Ballygarry Estate Hotel & Spa proprietor Padraig McGillicuddy spoke to Radio Kerry’s Amber Galwey on In Business in August 2022.
Post-Covid Business Is Good
Padraig: This year at Ballygarry Estate Hotel & Spa was probably in the busiest year we've ever had in our 64 years of trading through the three generations, and it's superb. We have residual business from last year and the year before in events and banqueting and then everything else is just very busy. Because some other places are not catering at the same level that they did pre COVID, as in some venues or hotels are not doing food for the public, it's making us busier. Our business offering is doing very good in that we've got a very strong Brasserie business, we've got a very strong spa business and then our weddings, events, bedroom and whatnot are all doing very well.
Amber: That's fantastic and very well deserved after such a difficult two years, if not more, so it's great to see it back in busier than ever.
Padraig: Yeah and we were very fortunate in that we took the time through COVID to plan ahead, we acquired 70 acres surrounding the hotel and then we've repositioned ourselves as an estate and we have now got our new lodge where you can have your wedding ceremony on site. In July and August, we had 19 Weddings on site in the lodge at Ballygarry Estate Hotel & Spa, this changes the dynamic completely because they're earlier check ins and the guests have that luxury of lounging around for that half hour before the ceremony.
So the weddings are here earlier, we're busier earlier in the day and they're destination weddings now more than ever, where they are a two and three-day event. They have a barbecue on the second day after the wedding, and often just the spa then on day three for the remaining families. It's a new dynamic and we're probably well worthy of it after all the investment we made through the lockdown and the hardship of it. But, you know, we're just delighted to be trading delighted to be open and we’ll never again complain about a busy day.
Amber: You've mentioned the changes and the massive investment you've put into the place in recent years, but did you ever envisage that Ballygarry Estate Hotel & Spa would reach the scale that it's at now?
Padraig: No, I suppose I couldn't have because the external factors that lent themselves to be where it's positioned. Now, if you will recall, or some of your readers will recall where the main road from Killarney to Tralee was, it literally ran straight through our Brasserie. So that was number one, when that was moved a couple of 100 metres away from the hotel it created a massive opportunity, once we had acquired the land from the neighbour. Also, the dual carriageway that runs on the western side of the hotel, we acquired another piece of land there in two different stages. So that was three tranches of land the hotel acquired.
The last large portion we acquired was 70 acres that takes us from what was 10 acres up to over 100 acres now. This autumn, we will connect with Ballyseedy woods with the two bridges that have been built by the council and should be finished and open for next year. So essentially, Ballygarry Estate Hotel & Spa presents as a 180-acre estate through Ballyseedy woods as well, even though we only own 100 acres of it. But yeah, it's changed the dynamic completely as a hotel. And it was those external factors that I had no control over that were you know, we often say, luck, and certainly there's a good element of luck in business, but there's no doubt hard work also. But luck plays a big part.
TAKING OVER THE BUSINESS
Amber: You would have been in your mid 20's when you took over the business. What was it like taking it over? Was it daunting? Or how did you feel about it?
Padraig: I was in my mid 20's when my father passed away, and it was absolutely daunting, but I kind of just took it at a day at a time. Looking back now you'd say God, how did you manage it? and when you see 25-year-olds coming up now? You think God... would they be able for it or whatever. But you know, it's just as it presents itself you find strength every day, I parked my personal life, I missed so many friends, stags and weddings and everything like that. I just had no option, I had to put my head down and get buried into it. Then there was the revenue issue on year two with the estate, and I had to deal with that, which just got me more and more engrossed. I had no option but just work hard.
I put the head down for maybe 10 hard years, but I was surrounded by superb people when my father passed away and I still am. A lot of them still are with me, but some have retired, they really were the backbone and they watched out for me, they knew there was a bigger picture and a longer transition from father to son. There was some of the things I was coming up with like building a spa and some thought that's crazy, that won't work, but then it worked.
We then built the Pavilion as an event centre, some thought that's a bit excessive, and it worked. So, I suppose after a while you gain credibility with your team and they're like, right, maybe, maybe he's doing something right and it just took from there, I was leading and they were following and we just became this dynamic team.
I have some staff who have worked for our family for over 30 years. And they really are the backbone with all of their service experience and whatnot. I mean, we joke with one of our managers here at Thys, is with us 11 years, and he calls himself the newbie. So, you know, the length of services is massive in the industry. And it was what probably transitioned me from taking over my father in my mid 20s. So fantastic. I mean, I won't complain, it was very hard. It was very challenging with hard work, but sure that's life, you know.
Amber: It's very telling to see that you have staff who are there for so many years. I mean, it's a sign of a great business and a lovely place to work when you can say staff are with you for over 30 years.
Padraig: I don't like hierarchical systems of management, where you've got this big boss sitting in an office all day long and that he or she is never seen on the floor, I get stuck in with all the team here when I need to. We have 160 staff over seven departments, they need good guidance and leadership, they need praise, they need reward, they need to be acknowledged, you need to know when they're having issues at home or whatever. We have strong HR management and whatnot, so they keep me in tune with the whole lot. But we throw off the jacket and get stuck in, there's no airs of graces in Ballygarry, we just get on with the job.
We're a happy bunch, there's always giggling and laughing behind the scenes in the kitchens and whatnot, they're a fun bunch to work with. They don't need a lot of discipline or direction from us, the older staff give them their direction. And it works. Thankfully,
Amber: That's fantastic. Padraig, people who were regulars to Ballygarry, or even just people passing by would have noticed a name change with yourselves in recent months, what inspires you to pursue the estate route?
Padraig: Yeah, a good question. So, we started in 1958, as the Manhattan Hotel. Why? Because one of the investors Ted Keane had a restaurant in Manhattan and I suppose Manhattan was really in vogue back then, and it was really hip cool name to have. And they went with that long before I was ever around. And then in '82, my father changed back to the original name of the house, Ballygarry House Hotel.
In 2004 or 2005, I added the spa, so it was Ballygarry Hotel and Spa. We were thinking of going down the road of country house and then we acquired the land of the estate. So, we brought Failte Ireland on board, and said, look, help us identify who we are, we're kind of getting a small bit lost here, are we the country house anymore? Are we something else? Are we a resort hotel, which would normally be where you'd have a golf course or a lot of onsite amenities for kids like swimming pools and slides and all this kind of thing. And well, we weren't any of that.
It just kind of came to us through help from Failte Ireland and seeing that we really are becoming an estate property, which identifies itself as a large dwelling on a parcel of land owned by an individual. If you Google it, that's typically what it will come up for an estate, we kind of identified with that idea that fits who we are. It kind of lends itself to where we want to go with more onsite leisure amenities, not you know, golf courses, who would want to compete with the calibre of links courses around the Kerry coastline.
So, you know, all in all, it just lends itself to say yeah, Ballygarry Estate is where we are at now. People always just call it Ballygarry anyway so whatever we tagged on after Ballygarry, we knew people would just identify with Ballygarry. So we just made the name Ballygarry more pronounced, identified it more on our signage and then it just followed as estate.
Amber: I know sustainability is something that you're very big on in Ballygarry Estate Hotel & Spa, can you just explain to people who maybe aren't too familiar with this, what sustainability means? And I suppose how you apply it into yourselves in Ballygarry Estate?
Padraig: Yeah, I identify the word sustainability with the impact we will make for the next generation, that's simplifying it. If we're using, fossil fuels and burning excess of everything and over consuming, well, then we're just robbing from the generations to come and from what the planet and the resources have and can give back. So essentially, what we did in Ballygarry Estate Hotel & Spa, we started with our recycling and making sure we were trying to split everything. Our landfill is about half of what it used to be even though we're nearly twice as busy as we once were. Recycling, plastics, glass and cardboard, that kind of was our starting point.
Having acquired the land, we took inspiration from our Spa Manager Gina, who is a keen beekeeper and has her own apiary at home, so she established an apiary here at the hotel. We also put in a wildflower meadow to support the apiary because the Native Irish Honey Bee is in decline which led us to be declared a national conversation area for that bee. So again, that was giving back to just regenerating Native Irish Honey Bees ensuring that they have a future.
We put in an integrated constructed wetland, known as an ICW, which is basically all the wet waste from the hotel flows by gravity down into ponds. There are four ponds which are about an acre and a half each, the water filters through reedbeds construction with bugs and bacteria and everything, nature runs its course and at the far end, water comes out absolutely pure, and is tested in a laboratory every month. So that means we were no longer discharging beyond our license & that waste is treated organically. That was with Kerry County Council and John Breen's initiative really.
And then, all of the energy we buy is renewable, so, we don't have any fossil fuels for Ballygarry anymore and all of our gas was offset on a plantation in Turkey. That meant that all the carbon we burned here with offset elsewhere, but I wasn't keen on that and I wanted to offset it on site. So, we planted 29,000 trees, they will offset the carbon. So, you know, all in all, we've got a very sustainable property. Now, we're going fitting a solar farm this October on site, which will be a very significant investment, but it will carry we think about 40% of the energy requirement of the hotel.
Lastly, what we plan on doing is adding sustainable pods for onsite residential. So basically, you will be able to stay for two or three nights in these cabins on the estate down by the woods that will have their own solar power and will have their waste go into the integrated wetlands. So basically, your stay has zero impact on nature. That will be in the next three years, we hope.
There's talk of doing a growing more of our vegetables on site and using our own coffee grinds, and our eggshells and all that compost to support that. It’s a never-ending journey. I'm sure there'll be another idea coming up next month and the month after, we've just got to see what's financially viable, what lends itself towards our sustainability core values, and, and whatnot.
So that's sustainability in a long-winded story. And that's how we're applying it at Ballygarry Estate Hotel & Spa.
CHALLENGES of COVID
Amber: From our chats we know that you've achieved so much during your 30-year career, but what would have been your greatest challenge so far Do you think?
Padraig: Three things come to mind, but I would have to say COVID, it decimated our industry, it really violated our people. We had so many challenges, so many risks to take going through it. I remember sitting here with Thys one day saying what are we going to do? We're heading into another lockdown with the Christmas of 2020. I'm confused at this stage, but we had to decide, will we keep the staff on the books or do we have to let them all off. And I just couldn't do it, I couldn't let them off the books.
We had to work out a way to keep them when we thought we would have six to eight weeks, and then it went on for nearly six months. We were losing 5 to 10 grand a week, even though we had the massive support from the government, which was incredible, but still, just the cost of keeping a building like this and keeping some residual heat coming through it is a lot. And so, we stayed with it, and 100% of our team came back to work, which was absolutely incredible, because I've heard other stories where hotels weren't as fortunate.
And then you're thinking of the mental well-being of the staff, and you're trying to interact with them, through online platforms and whatnot, and your own mental health and trying to stay looking at the future and saying, "God, hold on, can we weather this storm?" When you come through then, you get back up, you fire back up, you go through all the bumps in the road and now we're having the most successful season we've ever had in guest satisfaction. We're now ranked number two in Ireland on TripAdvisor which is fantastic. We have our concierge Noel who promised me we're going to get to position number one this year. After that, I think I'll retire Amber haha. It'll be a downhill journey after that. That's my ultimate goal. But I'll answer your question. I think COVID has been the greatest challenge in my career so far
A CAREER IN HOSPITALITY
Amber: I can imagine it's been very difficult Padraig, you kind of touched on it there. But hospitality many people would describe it as a vocation. I suppose it's tough hours, it's not sociable hours, what do you think needs to be done to kind of attract the next generation into the industry?
Padraig: Well, to answer the first part, you know, is it difficult work is or is it a way of life? That's the way I look at it. I don't say I go to work and it's hard for work, because that's just a negative attitude that will get you nowhere anyway. If you approach your job with a negative attitude, you're going to come home with the negative vibes, so I think you just approach it and saying, God, you know, I really love my job, which I do. I think if you're going to hit hospitality, you've got to love doing it. I often, equated it to being a farmer, it's a tough, tough career. You work all the hours of the day and you've got to deal with all the challenges throughout the day.
What will be done for the next generation to want to work in this? Well, conditions in our industry have improved immensely, the rates of pay are way, way above what they used to be. So those in the industry are demanding more. But we have a residual problem from the 70s and 80s, where this industry was abused, there is no two ways about it and our predecessors, underpaid people, the terms and conditions and the length of hours of work weren't right, the conditions they worked in, the staff dining menus and whatnot, weren't right and there was no support for mental health. A lot of that wasn't even identified back then.
But now, it's an industry where you can have a full career and two things have happened, we're dealing with a very, very educated society in Ireland, so we don't get people who want to pursue a career as a barman or bar manager, like it was in the 70s and 80s, somebody would be very proud to be the head waiter of an established hotel in the 80s and that was a very well-respected career. That has changed because everyone is pursuing a third level education, and they want better things for themselves.
But in this industry, you'll find a lot of kids get into it to support themselves through college or whatever and a lot of it sticks. I've got seven or eight young boys and girls in their 20s now who are who are working with us, and IT Tralee as part of the trainee management development programmes. They will become trained hospitality managers through a four-year programme, comprising of onsite training and college education at the same time. So, both work very well hand in hand.
I think it's about finding the people who love this industry you know, people say, "Oh, I love nine to five, Monday to Friday", fine, if that's your thing, but I've never known different. I love taking a midday week off, when there's less demand, less queues and less pressure on places, at the weekend everything's manic. With my career and those involved in the career, in your 20s, you socialise together on a Tuesday, Wednesday night or whatever as those would be your typical hospitality nights off. So, it's just a little different, we're off the normal sync of what everyone else does on a Monday to Friday.
But, you know, the fun in the industry is great, starting out as a young person you have great opportunities within a hotel environment, you could be in the beverage trade, you can be in the food industry, you could be cheffing, and within cheffing there's probably seven or eight different types of chefs, specialising in pastry or breakfast, or a la carte or whatever type of dining. Then you've got digital management, revenue management, you've got human resource management, you've got sales and marketing, there are so many diverse areas.
When you think of spa, there's spa management, the clerical side of a spa, spa therapist, spa assistant etc. People don't realise how many opportunities there are within the hotel sector and how diverse it is within the business itself. I have never counted, but I'm sure there's 30 different positions available in this particular model of hotel over the seven different departments.
The work life balance has improved enormously in the hotel industry, holiday requests are met, nearly every time and everyone just gets on with it. And if you create a happy environment for your team, by ticking all those boxes, that will reflect in the guest, happy team, happy guest, it really works here at Ballygarry Estate Hotel & Spa.
BECOMING A SUCCESSFUL MANAGER
Amber: Padraig, you're obviously a very successful manager yourself, but what traits would you attribute to someone who is a successful manager, I suppose what qualities would you kind of pinpoint?
Padraig: Well, leadership, ultimately, you have got to be a good strong leader for people to want to follow you, we've always aspired to get there. You've got to be an innovator, a delegator, a communicator, you've got to be able to be a problem solver. The attributes are multiple, because it's very, very diverse, I don't know, in the next five minutes, what's going to happen in this industry. And that's what I love about it. It's so diverse, the alarm could go off in two minutes. Next of all, we're in 20 minutes of pandemonium, and you're dealing with it, and you get through it. And that's fine. And you know, every hour, there's another episode in your day.
The attributes for a manager are multiple, I don't know how you even limit them, to have some knowledge of landscaping, have a good knowledge of food, have a knowledge of the spa industry. For a general manager, you have a knowledge of everything, but you're not a specialist in anything, I would always say that all of my managers are stronger than me at their specific areas, my revenue manager, my marketing manager, HR manager, spa manager, accountant, you know, they're all better than me at their jobs. And I want them to be better because I want to be just the general manager and I will liaise with them. But I don't need to be specialists in their field. Let them be strong with what they do.
The weak general managers are threatened by those people and I see them failing because they don't want anyone to be stronger than them. That’s probably a personal opinion, and people will differ in that. But that's my experience to date is that, a strong leader will support themselves with stronger people, and a weak leader will want to be champion.
LOOKING FORWARD TO THE FUTURE
Amber: That's very interesting and very true, it's great to have such a great team around you. Padraig, I suppose just before I let you go, we've talked so much about the many different projects that you've taken on board over the last few years, and just the amount of work you've done at the hotel just to improve it and just to make it a fantastic experience. But where would you like to see Ballygarry go over the next 20 years?
Padraig: That's an interesting question. Because, who would have thought 20 years ago, when we were at the side of the road trading away, and my father was running it very, very well, but who would have thought it would arrive to where it is now on 100 acres and 160 odd staff, 100,000 square feet and trebled the revenue who knew that. At the end of the day, 20 years from now, I guess we've probably paved the way like it was for me, for its next journey.
I think, what I will be seeing out in my career is additional bedrooms, because the food and beverage side is a very, very hard day to day challenge, bedrooms are a lot easier to maintain, and service and sell, than trying to maintain food all day every day. Food is a very opinionated industry, and you'll have four or five people getting the same food and have all have different opinions of it so that's a challenging industry. We will develop more bedrooms and accommodation offerings in the log pads I was talking about.
We'll have a spa development because the demand for in North Kerry is vast for Nadur spa. We have the full planning ready to rock, we were supposed to roll it out in six weeks time, but we've paused it for a year because of the advice of our design team, it's just cost prohibitive right now. We'll probably roll those two developments out together a bedroom offering and a spa offering, hopefully to start construction in September '23 and have it open for the season of '24. After that, I don't know what's next, I suppose I'm heading for 50 and I'll need to slow down some bit, and maybe take back some of the hours I didn't get in my 20s and 30s.
But the future is bright, the future is long, Ballygarry will be here long after I'll be here. It really is an institution at this stage, people have so many memories between staff and customers of so many different events in the history here. It's given a lot of people starts in their careers wherever the diversify to so it's a long future ahead for it. It'll just be about having the right person to run it after me and let's see where they go from there.
Amber: Absolutely. And we look forward to seeing what you're doing. There's always something exciting happening there which is great and look, the very best of luck with it. And thank you for taking the time to join me on the show.
Every Thursday 6 to 7pm you can find out about what's happening In Business in Kerry on Radio Kerry with Mary Gallagher