Wagons roll with 'high king' of bus tours behind the wheel
Sean meets Cathal O'Connell of Paddywagon Tours and hears how a lightbulb moment on safari led to a business with a €7m turnover
Ireland's reputation as a tourist destination is based largely on our rich cultural heritage, our breath-taking scenery and the warmth of the welcome we extend to tourists when they visit here.
Those involved in the tourism sector work hard to continually attract new visitors to the country and to ensure that their stay is memorable. None more so than Paddywagon Tours.
Set up in 1998, Paddywagon Tours has become a phenomenon within the Irish tourism industry. As you travel around Ireland, it's almost impossible not to notice the company's green tour buses and the distinctive image of the smiling leprechaun on the side of each bus.
Its founder, and CEO, Cathal O'Connell, welcomes me on board one of his luxury 64-seater coaches before it departs from its Dublin base to collect tourists destined for the Cliffs of Moher in Co Clare.
However, Cathal doesn't refer to himself as CEO of the business but, instead, prefers to use the title high king.
"It's part of our brand to be different," he tells me with a smile. "We don't offer typical tours. We strive, instead, to offer an experience for tourists which is unique to Paddywagon Tours," he says.
"While our target market was originally 18 to 35-year-olds, our focus has broadened in recent years to include, not just the young but the young at heart," explains Cathal.
"We'll happily take anyone on the bus so long as they possess two attributes – a pulse and a few quid to spend," he says laughing.
While its motto may be about having fun, the company itself has grown to become a serious business. Today, Cathal employs over 100 staff and generates an annual turnover of more than €7m.
In addition, the company owns an impressive list of five tourist offices, six hostels, a B&B, a number of luxury apartments and a pub on the Dingle peninsula in Kerry.
Cathal grew up in Dublin, where his parents ran a number of successful pharmacies. He had originally set his sights on becoming a pharmacist himself but, after many failed attempts, he realised that it wasn't for him.
Instead, he completed a masters in business studies and information systems at the Michael Smurfit School of Business in UCD. Continuing to explore his options, he then signed up for a three-month cookery course with Alix Gardiner before heading off travelling on a round-the-world ticket.
He spent the next 12 months travelling to exotic places, and even found himself, for a period, scrubbing pots and pans in the back of a tiny Italian restaurant in Australia. As his travels finally came to an end, he decided to take one final trip to South Africa, where he signed up to go on a wildlife safari.
Each night, the driver, who also owned the small safari tour company, would invite one of his passengers to cook dinner for the entire group.
Cathal's culinary skills impressed the owner so much that he offered him a job as a driver and tour guide.
During the 12 months that followed, Cathal ferried tourists to such places as Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana.
"It finally made me realise that I would never be content with a conventional job where I had to sit in an office all day," he says.
By the time he returned to Ireland, he had settled on a plan to create his own unique tour company. He spent the next six months travelling around the country visiting interesting places and learning as much as he could about local history and folklore.
In February 1998, he decided it was time to put his plan into action and, taking his last £500, bought an advertisement in the TNT magazine, distributed on the London Tube and the bible for international travellers in London. In it, he advertised a tour around Ireland due to take place over the upcoming St Patrick's weekend.
"There were only two small problems," laughs Cathal. "With less than three weeks to go, I didn't have a bus and neither did I have the money to buy one," he adds.
However, thankfully, his phone began to ring with inquiries from potential customers and before long, he had secured over 40 bookings at a price of £200 per person. With these orders secured, he was able to persuade the bank to loan him the money to buy his first two buses, at a cost of £3,000 each.
Initially, he focused on the 18- to 35-year age group who liked to stay in low-cost, hostel type, accommodation.
"Our focus at that time was about being affordable, being unique and above all, being fun and colourful just like our buses," explains Cathal.
Success came quickly as word of his new tour company spread.
From the outset too, Cathal decided to keep operating costs tight and managed with a small but highly committed staff. For that reason and, while few could have predicted it, Cathal turned a small profit in his very first year in business.
His first really big break came when the Gerry Ryan Show decided to send presenter, Brenda Donohue, on a six-day Paddywagon Tour around Ireland. Every day, for a week, she presented a half-hour broadcast, live, from their bus.
"The response we received from the public was amazing and, after that, inquiries began to flood in from all over the country," explains Cathal.
As the business began to expand, Cathal realised that he was bringing more and more business and revenue to the owners of the hostels where his customers were staying.
So he began investing in his own chain of hostels and today owns hostels in Dublin, Belfast, Derry, Cork, Killarney and the Dingle peninsula. He now has more than 700 beds for sale across the country.
In 2004, he started running day tours out of Dublin, Belfast and Cork and today his company has become Ireland's largest day tour operator. He even offers a one-day return trip from Dublin around the Ring of Kerry.
"It's a bit of a marathon but many visitors have limited time and really want to do the trip before they leave so it's our business to look after their needs," he says.
Cathal continually looks for new opportunities but readily admits that he may not be the world's best CEO.
"My strengths lie in the area of creativity and coming up with new ideas to drive the business forward. I am not afraid to try new things and am fearless in that way."
Not everything he tried has turned out to be a success, however. His decision to set up Eurowagon, a European Tour company offering three-week tours around Europe didn't work out.
He remembers the day when one of his coaches broke down outside Venice. His bus driver couldn't speak Italian and the mechanic that they eventually tracked down, locally, couldn't speak English. It was then that he realised that he simply didn't have the infrastructure in place, internationally, to deal with such challenges. He decided to pull the buses off the route, got out of the business and simply moved on to the next project.
"Not everything you try will work out and sometimes you won't learn that unless you actually try it," he insists in true entrepreneurial spirit.
He remembers challenging times, too, such as when four of his buses were burnt out in Belfast.
"Things like that are hard. But you have to keep focused on the bigger picture," he insists.
Cathal began to notice that many of his earlier customers, who were in their teens or early twenties when they first travelled with the company, were now coming back but, this time, they were older and more affluent. To cater for this segment of the market, he set up a separate division of the business, called Elegant Irish Tours. With investment in luxurious Mercedes coaches, people carriers and saloons, he was now in a position to cater for the complete spectrum of holidaymaker, from the price-conscious hostel traveller to those looking to stay in such salubrious places as Adare Manor and Dromoland Castle.
More recently, he focused on the busy cruise ship market. Here cruises regularly carry as many as 3,000 passengers into the ports of Dublin, Belfast and Cobh in Cork. There, Paddywagon Tours buses are on hand to take passengers on day trips to local areas of interest.
He currently has a fleet of 34 buses. Between his hostels, B&Bs, luxury apartments, tourist offices and pub, he employs more than 100 people at peak times and as many as 70 throughout the remainder of the year.
This year, the company will turn more than €7m in revenue. But it's not all about the money for Cathal.
"The glory for me is seeing the business succeed and seeing visitors enjoying their stay here in Ireland," he tells me.
What about future plans? I ask.
He wants to open two more tourist offices in Dublin and Belfast and to expand his day tours by adding a hop-on/hop-off service in Cork servicing Cork city, Cobh, Fota Island, and Blarney Castle.
In addition, he wants to enter the UK market next year and is preparing to put a fleet of six new buses into London from where he plans to offer day trips.
Excitedly, he is about to launch a new business called DayToursWorld.com
"It's a global website that advertises every day tour and excursion available on the planet," he says.
"We want it to do for day tours what hotels.com did for the hotel sector."
He has received seed support from Enterprise Ireland and is now looking to raise a further round of investment to help promote the site to a global market.
"I'm looking for smart money," he tells me. "Ideally from someone who has already built an international business," he adds.
Entrepreneurs like Cathal O'Connell know that every journey, no matter how long, starts with one small step. Cathal is not afraid of taking small steps or even big ones.
Not content to settle for a conventional lifestyle, he created his own. In doing so, he created a thriving business, significant employment and is now part of the fabric of Ireland's growing tourism product.
It's no wonder he tells me he has no problem with being called Mr Paddy Wagon.
In fact, he has much to be proud of.