Friday 16 November 2018

Ireland of the Welcomes: What are the secret ingredients that make the Irish welcome so special?

What makes the Irish welcome so special? Meadhbh McGrath talks to Reader Travel Awards winners and judges to find out...

Service with a smile: Garret Fitzgerald of Brother Hubbard. Photo: Tony Gavin
Service with a smile: Garret Fitzgerald of Brother Hubbard. Photo: Tony Gavin
Special welcome: "Cead mile failte"
Laura Kelly of Kellys in Rosslare
B&B Ireland - a traditional Irish welcome

Meadhbh McGrath

The Irish are famous for Guinness, for rain and rich green landscapes, but above all, we're known for our warm welcome. It's celebrated by writers, musicians and critics around the world.

For years, the tourism industry has built entire campaigns around "Ireland of the Welcomes", and we're following in that tradition by adding a new category for 'Best Irish Welcome' to our 2019 Reader Travel Awards (vote now, and you could win a holiday).

So what makes the Irish welcome so special?

Niall Tracey, one of this year's judges and Director of Marketing for Fáilte Ireland, explains the simple-yet-powerful formula: a friendly smile, a helpful manner and genuine interest in the people around us.

"Whether they're Germans or Americans or British, what visitors constantly come back to is the people they engaged with," he says. "When we ask visitors what it is about the people, it's the smile. Irish people will smile at you, and without a word, that smile uniquely says, 'I'm not a threat, I'm only here to help, how are you getting on?' A smile can say so much, and that gets mentioned a lot.

"Then there's our helpfulness - the fact that Irish people will actively go up to someone on the street looking at a map, and say, 'Are you okay? Can I help you?' That doesn't happen in other countries. That's a big part of it.

B&B Ireland - a traditional Irish welcome
B&B Ireland - a traditional Irish welcome

"The other thing is there's a genuineness to the Irish - they're not being polite because they've been trained to be, it's very relaxed. It's not manufactured friendliness, it's a really authentic connection. They feel Irish people are genuinely interested in where they came from and why they came here, even to the point where the Irish love to say, 'Do you know what you should do…' and give them recommendations of where to go. It really makes Ireland quite magical compared to other destinations."

The welcome is particularly important to tourism, he adds, because it has a lasting impact, often prompting visitors to recommend Ireland to friends and family.

"You want visitors to leave Ireland not only having had a fantastic experience, but for them to become advocates of Ireland, to want to share their experience. That stays with people, and it's one of our best advertisements globally. That word of mouth is so important to us," he says.

Making a strong first impression is vital, adds Garrett Fitzgerald of Dublin's Brother Hubbard cafes, which won 'Best Breakfast' in our 2018 Reader Travel Awards.

"We find that on a Thursday, Friday and again on a Monday, we get a lot of people arriving with suitcases - they've just arrived in or are leaving Dublin. We're often the first and/or last stop for people, and we take that very seriously. Whether they're tourists or not, we put a lot of emphasis on how we greet people and make sure they're really well looked after," he explains.

Of course, an Irish welcome doesn't have to mean a traditional cup of tea and soda bread slathered in butter. At Brother Hubbard, food is inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine, and has proved a huge draw for visitors from the UK, Germany, America and Japan - particularly the Turkish eggs menemen, which, Garrett notes with pride, a family from Istanbul recently described as "the best they'd ever had". It's illustrative of how the Irish welcome has evolved over time and endures in a modern age.

Laura Kelly of Kellys in Rosslare
Laura Kelly of Kellys in Rosslare
Service with a smile: Garret Fitzgerald of Brother Hubbard. Photo: Tony Gavin

Garrett notes that the tourist market has become increasingly important to his business in the six years since Brother Hubbard opened, and that the cafes have begun offering customers a free brochure with local recommendations for what to see and do in the city. "I do feel that we're ambassadors in a way. Your first experience of a place will influence how you feel about the rest of your time there, so we view it as very important," he adds.

Garrett grew up in Adare, Co Limerick, where his parents ran a guesthouse on their farm for overseas visitors flying in to Shannon airport.

"Their first night in Ireland would have been spent with us in our B&B. This was obviously before the internet, and my folks would sit down and help them map out their tour of Ireland, recommend places to eat and to stay and things like that," he recalls.

"That was part of growing up, and that's how I behave around people who come into the cafe. The Irish have a very open approach to how we engage with people - we tend to be a little less reserved than some other cultures can be when you first engage. The fact that we speak English is a big advantage, and then it's really about us being open, friendly, a bit gregarious. We have a reputation for being fun-loving and chatty. Perhaps it can be a bit cliched, but of course I genuinely want people to enjoy their visit not only to Brother Hubbard but to Dublin."

For Laura Kelly, manager of Kelly's Resort Hotel in Rosslare, "It's not just a welcome, it's a welcome back." The hotel, named 'Ireland's Favourite Place to Stay' in last year's Reader Travel Awards, measures success not on the number of bookings, but on the number of repeat bookings it receives. "In Kelly's, we try to create a home away from home. A true testament to the hotel and the service that we give is when a customer will come back again, because that means that they were satisfied, they enjoyed themselves and they were well looked-after," says Laura.

"When we talk about a welcome in the hotel, of course there's myself and my father and my grandmother, but I think it's very important that it's not just a welcome from us but from the entire team here. As managers, we can get the physical product right and make sure that the hotel is okay, but it's really the staff more than anything that give the hotel its personality. It's because of them that customers come back again and again."

Laura, too, believes that an Irish welcome is about the small yet meaningful gestures, such as offering to bring a pot of tea to a guest's room if they've come in from the rain. She instils in all of her team the value of creating "wow" moments - when a party arrive for a big birthday celebration or a 50th wedding anniversary, staff will supply one of the hotel's cameras to capture the event, and later put the images together in a photo album when they're leaving. Before returning to her family's hotel in 2014, Laura worked abroad in New York, Singapore and Morocco, where she realised the Irish approach is truly unique.

Pictured at the launch of new routes in Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens was Aer Lingus cabin crew Muriel Cooke. JULIEN BEHAL PHOTOGRAPHY.  
Pictured at the launch of new routes in Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens was Aer Lingus cabin crew Muriel Cooke. JULIEN BEHAL PHOTOGRAPHY.  

"There's nothing like an Irish welcome - it's so friendly, it's so hospitable, and I think Irish people genuinely like to look after people and want to make them happy. That's just in our nature. I've worked in many places before and I've never seen it anywhere else, that's why I like working in Ireland," she says.

Then there is Aer Lingus, voted 'Ireland's Favourite Airline' in 2018. "The welcome we provide is something we really pride ourselves on," says Ruth Ranson, its communications director. "It comes in every aspect of the organisation - we don't refer to 'passengers', they are guests. From the moment you engage with us, from the website to someone at a call centre to the person at check-in, it's about making you feel welcome from the get-go.

"We have such a huge cohort of colleagues around the world, and while our staff aren't necessarily all Irish, people flying Aer Lingus have an Irish experience and an Irish welcome. Colleagues that aren't Irish are trained in that Irish hospitality, and our cabin crew are encouraged to use their own instincts and make people feel welcome: a big smile, offer to help people put their bags away, make an effort with younger passengers, make a comment on the weather - that wouldn't be normal for non-Irish airlines.

"We're aware that traveling can be stressful for people, and we want to ensure that people enjoy their journey and try to take the stress out of it."

Niall Tracey of Fáilte Ireland adds that the Irish tourism industry in general handles training in a way that makes us stand out from other countries.

"It's not all about five-star, linen-tablecloth, absolutely perfect service, but being helpful and supportive of people. As an industry, we've become very good at not taking for granted the fact that we have a very warm, friendly people and staff, and realising this is the magic stuff we can't afford to give up, so we have to nurture and support it."

But it's important to note, Niall emphasises, that the welcome stretches far beyond a visitor's first encounters when they arrive.

"The Irish welcome is more than the welcome. A welcome is the start of something, but an Irish welcome is the whole journey - when they land at the airport and get into a taxi, it's the chat they have there, right through to the reception at the hotel, the walk they take and the people they meet in a park, and through to when they're leaving the country. The welcome is the whole journey, that's what makes it so special."

NB: To cast your vote in the 2019 Reader Travel Awards, and be in with the chance of winning one of seven luxury breaks, visit independent.ie/travelawards or vote here.

Irish Independent

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