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Caring staff and Wow moments – the secret to Kelly's fame


HIGH TEA: Sean Gallagher and Bill Kelly take a break at Kelly's Hotel in Rosslare – set up by Bill's great-grandparents back in 1895. Photo: Mary Browne

HIGH TEA: Sean Gallagher and Bill Kelly take a break at Kelly's Hotel in Rosslare – set up by Bill's great-grandparents back in 1895. Photo: Mary Browne

HIGH TEA: Sean Gallagher and Bill Kelly take a break at Kelly's Hotel in Rosslare – set up by Bill's great-grandparents back in 1895. Photo: Mary Browne

IN today's Ireland, there are few businesses whose reputation for customer service and customer loyalty can match that of Kelly's Resort.

Located alongside five miles of beautiful sandy beach, Kelly's Resort, Hotel and Spa, in Rosslare, in Co Wexford, has become a popular destination for both Irish and overseas visitors.

Last week its owner, Bill Kelly, showed me around and shared with me what makes Kelly's special and what he feels is at the heart of its enduring success.

Now in the hands of the fourth generation of Kellys, this family-run business was originally set up, in 1895, by Bill's great-grandparents, as a small tearoom.

Today, it is a modern holiday resort with more than 120 guest rooms, a staff of 200 and an annual turnover of more than €12m.

While the success of Kelly's could, at first glance, be attributed to its expansive and modern facilities, the real secret to its longevity lies elsewhere.

Entering the hotel, I am immediately struck by the friendly and engaging nature of the staff; a friendliness that seems authentic, rather than rehearsed.

What surprises me more, however, is the warmth and rapport that is evident among the resort's guests.

"It's part of the magic that happens here," explains Bill.

"And it's definitely why some people have been coming back here every year for the last 30 years," he tells me proudly.

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It's hard to define the mix of guests who visit the place. There are individuals and couples taking leisurely strolls throughout the grounds while others sit quietly, absorbed in books and magazines or engaged in conversations.

Children of all ages, hastily pursued by their parents, move purposefully throughout the resort making use of the myriad of activities that include indoor swimming pools, tennis courts, a fitness centre, jogging track and an almost endless list of activities such as badminton, bowls and croquet, as well as several restaurants and bars.

The jewel in the resort's crown must surely be its award-winning Sea Spa complete with seawater vitality pool and thermal suite.

Bill is quick to acknowledge the work that his parents and grandparents did in developing and enhancing the facilities at the resort over many years.

"My job has been to continue to build on what they started," he says modestly.

"Our location has a lot to do with it," Bill tells me.

"We are blessed to sit along a beautiful beach that is only two hours from both Dublin and Cork."

Bill, too, has continued to invest heavily in adding new facilities at the resort. For example, in 2006 he spent €7m building the new 15,000 sq ft spa and treatment rooms.

"We also continuously re-invest in refurbishing and upgrading rooms in order to keep them modern and attractive for guests," he tells me.

"However, that's not what the most important thing is," he assures me. "The most important thing you can do for any business is to look after your customers.

"The staff, more than anything else, gives the hotel its warmth and personality. We can create the best physical product but it's really the staff that bring people back again and again."

Bill constantly reminds his new staff that it's not he who pays their wages, but the customers.

"I remind them that it's the customers that keep us all in jobs. When staff understand that, it changes the way they think and act towards customers," he says.

About 80 per cent of those staying in the hotel on the week I visit have been coming almost every year for the past 15 years – something that Bill is very proud of.

He points to one family in the restaurant and explains that the whole family – including grandparents, parents, and their three young children – travel from the UK to the resort for the same week every year. He remembers serving the children's parents when they, themselves, were children.

"It begins to make you feel old," he laughs.

"Guests also make great friends here, whether through playing golf, having a drink together or through their children getting to know the children of other families," he tells me.

"People will often book their annual holidays here to coincide with times when they know other families will be here."

He tells me: "I want people to come here as customers but to leave here as ambassadors."

And it's an approach that seems to be working as occupancy levels in the hotel are currently running at more than 90 per cent. It's an extraordinary achievement for any hotel in the current market.

As I stroll about the hotel, guests tell me how great, and consistent, the quality of the food is – couples like Paddy and Deirdre Morgan who are visiting from Armagh. They love the place. The couple first visited the resort when their children were younger. Now that the children have grown up, the couple have come for a few days relaxation on their own.

Management experts often speak about non-hierarchical management structures in business and the importance of staying close to your customer. Bill and his management team don't spend much time in their offices. Instead, their place is on the floor working alongside the staff.

"The restaurant staff can freely call on me or any manager to help clear a table or to get drinks for a customer, if that staff member is under pressure. It's how it has to work," insists Bill.

"That way, everyone understands that the focus is entirely on making sure that the customer has a good experience throughout their stay."

Bill strives, too, for what he calls 'Moments of Truth' or 'Wow Moments' where staff noticeably go out of their way to help customers.

"It can be as simple as a staff member taking a customer to where the toilets are, rather than just giving them directions," he explains.

He believes that it's these individual contacts, thousands of them, each day, between staff and customers, that make all the difference.

"If each staff member can create just one or two 'Wow Moments' every day, then imagine the impact that has on the overall business," he says.

Bill and his French-born wife, Isabelle, took over the running of Kelly's in 1987. Isabelle is the daughter of a leading wine-maker from the Chateauneuf-du-Pape region of France. The couple met at college in Lausanne, Switzerland, where both were training in hotel management.

After college, Bill spent the next few years working in hotels in Florida, Taiwan and Paris before returning to take over the family business.

His father, also Bill, had died 10 years earlier, at the age of 50.

"My mother, Breda, did an amazing job of running the hotel after that," he tells me proudly. With seven children to take care off, managing a hotel with 150 staff could not have been an easy task.

The past four years have been the most challenging time for the business. A combined strategy of reinvesting in the resort's facilities, as well as reducing operating costs, has helped the hotel experience only a marginal drop in revenues.

To counteract the down-turn in business, Bill began offering incentives such as early-bird menus in the resort's restaurants.

"Our turnover actually increased," he explains. "And while our profits fell somewhat, we were very grateful that the increased turnover helped us through that difficult patch.

"We could also have let staff go, but that would have impacted on the customer experience, and as a result, the long-term sustainability of the business," he insists.

Instead, Bill brought his staff together and explained that no one was going to lose their jobs. Nor were they going to have their wages cut. However, in order to continue to meet the demands of a changing market place, he asked them to recommit to greater flexibility and even greater customer service.

In addition, he looked for innovative and creative ways of attracting new customers, such as teaming up with well-known figures in the worlds of fitness, art, cooking, gardening and painting in order to provide fun and innovate activity breaks at Kelly's throughout the year.

In his spare time, Bill loves to play golf and tennis, and generally keeps fit. He undertook his first triathlon in his early 40s and ran his first marathon at the age of 45. "Being physically fit also helps me stay energised and focused," he says.

As if running a large hotel and resort were not enough to keep him busy, Bill plans to open up a new cafe and restaurant, in association with Meadows & Byrne, in Waterford town.

He would be delighted, too, if some of his and Isabelle's six daughters joined the business. He realises that he will, at some point, have to consider passing on the baton to a fifth generation of Kellys. Though something tells me Bill Kelly has a lot more to do before then.

There is no doubt but that Kelly's Resort is a special place. Its location, fronting as it does, on to a stretch of golden sandy beach, provides an instant felling of relaxation. So, too, does the resort's almost limitless list of amenities and facilities from which to choose.

But Bill Kelly is right. It's the people who make the difference. The real magic of the place is its staff. That's why so many guests have come to see the place as a home from home for both themselves and their families.

Bill and his management team have long since realised that customer service is not some department tucked away in an office somewhere in the hotel; customer service is every staff member's job.

It's easy to understand now, when I meet people who have stayed there, why they rejoice in telling you how great a place Kelly's is.

It's because they, too, have become ambassadors.

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