Lally has his finger firmly on Limerick pulse
Our wonderful hotel industry gets the boost it needs as deep-pocket investors return to our shores at last
One thing's for sure, the American billionaire, John Malone, either really loves us, or Ireland is really on the up - or hopefully both.
The biggest single landowner in the US, Malone has recently added the InterContinental Hotel in Ballsbridge (the former Four Seasons Hotel), and Glenlo Abbey in Galway, to his already burgeoning portfolio of Irish country houses and hotels.
He certainly won't be wanting for a bed in Ireland. Currently, he is refurbishing the Gothic Humewood Castle in Co Wicklow, for which he paid €8m in 2012.
He also bought Ballylinch Stud, set on 840 acres in the lush lands of Co Kilkenny; the stud was previously part of the Mount Juliet estate at Thomastown. In December, he purchased another famous Irish estate, Castlemartin, on 750 acres in Co Kildare for €28m.
His interest in buying into Irish hotels came about when he was buying Humewood. Here, he met Galway man, John Lally and former stockbroker, Paul Higgins, of the Lalco Group. The trio formed an alliance, quickly purchasing seven hotels in Dublin, including the five-star Westin on College Green, the Hilton in Kilmainham and in Charlemont Place, the Trinity Capital Hotel, as well as the Limerick Strand Hotel. The Limerick Strand is the first hotel outside Dublin to have Malone's involvement, which shows great confidence in Limerick.
Sean Lally - no relation to John Lally - is General Manager of the Limerick Strand. A consummate hotelier, he is heavily involved in promoting all that Limerick has to offer.
Sean attributes his love of the hospitality industry to his father. "He was an entrepreneur. He was a farmer, but he bought a pub and developed it as a nightclub and function room. He also had a plant-hire business and managed bands. The pub was bought when I was doing my Inter Cert, so I probably got a taste then for tourism."
Sean did hotel management in what is now GMIT in Galway, joining the Trusthouse Forte Hotel Group on graduating.
"It was a great experience, grounding you in areas where you were still a bit green. It was 1989/1990, an exciting time to work in London in a 600-bedroom hotel at Heathrow Airport. I was there during the Gulf War and I saw a hotel that went from 90pc to about 25pc occupancy. When the war started, it was like somebody turned off a switch. After 10 years, I moved back to Ireland and met my wife, Elaine." They now have two teenage children, Caoimhe and Oisin.
"I chair the Limerick Marketing Company, which is the first marketing company set up by any local authority in Ireland. The decision was made here to combine the local authorities and they launched the 2030 Economic & Spatial Plan, signing a new charter that would see all the key players, business leaders, third-level institutions, chambers of commerce, singing from the one hymn sheet for the greater good of Limerick. It's about working together and using resources.
"The Wild Atlantic Way is unique. The Gathering worked well, but it was for one year, the Wild Atlantic Way is here forever. We've found, over the past couple of years, people are basing themselves in Limerick and doing the Way. We've seen a lot of job announcements and there is a great link to industry between third-level institutions, the University of Limerick, the Limerick Institute of Technology, Mary Immaculate College and the School of Art & Design.
"Mike Fitzpatrick heads up the School of Art & Design, and he headed up the City of Culture last year, which gave Limerick a huge boost. It gave people the self-belief that anything is possible.
"I'm in Limerick 16 years and there's great optimism and a vibe with young people working together, it's great being part and kind of central to it. It's a very exciting time to be in tourism and it's a very exciting time to be in Limerick. Government strategy on tourism has been very positive, maintaining VAT at 9pc and getting rid of airport tax. We are an island nation and the air industry is vital to us. I am extremely optimistic about going forward with tourism, but it is so important that prices don't get back to Celtic Tiger levels, that we don't get complacent."
As to the Limerick Strand itself, Sean says: "The hotel is about experiences from cradle to grave. Across the road is the maternity hospital and that's like a factory in terms of the amount of business that comes in. The expectant fathers come in and you know them by the profile. You ask 'are you across the road'? They just look at you and say, 'how did you know?' We are a centre of the community and it's great to be part of a hotel group that's growing and expanding.
"It's important to keep the product sharp. A lot of our competitors might be international four-star hotels and it's important to pitch yourself against that because, when you are targeting national and international conference business, that's what you're up against. You can't be running a hotel from your office - you've got to be out in the lobby shaking hands, you've got to know who's related to who, what business they are in, who's the new managing director of a company. In a lot of cases they want to be dealing with the general manager.
"You've got to be part of the local community, put your shoulder to the wheel and be the face of the hotel. I make sure that my guys are linked in locally, that they have their fingers on the pulse. You've got to eat, drink and sleep Limerick, what's going on in the locality whether it's a GAA or a rugby match or, in terms of the hospital, knowing who had the twins."
Sean Lally has his finger well and truly on Limerick's pulse.