Monday 26 August 2019

'Our Irish market is particularly buoyant...hopefully it's not 'Celtic Tiger 2 - The Revenge'' – Powerscourt Hotel manager

Interview: Ian Wynne, General manager, Powerscourt Estate

Powerscourt’s Ian Wynne says recruitment is a major concern. Photo: Photocall Ireland
Powerscourt’s Ian Wynne says recruitment is a major concern. Photo: Photocall Ireland
Ellie Donnelly

Ellie Donnelly

Although the hotel was synonymous with the Celtic Tiger, Ian Wynne, general manager at Powerscourt, refers to the era as part of the property's history, but not "part of its future".

Having undergone a rebrand in 2013, today business at the five-star hotel is booming.

"Where we are at the moment is on an upward curve, we are seeing a huge influx of business," says English-born Wynne. "People talk about Brexit and no one from the UK is coming over, and no one from Europe and the US, but we have seen no decline in any of our sectors - American business has increased."

There are several factors behind the hotel's surging business including what he says is visitors' love for the countryside, the history and style. "They love the atmosphere here and we like looking after them," he adds.

Having previously worked for, among others, Harcourt Developments and looking after their 12 hotels around the world, from Antigua to Dublin and Donegal, Wynne says that he brings aspects of all of the hotels that he has previously worked in to Powerscourt.

"Each of our travellers has a different need and want - our Irish market is particularly buoyant, we see a lot of business out of Dublin.

"But like everyone we are thinking 'hopefully not Celtic Tiger 2 - The Revenge'."

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While Brexit is a concern across industries, Wynne maintains that English people still love Dublin, and that they will always come to the city.

"I think there will always be a close relationship between the UK and Ireland and I think a hard Border is going to be the issue, because a hard Border is problematic whichever way you look at it.

"But the Irish economy is exceptionally strong, it just goes to show you how Ireland has bounced back, we paid our way out of it, but we all knuckled down and did it and people are looking at the light at the end of the tunnel, but I think people are still weary, and far more pragmatic this time around."

Business is also being driven by the perception of Ireland as being a safe country for tourists, says Wynne.

"In some of the discussions we have had with our American friends it is found that people like Ireland, they have affinity to Ireland, and especially with the unfortunate events of last year - Paris, Barcelona and London - people were becoming very nervous about which city to choose for their business."

In addition, Wynne notes the importance of the transport links between Ireland and the US. "You have US pre-clearance here, and all of those things along with safety, culture, countryside, adds into a very attractive mix for our clients."

While the internet has changed the way that people book holidays and hotels, with potential customers looking at TripAdvisor reviews, your website, and tracking your Facebook and Instagram accounts, what has remained constant in the industry, Wynne says, is the business of service and delivery.

"People in hospitality always try to think of a new trick, whereas good old-fashioned service and delivery goes 100pc. That hasn't changed in thousands of years, what's changed is how you market, not what you should be doing."

However, he notes that with staff and customers living in "real time", instant becomes impatient: "We have had to gear up our staffing levels and our responses to ensure that we are on things as quickly as possible, that an enquiry doesn't sit, that our responses on social, our responses on reservations is immediate, because in people's heads it's immediate."

With stunning grounds and views, the hotel is, unsurprisingly, a popular destination for weddings. However, Wynne says that Powerscourt is limited in terms of the number of weddings that it wants to do, rather than the number that it can do. This, he says, is mainly because of the success the hotel has in attracting international group business.

"We have about 65 weddings a year, and we do very specific weddings. We take the right number and make sure we do them impeccably well." Among the challenges facing Powerscourt and the industry Wynne cites staffing as his biggest issue.

"It is always staffing," he says.

"Every hotel in Ireland is looking for the same person and it becomes a bit of a rat race trying to get those people and we are very particular about who we hire."

The location of the hotel - around a kilometre and a half from the Wicklow town of Enniskerry - is sometimes a challenge in this respect, adds Wynne.

"We provide transport to pick people up, but there is competition in the city centre where a lot of our staff live, and they can literally jump on the Luas and be in any of the hotels in city centre - who are all looking for staff - and therefore we have to pay more to get people to come that little bit further.

"There is a labour shortage of skilled staff, especially qualified food and beverage staff."

In addition, the hotel is restricted by visas when it comes to staffing.

"Ireland doesn't give hospitality visas out to countries outside the EU, but we have a good loyal core team of staff, which is exceptionally important to us."

Another challenge with staffing is accommodation, Wynne says.

"We provide staff housing here, which is in itself expensive, but a necessary requirement. If you take somebody who is coming over on €10.25 (we pay above the minimum wage) but the cheapest apartment in Enniskerry would probably start at about €1,700, it doesn't take long to know that they would be working pretty much to pay the rent. That is why we provide transport to other areas."

The other big issue facing Powerscourt and the industry is in relation to data, in particular the introduction of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), something Wynne refers to as a "side challenge".

With GDPR coming into play in May, Wynne says that every hotel in the industry is having to look at the way it does things online.

"We have now to do things in a completely different fashion to ensure that everything we do is 100pc protective of your data, our data.

"It is not a challenge in terms of it having a financial implication, just the volume of work that is required to be compliant is quite huge.

"People underestimate the work that is required [for GDPR], we have employed specialist lawyers, we have employed specialist consultants, we have involved Marriot in terms of all our systems - hotels have multiple layers of systems, all of which have to be compliant, with overriding compliance.

"For instance, hotels use Open Table for people booking dinners, they have to show that they are compliant, they have to provide certification to us so we can provide certification to someone else so we can be compliant, and this is just one element (spa, membership, till software and so on). So the level of detail going to be involved is huge."

Despite the level of work required for GDPR, Wynne says that if businesses weigh up the penalties versus the time, "take the time".

In September, Powerscourt will develop its Sika restaurant and terrace, which he says will be a "lovely" addition.

"People come to Powerscourt for the view, the only way for us to expand what we can do is utilise the terrace and have it as an "inside outside space", basically the whole of the [planned] extension will be like an open orangery in summer, in winter it closes up with underfloor heating and an extra 100 covers for the restaurant.

"It just gives us the capacity to move people closer to the outside, maximise the views that we have."

Looking forward, Wynne says that Powerscourt is in a good position in that it is making good strides in terms of financial turnover and profitability, which he says is giving the owners comfort to put it back into the business in terms of investment.

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