Thursday 22 March 2018

Brennan brothers hoping for recovery in the hotel industry

The stars of RTE hit show At Your Service, John and Francis Brennan focus on old- 
fashioned hospitality to drive business at the Kenmare Park Hotel, writes Sarah McCabe

John and Francis Brennan by Jon Berkeley
John and Francis Brennan by Jon Berkeley
Sarah McCabe

Sarah McCabe

THE helicopter appeared suddenly, hovering in the sky above the Kenmare Park Hotel menacingly. Only moments ago there had been total silence, bar the occasional lilting line of birdsong from the trees of the famous country house's expansive gardens.

Shakily, the chopper set down, rotors roaring, with the hotel's staff hurrying out to greet its passengers. Out jumped two well-dressed 50-somethings, a man and woman, who left the helicopter with their pilot and strolled leisurely up the lawns. I later learned they were American golfers, stopping by to have dinner in the mahogany-lined dining room. The ghost of the Celtic Tiger still lingers, it seems, in Kenmare.

John and Francis Brennan, the stars of RTE hotel overhaul show At Your Service, are the men behind it. They have worked in hospitality since their teens and have run the hotel for decades, but it is only in the last couple of years that they have come to national attention. Their RTE show is now in its seventh season and is the broadcaster's third most watched series.

But it has not been an easy few years. Kenmare and the hotel were hit heavily by the recession and visitor numbers are still depressed. Ireland's much-lauded economic recovery, John reminds me, is taking place between the two canals in Dublin, with little signs of change for the rest of the country. And he doesn't think it is going to improve any time soon.

"There are no profit margins at the Park and there haven't been for seven years," he says. Revenue is still at only 70pc of what it was at peak. But they are not losing money either, and have hundreds of people in work directly and indirectly. There are 44 places to eat in the little town of Kenmare, Co Kerry and they are all dependent on the hotel's visitors and the marketing boost that the brothers have provided for the region.

Their hotel is impeccably run. It feels like one of a dying breed - old-world, quietly glamorous. It is popular with celebrities and business tycoons, meaning the Brennans have lots of amazing anecdotes to relate.

The Rolling Stones once stayed there. They caused chaos all night, prompting multiple guests to complain. When the night porter went up to check what was going on, Keith Richards was naked on the floor playing guitar in a haze of blue smoke.

Once all of the other guests realised it was the Rolling Stones, nobody cared - and then the following morning Ronnie Wood paid for the room of every person who had complained.

They have been business partners for most of their adult lives.

"It just works. We are great partners and great friends," says Francis. He is definitely the face of the operation. Flamboyant and impeccably mannered, he is beloved by both guests and viewers.

He can't go out without being approached by someone who has watched the show, he says. He was once stopped at 2.15am in an all-night shop in Killarney by a woman who talked to him for 20 minutes about choosing onions.

But he is happy to say hello to anyone, to stop and have a chat - he says he likes meeting new people. Francis owns the Park Hotel, which he bought out of liquidation after a stint as general manager. John helps to run it.

John is the quieter of the two, but by no means quiet. He is the business brains of the operation with wife Glen pitching in too, though both brothers are clearly involved in every aspect of their projects - it doesn't feel as though one is carrying the other.

John owns another more profitable business at Dromquinna, a wedding and luxury camping beauty spot on the outskirts of the town. He bought the site in 2011, revamped it and launched it the following year.

He was diagnosed with serious gallbladder cancer on the same day he heard that his bid for the site had been successful, US billionaire philanthropist Chuck Feeney having also expressed interest. He was successfully treated and given a clean bill of health the same year.

Both love doing the RTE show. John follows the debate about it on popular chat room and thanks users for contributing at the end of every season. They have gotten used to the difficult task of telling hoteliers where they are going wrong. The main problem they come across, he says, are inheritance issues - people running hotels which they inherited and don't really care about.

"The no-hopers are the best shows," says John. "We just have to speak plainly - we can't not, the viewer can see it."

Another problem they regularly come across is a lack of entrepreneurial spirit, which he largely blames on the Irish education system. He left school at 15.

"The Irish school curriculum is designed to further education and get, not create, a job," he says. "We interview intensively for jobs at the hotel - but it's not just about education.

"Things like common sense and dedication, and good letter-writing skills - that is what is really needed. We have people coming into us in their late 20s who have never worked, they have only been in education. They are afraid to get out into the world.

"Common sense is much harder to find than someone with a degree - though Kerry is different," he adds with a hint of a smile. "Manners, common sense and hospitality are in the blood here."

Their hotel is a funny mix of grand old country hotel and modern technology, because of the state-of-the-art spa they added 10 years ago. John has a lot to stay on the spa business and poorly-planned hotels in general."There are 85 spas in Ireland - but very few are the real deal. A lot are just leisure centres with treatment rooms."

An industry perfectionist, he is highly critical of mistakes like unnecessary spas and "folly" hotels, the mid-range places that sprang up on the side of motorways in the boom.

The proliferation of golf courses also bothers him. "So many country homes and spas built golf courses in the last decade; I'd be a nervous wreck today with a golf course. Grass grows every year, the maintenance costs never end, but golfers are dwindling. Cycling is the new thing." Their hotel has rights over a nearby golf course which they helped to part-fund, but they don't pay any maintenance costs.

Many of the hotels that sprang up throughout Ireland in the boom years have all proved incredibly costly to light and heat, adds Francis, because they were badly thought out. Energy costs are "a nightmare", he says. "The reason is that for a hotel, if you have five people staying, its costs the same to light and heat as it would if there were 100 people staying."

"Kenmare is quite compact in itself as hotels go... from that point of view it is easy enough to run."

Both espouse travel, which they say is essential to staying creative and finding new ideas for their businesses. "People get blinkered by their business - they become so exhausted and tired that they can't see what is happening," says Francis. "We travel a lot, we get perspective."

John is just back form Scotland where he bought dozens of different types of gin amid plans to open a gin bar at Dromquinna. He always stays in five-star hotels when he travels, he says, to learn from the best.

Despite building up a reasonably-powerful hotel brand, neither has major expansion plans. One gets the sense that they are happy running one or two sites to a very high standard that they have control of, rather than buying up lots of properties and losing any intimacy.

"We have had plenty of opportunities over the years but I run a personal business," says Francis. "We are there 99pc of the time. Plus everything that the people who approached us wanted to do was in Dublin and Belfast - nothing in Kerry."

Another thing they have in common is an appreciation for old-fashioned hospitality. Both lament the death of owner-operator hotels, run by well-known names who could always be found hanging around their properties. "There are very few people left who, like we do, really talk to their guests - there are very few hoteliers left like that in Ireland. An awful lot of hotels have become corporate entities, run by a head office or a group, and they have lost that warm feeling and level of service," adds Francis.

But tourism is a tricky business for small independent operators. The Gathering acted as a stimulus last year, though the brothers say the American football match that was held in Dublin, Navy Vs Notre Dame, provided a bigger boost to their hotel than The Gathering as the Americans visiting tended to stay for the week and explore tourist favourites Cork and Kerry.

But the best thing to happen to Irish tourism, they say, is the Wild Atlantic Way - the marketing drive by Tourism Ireland that pitches the West of Ireland as one of the finest scenic driving routes in the world.

"You would not believe the amount of money it has drummed up for businesses on the route," says John. "For someone like IDA Ireland to try and artificially create a similar kind of stimulus, by enticing companies to set up here, would cost millions.

"Yes it's just a brand and a series of signs, but those three words conjure up exactly the kind of thing we should be marketing Ireland as - natural, beautiful, playing on our mythology and history. We have to pitch our story right overseas - we should not be selling Ireland as a budget destination. People go home feeling ripped off."

Despite the ups and downs of the hospitality business, the seasonality that means the Kenmare Park Hotel closes for five months in the winter, they both still can't speak highly enough of it as a career.

"I would absolutely recommend it," says John. "It's a wonderful job. You can travel with it, and Irish people can get to the top anywhere in the world; we have a great reputation abroad."


John Brennan: 'I love cutting the grass more than anything else'

The last good meal I ate was... "at a restaurant in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull in Scotland. I had sea bass and it was fantastic. I drove a RIB across to Scotland with my son for a few days, with nothing booked - we had a ball."

The art I like on my wall is by... "I really like Sarah Walker, an artist from Kenmare. We also have a Louis de Brocquy at the Park House Hotel."

My first job was... "selling Christmas logs in Dublin. I left school when I was 15."

The clothes I like to wear are... "well, I buy my suits from James Heron on Dawson Street, and Brown Thomas. My favourite place to shop is Selfridges - it is one of the finest retailers in the world."

If I wasn't doing this I would... "cut the grass. No, really - I love it. You are outside with no phone and it's just absorbing. I was out cutting grass last Sunday."

Francis Brennan: 'On my next holiday I will be going to...'

"I'm actually heading off to Barcelona in the morning - but it's for work. I'll be checking out restaurants for a project I am working on."

If I wasn't doing this, I would be doing... "I am first and foremost a hotelier but if I was to do anything else, I would do more media. I like that media work has a clear start and end point. If one retired - which is not easy from a hotel - media would be handy to pop in and out of, as Gay Byrne has shown us."

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