Business

Saturday 30 August 2014

It's all about the food, and really that's a no-brainer

Published 06/12/2012 | 05:00

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Hotel chief visits Dublin to check our sugar levels and to find suitable partners for Radisson Blu to expand their operations in the capital and benefit from inevitable growth. By Mark Keenan

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'IT'S all about the food," asserts Philip Mahoney – the man responsible for running Radisson Blu in Ireland is over from the UK to talk turkey... and wholegrains and fish.

Post-crash and fallout, the chain has become the largest wholly solvent hotel group on the island. Today he's describing how "sugar crashes" can ruin hotel-based meetings and training days.

After two decades managing quality hostelries around the world, Mahoney has become accustomed to observing how candidates arrive to the hotel fresh and lively in the morning but by mid-afternoon their concentration levels have plummeted to amoebic levels.

"Think about it. What do you tend to eat when you embark on a day of meetings? You start with a fried breakfast – lots of fat and carbs – and lots of coffee. Then along comes more coffee with biscuits – sugar, that is.

After the morning session, it's lunch. Usually more carbs – potatoes maybe with red meat. And we all know what happens after Sunday lunch – we fall asleep. This is how business meeting candidates experience sugar crash and lose concentration. It's the food."

Really?

We've all been on those corporate "out" trips – locked into a hotel for a day-long team building, lead bashing, staff training and whatnot.

Days when you won't know whether you'll end up role-playing yourself to an unhinged boss posing as an unimpressed customer ("I'm sure we can do something sir...") or learning to juggle coloured balls at the behest of some manic motivational training coach ("SEE? ... we CAN do it!").

Mahoney says that whatever we're doing, we'll do it better with nuts, and fruit and fish on board instead of croissants and roast beef.

"The new meetings menu has been designed by nutritionists and top chefs specifically to improve concentration levels by cutting fat and sugar levels below 10pc and concentrating on wholegrains, fish, fruits and veg," Mahoney points out.

The UK/Ireland area vice president of the Radisson Blu end of Carlson Rezidor Group oversees 26 hotels including Ireland's dozen and has travelled over to help push the chain's new "Experience Meetings" package.

As well as "Brain Food", this includes "Brain Box" – architect-designed meeting spaces laid out to increase creativity with relaxed and flexible seating and transparent walls to write on.

Really?

While it might all seem a bit too "new age" for some, in the hotly contested and recession-hit hospitality market, chains like Radisson Blu are looking into every possibility for a new edge alongside more tangibly practical measures such as boosting Wi-Fi speeds across their hotels.

Brand is hugely important to the Radisson Blu – the Belgian based Carlson Rezidor chain which is operated under a master franchise from Carlson in the USA.

Fast expanding around the world, particularly in Asia, Africa and eastern Europe, Radisson Blu wants to be the Dyson, Virgin and Apple of the global hotel sector – mainstream enough to be popular but with a strong streak of quirky individualism. Brain food is just one way to achieve this streak.

Minutae

Radisson Blu looks so deeply into the minutae that it hires specialist music "stylists" to select the tunes we hear in the background. Again, not mainstream.

"We strive to be slightly leftfield. We try to take that whole 'hotelly' thing and ignore it – we want to apply a difference. We don't like our hotel bars to have a poker up their ass, we like them to be slightly rowdy.

"We want our restaurants to stand alone on their own merits – if the guests are coming downstairs to find the restaurant fully booked then that's a good thing.

"However neither do we want brand to totally squash any hotel's individual personality. Every hotel should have a personality. But we do want that difference."

Hence the big fish fuss.

Laid out before us is a late lunch tray of oysters and salmon courtesy of the chef at the Golden Lane Radisson Blu and we're sitting in the big reception lounge rather than the restaurant in order to hoover up some hotel atmosphere.

Here the decor is svelte, smart and contemporary with the obligatory twists – an OTT light fitting or a unusual piece of furniture.

Research shows that shellfish (theirs is delicious) delivers large amounts of tyrosine, which generates dopamine and other natural stimulants. For hotel meetings and conference goers, shellfish is brain cocaine.

Philip Mahoney is something of an oddity in a big global hotel chain because he's been appointed to group management level direct from a hotel GM's role. Usually they like to tinker with them a bit first.

Industry sources say his strengths are threefold – a better-than-average eye for those exacting minutaes, spotting new opportunities (like brain food) amidst it and most uniquely, Mr Mahoney has a proven record for getting outside the hotel walls and into the realms of local politics and business networks.

At his last GM posting, in Zagreb, Croatia where he ran the Hotel Esplanade, Mr Mahoney ensconced himself into local tourism development committees, helping to unify the efforts of businesses and meeting with local government.

"It's everyone's job to generate tourism – the restaurants, the coach services, the taxi drivers, local businesses and politicians. It's a good manager's job to get out there and lobby. It's absolutely essential to get out there and make changes," he told an interviewer when based in Zagreb.

Tall, and as sharply dressed and coiffed as you'd expect from a hotel custodian after 20 years' strollage on extra-thick carpets, Mahony's nomadic life and business career has given him the most neutral of English accents and it means that he struggles to answer the question of where "home" is for him? "I suppose for me it's with my family, wherever that might be."

Born in Germany into a mobile British armed services family (his father was a surgeon for the RAF) young Philip lived in Scotland briefly before being packed off to an English boarding school full of Benedictines – "they were pretty harsh I guess – but without being all that bad, if you know what I mean".

Then he headed to college in Canterbury to study modern history. "I wanted to be a journalist." His Irish name comes from his great grandfather, who moved over to Glasgow in tougher times past.

Globe-trotting

After some post student globe-trotting, the lofty German/Scot/ Englishman came to a temporary halt as a receptionist in a Boston hotel.

"I came back to London and said to myself "I suppose I'd better get a job." Because I'd only ever worked in a hotel, that was the sector I looked in.

"I literally walked from one end of Park Lane to the next making enquiries until they gave me a job on reception at the Metropolitan." After that he applied for management training. "I always assumed I'd get out of hotels at some point and get a "sensible" job."

Three years later he found himself a food and beverages manager at a Glasgow hotel – watching the rain spitting on the windows.

"I was literally thinking: "what have I done to deserve this" – when the phone rang and someone said: "Would you like to come and help run a hotel in Mauritius?"

He and his family were whisked out to the paradise island where Mr Mahoney became deputy GM of the Legends Hotel – recently in the news for the Michaela McAreavey murder tragedy.

"I was quite taken aback when I read about it because Mauritius is such a very quiet and safe place. But let's just say I wasn't at all surprised at the way the police handled the affair."

From there he achieved his first GM role at a hotel in Manchester and then moved on to run the Cameron House in Loch Lomond. By 2009 he had moved to Zagreb, where he made a big impression before being recalled as UK area vice president.

The chain has 12 hotels in Ireland and also runs the 14-strong "Edwardian" segment of Radisson Blu in the UK – based largely in historic buildings.

He travels here regularly and admits to being impressed with Dublin in particular. "In Zagreb there was a lot of taxation by stealth, there wasn't a properly developed citywide tourism strategy – although people were open to improvements in the sector. It was difficult sometimes.

"In complete contrast Ireland just 'gets' it, completely. Despite what has been said, I believe that Ireland has a great economic model based on ease of business, limited interference and lower taxation.

"Ireland has quite correctly identified its future and the route to future employment as being Foreign Direct Investment and it will only be a matter of time before the country's current efforts are rewarded with growth.

Rumour

Which brings us to the rumour that he's not just in Ireland to sell shellfish for sales sharpening sessions – that Radisson Blu is actually looking to expand here?

"In fact we're looking to open more than one new hotel in the capital. We can't be more specific right now other than say we're interested in talking to people who have suitable hotels and are interested in a management contract deal.

"While the rest of the country isn't doing quite so well, Dublin and Galway are both playing a blinder at the moment by any standards in the industry. Hotel rooms were up 24pc in Dublin in September. That was partly down to the impact of the Notre Dame sports event and then the Eucharistic Congress.

"A city that can co-ordinate all its interests to bring big events but also to succeed in managing them so they don't clash, has a serious advantage in making gains in the global tourism sector today."

And with the network industrious Mr Mahoney quite recently becoming one of the lynchpin figures in the Irish hotel business overall, his views will doubtless become food for thought for the tourism sector going forward.

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