Wednesday 17 January 2018

Hosting Irish Open like a hole in one for boss of Carton House

Changing focus to sports has been a huge boon for Carton House – especially when a visit from Real Madrid lends you credibility in a new market

Carton house Manager David Webster
Carton house Manager David Webster
Peter Flanagan

Peter Flanagan

FOR a man about to host one of the biggest annual sporting events of the year, David Webster cuts a remarkably relaxed figure.

The youthful general manager of the Carton House resort in Co Kildare runs one of the biggest hotel and golf resorts in the country, and is hosting the Irish Open from today.

It's a huge undertaking to cater for the players – many of whom are used to being treated like kings – as well as the sponsors, spectators and all the ancillary items that come up, but Mr Webster has the air of a man who feels he has covered all the bases.

"Our job as the host venue is to make sure everything runs well.

"For this week, our main customer is the European Tour, and making sure everything goes well for them and for the players and the sponsors.

"And when we facilitate them we concentrate on making it a great experience for the public.

"What you have to realise, though, is that we're a busy resort anyhow, so the revenue for the hotel this week won't be any different than it would be for other busy weeks. We have all the staffing ready for it and everything else.

"There will be certain places on the property that will be busier than usual but by and large we should be fine," he claims.

One thing that does make his job much easier is the fact that the European Tour runs golf tournaments like this every week, so there is a certain template that has to be implemented. As well as that, Mr Webster and his team are focused only on what happens in the hotel and golf club. All the extraneous stuff, such as burger vans and bars around the grounds, are not his responsibility.

In less than seven years, Carton House has been transformed by its owners, the Mallaghan family, from just another stately home into one of the biggest and best-known resorts in the country. It is probably best known for its two golf courses – the Montgomery and O'Meara – but also has a number of other activities on site and hosts numerous business events and sports teams, such as the British and Irish Lions, who trained there before heading to Australia this month.

Mr Webster is keen to point out it was Mallaghans who drove the expansion into hosting sports teams, but there is little doubt he has played a key role in building the Carton brand in this sector.

"When we set up the pitches on site, we said we'd focus on GAA, soccer and rugby. Hosting Real Madrid for nine days in 2009 was a huge boost for us in this regard, because it gave us immediate credibility within that market and it has gone from there.

"A lot of my time has been spent introducing ourselves to customers, and getting the name out there, and it's got to the point where we are now hosting a number of Premier League clubs and other teams over the summer. We have a proven CV now and that is very important," he adds.

Bringing the sports teams on board has been an important boon to Carton House in the days since the crash. The loss of business has been great across the hospitality sector.

That has led to allegations that NAMA has been flooding the hotel and golf market in particular with cheap rates that can't be matched by others. It is an argument Mr Webster has little sympathy for, however.

"When I took over in 2007, our biggest custom came from the banks and the construction sector, so obviously when the crash came we had to adjust fairly rapidly. That meant focusing on sectors that were doing well, such as pharmaceuticals and IT, and we've been successful with that.

"I honestly think the line that 'NAMA is putting us out of business' is a lazy excuse.

"When demand drops, prices will drop, that's the reality.

"Demand dropped, but I don't think it was NAMA or anything like that. It was as a consequence of the downturn.

"We know there was a massive amount of golf courses built during the boom and we know a lot of them weren't built for commercial reasons – they were built for tax breaks and in a lot of cases I don't think people actually looked to see if they would be commercially viable businesses on their own.

"The upshot of that was when the crash came, these guys were not prepared at all," he adds.

Mr Webster hardly holds himself up as having all the answers, but he makes clear that, in his mind, competitors have sacrificed basic business principles and have paid the price for it.

"When a restaurant or hotel starts to cut back on its service levels, they seem to go out of business very quickly. You need to identify the type of customer you want and go after them relentlessly.

"Too many businesses don't seem to know who they want to attract.

"They try to be all things to all people and as a result end up falling between two stools."

Mr Webster is only 41, but he has been in the hospitality sector for coming on 20 years. A native of Tallaght, Dublin, he moved to the UK at the age of 17 to study and hasn't looked back since.

"I was on the Marriot graduate programme and became their youngest general manager at 27 when I took over the Marriot in Peterborough. That was probably more a reflection on the lack of candidates for the job so the young ambitious guy got it," he claims.

A spell with Hilton followed, before he became general manager of The Belfry resort in 2003. The Belfry was well known as a Ryder Cup venue by then. It must have been a baptism of fire for a man who had never run a resort-style hotel before? Mr Webster, however, disagrees.

"At its heart, a hotel is a very simple business. You need to attract customers and provide such a good service that they come back.

"The only big difference is the golf course side of it and the maintenance that goes with it. The business principles are the same, however.

"Now, I'm not going to go in and tell the greenkeepers what to do, but it's a bit like dealing with a chef at a hotel in the centre of town.

"They are the experts – I set the parameters and tell them what I want, but I trust them to produce quality products."

Trying to manage a resort in a downturn means Mr Webster is acutely aware of the state of the economy, and it is clear to him the Government isn't doing enough to create jobs.

"The Government doesn't create jobs, private enterprise does. What politicians can do is create a business environment where companies feel they can safely take on more staff.

"That means lower rates for business: high taxes never encourage investment.

"We see politicians turning up for every last jobs announcement but it's crazy. Give businesses the stable environment to grow and create jobs and they will do that."

Knowing the Montgomery course where the open is being held, who does Mr Webster think will win it all this year?

"Hopefully one of the Irish guys, but I'd love to see Shane Lowry do it. He's our travelling professional and local boy, so if he could pull it off, then that would be really something."

Irish Independent

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