Powerscourt - from bare survival to the country's top hotel
Manager David Webster has turned the Powerscourt Hotel into an award winner
The Powerscourt Hotel has gone from near collapse to winning the AA Hotel of the Year award in under three years.
Considered the Oscars of the industry, the award cannot be applied for; instead, anonymous inspectors visit properties around the country throughout the year, meaning hotels can't prepare for it.
Leading the turnaround is general manager David Webster.
Webster joined the Enniskerry, Co Wicklow hotel in 2013 after its purchase by Tetrarch Capital and Midwest Holdings, the owners of the Marker Hotel in Dublin's Grand Canal Hotel.
The 200-room property was built by Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett of Treasury Holdings, a no-expense-spared build completed in 2007 at a reported cost of €200m.
Originally operated by Ritz Carlton, it boasted two championship-calibre golf courses and a Gordon Ramsey flagship restaurant. Its rooms were built exceptionally large, while extra luxury touches include recessed televisions in every bathroom.
The hotel hosted some of the glitziest weddings of the past decade, including Robbie and Claudine Keane. But its finances didn't add up. It operated at a loss until it entered examinership in 2012. It sold to its current owners the following year. Within months, they had cut ties with Ritz Carlton, recruited Webster, signed a new operating deal with Interstate and launched a rebrand.
"The Powerscourt Hotel brand is all about warmth and welcome," says Webster in an interview in the hotel's airy and comfortable lounge, overlooking stunning, manicured grounds.
"It is a luxury hotel but that has very little to do with following rules and procedures in the same way that large hotel brands do. Our staff don't follow a script."
The property has received significant investment under over the past two years, including an upgrade of its restaurants.
When it was sold in 2013 it could only accommodate 90 restaurant covers at a time, despite boasting 200 rooms, meaning queues at breakfast. Guests now have much more dining space including access to a large lounge, fine dining restaurant Sika and a more relaxed pub-style offering, McGills. The grounds and the hotel's heating system also received investment.
"The owners changed the system over to liquefied natural gas and put in proper equipment, which meant big cost reductions" says Webster.
At home, the Powerscourt Hotel's competitors for international visitors include the InterContinental in Dublin (formerly the Four Seasons), the Europe in Killarney and Dublin's Shelbourne.
For Irish visitors, Powerscourt competes with hotels like Ashford Castle, Dromoland Castle and Druid's Glen. "Our competition includes international hotels too, properties like Gleneagles in Scotland and hotels in Paris, Barcelona and London - but destination-based business is a different beast" says Webster.
Refining Powerscourt's target customer was central to its transformation, he adds.
"The key thing to running any successful hotel is understanding your target customer. Too many try to be everything to everyone. Once you have your select group of target customers in mind, everything should be aligned to these people - from who you hire, to pricing, to your communications strategy."
Core to the hotel's new business model is conferences and events, particularly from international clients. "Every month now, we will host at least one or two big international events."
It is also building up its wedding business.
"We are doing that slowly. We had 34 in 2013, 36 in 2014, this year we will do 44 and next year it's about 57." Its wedding packages are firmly on the luxury end of the scale - former Miss World Rosanna Davison held one of her three wedding events there last year.
"We are seeing a dramatic increase in demand for luxury weddings," says Webster.
Changing the corporate culture among employees was a challenge. "The previous operator, Ritz Carlton, is such a strong brand and the hotel's employees had been trained to follow its very exacting approach. But that approach was quite formulaic. The hotel today operates with empowered staff, very little micro-management.
"We have a great team here, the best I have ever worked with."
The exit of Ritz Carlton could be seen as emblematic of a wider trend, an exodus of big hotel chain brands from Ireland. "There is nothing stopping names like Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons coming back" says Webster.
"And we don't have any Spanish or Asian hotel brands here, so that is another gap that could be filled. But the idea that if you have the brand, people will come - that doesn't stand up in Ireland. That model does not work unless your hotel is in Paris or London with a constant flow of traffic and international travellers who use your brand."
Webster, originally from Tallaght, helped to revitalise both Carton House and the Belfry before joining Powerscourt. He began his career with a part-time job at the Stillorgan Park Hotel.
"I never anticipated getting into this line of work. But I was very impressed by the proprietor there." He abandoned accounting studies to pursue a hotel management qualification in London followed by a Masters in Peace Studies at the University of Ulster, in Derry, before joining the Marriott's graduate training programme.
Webster was promoted to the general manager of the Peterborough Hotel at 28, the youngest Marriott manager in the world at that time.
He is optimistic about the fortunes of the Irish hotel sector. "Bar some kind of crisis, the Irish hotel market is only going to grow.
"The weak euro is already helping to bring visitors from the US and UK. Prices are invariably going to rise in Dublin city; there has been so little movement in new supply."
Sunday Indo Business