am looking forward to them hugely. I usually take another week at the end of the year, usually the end of November or first week in December.

Q: Do you ever get time to switch off from the job?

A: Well, Januarys are usually quiet. With the intense nature of the GAA season in Croke Park, the days can be long. Once the GAA season is over, I will get more time to switch off and spend time with my young family.

Q: Do you have any particular preference for a winner on Sunday?

A: A draw! We’ll be back again on Saturday, September 30. I would love a draw, and I have cut my holiday a day short in anticipation of one. I’m flying back in on Friday, September 29 but I’m really looking forward to the break with my wife, Niamh, and our two girls Cara, who’s two and a half, and three-month old Sophie. Niamh is a Dub and I couldn’t do this job without her support and understanding.

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