The Shelbourne tsar who is always checked in
The list of celebrity guests goes on and on, just like the hotel's impeccable service, writes Sarah McCabe
THERE'S something magical about the Shelbourne. Bunreacht na hEireann was signed in Room 112, while everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to John F Kennedy have stayed under its roof.
It is the inspiration behind reams of art, literature, poetry and music – playwright George Moore wrote 'The Bending of the Bough' during one stay, while The Chieftains was formed after a meeting at the Horseshoe Bar. It is a place where the person having dinner next to you could genuinely be Bill Clinton.
So Stephen Hanley, the man tasked with keeping that magic alive, has a lot on his shoulders.
As general manager he is a kind of hotel tsar, responsible for everything from staff performance to marketing the hotel to wealthy American travel buyers and greeting the most elite of guests. Our interview is peppered with interruptions from the great and good of Dublin society; he knows everyone.
Mr Hanley was in buoyant form. His hotel has just been awarded five red stars by the AAA, the international hotel standards body. Unbeknownst to most of us, there are actually two types of five star hotel. Five black stars is the norm, but a select number of hotels around the world enjoy red star status – the highest honour there is. The Savoy in London has them, as does the Shelbourne's biggest rival, the Merrion Hotel in Dublin.
The subtle improvements required to gain this recognition might go unnoticed by guests, but not by Hanley. "You can see it in the way a member of our staff opens a guest's car door the moment they arrive, little things like that" he explains. "It's everything from the quality of our linens to our in-house seamstress. It is a hugely difficult standard to achieve and it has taken a lot of work. You need to be having your best day ever, every day." AAA reviewers can arrive at any time, unannounced and incognito, so any customer walking through the doors could potentially be reviewing them.
The hotel employs 400 people, with 100 of those added in the last year alone. As well as an in-house seamstress and historian, it offers three kinds of butler: a general butler, a Style Butler if you're looking for a makeover, and a Genealogy Butler if you are visiting Ireland to trace your routes.
It is those kind of standards that keep the Obamas of this world coming back for more. Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia spent four nights at the Shelbourne this year, in a flurry of limousines and Secret Service. To recognise their stay the hotel gifted Mrs Obama with an original, signed copy of Ulysses. Bill Clinton, who stayed in the hotel during a visit to Ireland in 2010, got a signed book of poetry by Seamus Heaney.
Despite this generosity to US first families, the Shelbourne manages to bring in a tidy operating profit. It turns over about €30m every year, a third of which is generated by food and drink sales. Hanley says these revenues are double those of Ireland's next busiest hotel – he won't say who that is – but concedes that margins are tight. "If a five star gets a 30pc margin on its revenues, it's doing very well." Payroll alone costs about €10m a year.
He is emphatic that the hotel has never gone near NAMA "Never. Think about it – the hotel is far too valuable an asset for that."
He still seems rueful about the massive €185m ploughed into hotel renovations in the run up to 2007, but won't dwell on the subject. "You have to make mistakes to learn. Ultimately it was a good investment – the value of the property has been rising since 2009.
And the upgrades aren't over yet. A total revamp of its spa was completed last year, including the opening of an ornate 18m swimming pool that for decades was left unfilled, used for storage. Membership of the health club costs a cool €1,800 a year.
Room upgrades will begin in January, while first floor meeting rooms will also be redone this year. There are plans for an internal garden. None of the funding for these projects is borrowed; all upgrades are paid for by reinvested profits.
The hotel was opened in 1924 by Tipperary man Martin Burke. Today it is owned by a consortium which includes some of the country's most prolific developers, including Gerry O'Reilly, John Sweeney and David Courtney, who bought it in 2004 for €140m. Bernard McNamara is no longer involved. None are involved in the day-to-day operation of the hotel; that task is outsourced to Marriott, who employ Hanley and the rest of the hotel's 400 staff.
Public spats between Marriott and its owners have blighted the hotel in recent years, but haven't become troublesome enough to sever the relationship. The Marriott name is particularly helpful for attracting high-spending Americans, who place lots of value on such global hotel brands.
The dollar is still king – American customers generate about 12pc of its business. "We just don't have the same kind of wealth in Europe as they do in the States" says Hanley. "They're in a different league. It's like that story about Oprah Winfrey – yes she's rich, but it's the guy who owns the television network who is wealthy. Well, Europe is Oprah, and the US owns the network."
The UK, he says, has yet to return to its former glory in terms of tourism revenues. "Things are back up and running but it will be two or three years before that market fully recovers".
The typical Shelbourne customer is single, travelling on business and tends to be male – but Hanley is quick to emphasise that there's no set type. "We're not just full of suits" he says. "Lots of people save up to come for a special occasion."
He pauses to greet head chef Garry Hughes, who recommends tempura-coated fish and chips for lunch. It's delicious. Hughes is just back from a scouting trip to the UK, where one of his main tasks was to gather ideas for "the most impeccable afternoon tea you can possible think of".
The hotel has seven different dining experiences, as they are known, including a newly-opened oyster bar. "You have to be constantly innovating" says Hanley. "You can't give people any reason not to use the hotel."
But running a famous and glitzy institution on one of Dublin's busiest streets doesn't come without it's perils. "The hotel is exposed 24/7" he says. "Anyone can walk in, in any state, and we do get the odd breakdown or public drunkenness. But guest expectations are so high that when things go wrong, we are on it. And we take endless precautions – we don't have one boiler, we have five, that kind of thing. But we are very good at dealing with it."
There is a long pause when I ask what he is most proud of. "Our sales team are incredible" he says. "If they can't get in the door, they go through the letterbox. They have an especially good relationship with lots of different embassies – but the Obamas came to us."
He clearly loves his job, one he gained through the traditional route – hard graft. After a degree in Hotel Management at Shannon College he worked for a variety of hotels in Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, Canada and the US. "You just have to get on with it, do the long hours, work Christmasses. There's no substitute for hard work. But I'd 100pc recommend it – after all, how many jobs allow you to sit down for lunch in the Shelbourne every day?