Thursday 19 October 2017

The kingdom of Kenmare - Francis and John Brennan and 120 years of an institution

Park Hotel Kenmare
'I'd die happy now, because I was a good employer and made people happy' - Francis Brennan on the Park Hotel Kenmare, which he runs with his brotherJohn
'I'd die happy now, because I was a good employer and made people happy' - Francis Brennan on the Park Hotel Kenmare, which he runs with his brotherJohn
The early days of the Park in Kenmare
In the era before air travel, customers from England would undergo a long train journey to reach Kenmare
The interior of the Park Kenmare in the early days

Sarah Caden

As the Park Hotel Kenmare celebrates its 120th birthday, Francis and John Brennan reflect on its past and their present and future within it...

Fittingly, it was a happy and satisfied guest of the Park Hotel Kenmare who ensured that Francis Brennan became its owner.

This man, a Swiss banker, had visited the Park while Francis was leasing it, in the early 1980s. It had been owned by a Dutch company, then liquidated and Francis was leasing it from the liquidator. The Swiss banker liked the way Francis was doing things and told him that if he ever wanted to talk business,  to come to him. It wasn't long before Francis did.

"I wanted to buy the hotel, but no Irish bank would touch me," Francis explains today. "I was too young, the loan was too big, the risk was too great. So I went to Switzerland, and this banker, a former guest, had faith in me. At that age, I was an innocent, really; but he had the far-sighted vision."

That was 1986, and already Francis Brennan had fostered a belief that he could do things properly.

Everyone knows it now, thanks to his decades of running the Park, and, latterly, his TV career, but back then, this was information only available to a select few. Thankfully, though, one of the select few was well placed for putting Francis, and, later, his brother John, on the road to where they are today.

Tonight, the Park Hotel Kenmare celebrates its 120th birthday with a party for loyal guests and supporters. There are people arriving from all over the world - families who've rarely spent a Christmas anywhere else but at the Park, "millionaires you've never heard of", well-known faces whom the Brennans would never breathe a word about. There may be private jets, there could be helicopters, there will certainly be drivers, but there will be no boasting or bling behaviour.

"We have a man who comes who is phenomenally wealthy," John Brennan tells me, "and you wouldn't have a clue he is billionaire status, and you wouldn't know him. And we cater for him and the private jets and all, but that's not the point of the Park.

"We wouldn't attract the bling," he laughs. "In fact, I remember one day - and it tells you enough that I remember the situation - a pair arrived in a chauffeur-driven car and they would have felt pretty good, you know, pulling up. Next thing, a man arrives in a helicopter and you feel a bit second class. I could tell they did, and we can't have that. That's not the Park." Such a clash never recurred.

At the Park, discretion is part of the package and "making people happy" is at the heart of everything.

"I love to keep people happy," Francis Brennan says to me on the phone from a hotel room in San Francisco.

He's on a whistlestop tour of the US promoting Irish tourism, a trip he's been taking for the last 40 years, from back when filling hotels was done by "shoe leather".

"I'd die happy now," Francis adds, "because I was a good employer and made people happy."

From his boyhood days of working in his father's shop in Dublin's Stepaside, Francis always knew he wanted to give people happy experiences. He's no great man for celebrations or restful holidays himself, but he knows how to create these for other people. Running a hotel that is a home away from home for people is the great passion of his life and that's why, having been its manager for years, he knew, even as a young man, that he had to buy the Park.

"I suppose I had grown to love the place," he says when I ask, "certainly I knew every inch of it, every bit of wallpaper and carpet, every table and chair. And I suppose I knew I could make something special out of it."

Of course, at 120 years of age, the Park existed long before the Brennans. The Park started life as a Great Southern Hotel, which made it a hotel that was part of the railway network of Britain and Ireland. John Brennan explains to me how Parknasilla Hotel in Kerry was the original Great Southern in the area, and how very well-heeled English folk would board a train at Liverpool Street Station in London, "choo-choo" to Holyhead, where the train then boarded the ferry and came by sea to Dun Laoghaire, then known as Kingstown. There the train was set upon tracks again and travelled to Kenmare, where the passengers would travel by carriage to Parknasilla.

"They'd be half dead with the travelling by that stage," says John, "so two years after they built Parknasilla, the Park Kenmare was built as a place where they could spend a night or two before travelling on." It was a hotel of six suites and eight small rooms for the guests' staff, as well as three large "smoking rooms" where they would entertain friends. John explains how the Park operated as a "resort hotel" offered as part of railway-holiday packages right up to the 1970s, having become part of CIE as Ireland found its feet as an independent state. In the 1970s, however, the Troubles in the North contributed to a massive downturn in the tourism business, particularly from the UK, and hotels such as the Park found themselves in trouble. During the 1970s, the Park lay closed and idle. John says the roof lead and copper piping were all stripped as it was neglected, until a Dutch company bought the property.

At the time, there were Dutch businesses involved in selling the wilds of Kerry to Dutch retirees replete with massive state-mandated pensions, and they needed somewhere to put them up. This company spotted Francis when he was a 21-year-old manager elsewhere and asked him to come and manage the Park.

"I said no," he says now. "I was too young. But two years later, I was ready."

When that Dutch company went into liquidation, Francis leased the Park for two years before the liquidator decided to sell and he had to decide. Would he stay or would he go? He loved the place, so he took the risk. And the Swiss banker, who had experienced the magic of a Francis Brennan hotel, helped him.

John Brennan recalls the touches of business magic his older brother brought to the Park. There was the closing in winter, once Christmas was over, until February, which saved money on massive heating bills and overheads. The hotel had more than 50 rooms at this stage, but Francis doubled the size of the hotel without adding many more rooms, instead giving each suite a living room. He spent weeks in America every winter when the hotel was closed, drumming up business. And a young John accompanied Francis on one of those trips when he was only "13 or 14".

"It was 1988," says John, "and the hotel had won Egon Ronay's Best Hotel in Britain and Ireland, and we were in Washington, but we came to London for the award ceremony. Francis said to me, "There's an award ceremony, but you'll be staying in the room'. I asked what room, he said, 'At Claridge's'. 'Is that not very posh?' I asked. 'It is,' Francis said, 'But Gay Byrne is phoning me on the radio in the morning and I want to be talking from a nice hotel'."

Francis's trips to America, which continue to this day, brought a certain type of wealthy American to the Park and many of them came and came again and became annual visitors. There are wealthy American families now where the second generation continues the tradition that began when they were children.

In 1996, John Brennan was working as a hotel manager in Sligo, where he was brought up, before he moved down to work with Francis in Kenmare. It was a shock, he says, to come from a three-star hotel that was driven by functions and weddingsand funerals and conferences and to land into a hotel that "only worried about the guest".

"There was no funeral lunch to worry about or function or chairs to move around," he says. "If John Moriarty [the hotel's bar manager/master hike-leader/agony uncle] or Philip Spillane [the hotel's porter] is giving you their attention, it's their whole attention, and no one is calling them off to do something else."

Francis Brennan tells about the guest who became a regular after he got a puncture while staying there and Francis told him not to worry, give him the key and he'd fix it. "He said, 'What do you mean, you'll fix it?' I told him, 'I'll take off the wheel. I'll bring it down to where it can be repaired. I'll bring it back and I'll put it back on'. That's when he knew we were different.

"It was no trouble. No trouble," says Francis, "that's what it's all about."

In the same vein, John recalls the American guest who asked them to organise a driver for her because she wanted to do the Ring of Kerry. Not a car, just a driver. She had hired a Range Rover on arrival to Ireland and had driven it to Co Mayo, but that journey had demonstrated to her the hazardous narrowness of Irish roads and she had felt compelled to hire a car to drive in front of her from Mayo to her next destination, Kenmare, just to keep her on the straight and narrow, so to speak. John laughs at the memory now, noting that it was no trouble, obviously, to get her the driver, and mentioning that this woman kept coming back to Kenmare, and now lives in the town full-time.

The returning guest is a key feature of the Park. A close friend of the Brennans tells me that they don't buy a teaspoon without wondering if it would pass muster with the Knippers (see panel on page 18), an American family who have been coming there for nearly 50 years.

When John Brennan plotted to build the Samas spa at the turn of the previous century, he travelled to the States to consult with the late Joseph Knipper on the wisdom of his plans. It was the reservations Mr Knipper had about the decorum of a spa, in fact, John tells me, that led to its male and female-only areas.

I also hear about the Irish family who rang up, nearly crying, when in 2009 the Park closed for Christmas. They had been coming there for more than a decade at that point. Their five children had never spent Christmas anywhere else.

"They have six children," the Brennans tell me, " they're not particularly wealthy, but this is where they spend Christmas. There was one year they pulled up at the front door and Philip said, 'They're just bringing up the baby.' There was no baby as far as we were concerned, but they'd had a sixth baby three days earlier and here she was for Christmas. She spent a lot of the Christmas in her basket under the desk in reception; we minded her while the family got to enjoy themselves. That baby is six now and she's gone nowhere else."

"There are plenty of families who wouldn't dream of going anywhere else for a celebration," John says. "It's home."

The Park closed for Christmas in 2009 and 2010. Business had died "like someone turning off a tap" when the economic boom went bust. They closed for longer periods in winter. Francis kept up the trips to the US to drum up business, they kept going, as he says, but it wasn't easy. Further, the luxury apartments that Francis had built beside the hotel were finished. "We got the keys the day Lehman Brothers went bust," John says.

The brothers were TV personalities by this time, though, having started making the RTE series At Your Service in 2006. They are frank about their initial attitude to it as a PR exercise. It got the name of the Park out there, and it definitely drew attention to the place. It also drew attention to the brothers, which was not something for which they were really prepared.

"John doesn't like the attention at all," laughs Francis, who seems better able to let it wash over him that "people think they know you and own you." They have continued to do At Your Service together, but Francis has gone solo with his Grand Tour shows.

"I've been stopped by people in LA and Addis Ababa and all over," he laughs, while John comments that their general manager Patrick Hanley reckons that the sign for the Park is the most photographed hotel sign in the world. People stop to pose at it many times a day, apparently.

There's no denying that the Brennans' hearts and souls are in the Park, but that's not the same as having the funds required to maintain it and even to improve on it physically. In January, it was announced that the full Brennan control of the Park Hotel was at an end. They entered into a deal with Glen Dimplex chief executive Fergal Naughton; it gave him shares in the hotel and gave the Brennans the funds to wipe out their debt and invest in the hotel.

"We had a board meeting yesterday," says John, "and it was one of the freshest meetings I have had." In other words, it's a massive relief. Naughton, for his part, has said that he's long been an admirer of how the Brennans work and has been a guest "for many years".

For the second time in the Brennan history with the Park, a guest has liked the cut of their jib and has taken a risk on them. Youth and innocence are no longer part of the deal, but far-sightedness remains.

There aren't many five-star hotels in the world, says John Brennnan, where if you ring to make a reservation, you get the owner on the phone. But that's how it is at the Park, that's who Francis Brennan is and that's how he's shaped his little 120-year-old kingdom within the Kingdom. And that's how it's going to stay.

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