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First published in the Hotel & Restaurant Times 2018

I’m sitting in the classically elegant Chinese Drawing room in the heart of the original Straffan House on a dark misty November day. I’m with Michael Davern, The Chief Executive of The K Club and a world leading hotelier. On days like this, home fires, fresh coffee, served in antique silver and tempting homemade cookies, it’s an easy Tuesday afternoon. Then again, doesn’t true service always seem easy? We are talking hotels, what’s coming, what’s missing and more.

When Hugh Barton of the world famous Barton and Guestier Wines decided to build a palatial pile just outside Dublin, his own vision in 1832 still stands and evolves today. When you see the autumnal setting it’s easy to see why he picked Straffan.

The K Club, Ireland’s First AA 5 Red Star Hotel, is a luxury resort nestled in the beautiful county of Kildare, where the River Liffey meanders through the soft green countryside. A long-standing member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts, The K Club has pioneered 5 star service in Ireland from the very moment it opened in 1991.

Michael Davern was born in Cashel, Co. Tipperary and, living close to the iconic Rock of Cashel, it wasn’t long before he was exposed to tourists and tourism. Frequently, the great and good were in town to see the rock and later enjoy the legendary Cashel Palace Hotel, a hotel that was punching way above its weight then. I wasn’t long before the world renowned Shannon College of Hotel Management was on Michael’s radar.

Davern’s career has already included some of the best names in hospitality: Trust House Forte, Fancourt in South Africa, Sandy Lane in Barbados and back to the K Club in 2005 where he is now CEO and holds the honour of hosting the 2006 Ryder Cup.

Always enthusiastic, positive, calm and an intense listener, this tapestry of precious experience has honed Davern into a leader with purpose and a rich pool of wisdom. It would be difficult not to let the influence of bosses like Dermot Desmond and Dr. Michael Smurfit colour your thinking and sharpen your purpose.

Sometimes the best conversations are not prescriptive, you just let them flow. So it was when we met and it wasn’t long before that tipping point that moves you into an elite group becomes evident.

Michael Davern is used to being around the rich, the famous, the ordinary and the extraordinary. It doesn’t faze him and he draws a clear line between who he is and what he does. Often, slightly star struck friends might probe the understated discreet armour that comes with years of exposure to bright lights. “What’s he like?” laughs Michael as if he could give an immediate run down on their entire personality “I’ve no idea, I’m the hotel manager. I meet them, I introduce myself, I welcome them and they are gone on to their room or event. Why would they be interested in who I am?”

It might sound humble but it’s more than that. It’s self-awareness and not long before we talk about the importance of self-management. Davern says: “Success as an hotelier is a lot about self-discipline and dedication. You have to be observant, you have to have lots of common sense, you have to be able to weigh up the problem, the opportunity or whatever is going on around you and then you have to make a decision about how you are going to react to that situation”

It’s easy to have fairly standard polite conversations with people about training, vision, the future and more but what makes any conversation memorable, is that you come away wiser and with new thinking. Training and Development is all too easily answered by stock clichés “We invest in people” “We believe in training” and even “We don’t believe in it”. I’m often reminded of the simple line that says “If you think hiring professionals is expensive then try hiring amateurs”
When people say “We need more training” It’s always revealing to follow that with “In what?” It doesn’t take long before the conversation gets stuck and this, in itself is indicative of an internal problem. Training needs to have a clear purpose with a measurable outcome, without that, it’s useless. It’s our first subject and one Michael Davern is clear about.

“Skills based training needs to be brought back. The basic skills. Skills where people know how to serve and understand that it is a service rather than a job”.

There is the well-worn line that stands up timelessly “I won’t remember what you said. I will remember how you made me feel”. This is at the heart of the difference between good and great service. It’s an attitude and this leads to the need for specific training that reflects hotels today:
“There is an urgent need for social skills training” Says Davern. “The formality is gone and, especially at the luxury end, it is expected even by the youngest technology millionaire. Many young hospitality entrants talk inappropriately to guests and too many will use casual language that simply doesn’t fit. The “Hi Guys” greeting is simply inappropriate and this kind of casual talk is not right”

Of course, attitude is the difference between memorable and a nightmare. Attitude includes preparation and says Davern: “My mantra has always been to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. It has served me well”. A career under great businessmen begins to show its mark and in ‘Dancing at the Fountain – In conversation with world leading hoteliers’, it’s not long before the influence of Dr. Smurfit comes through:

“I learnt from Dr. Smurfit one great mantra – management is very simple: it’s Step 1, 2, 3, problem, solution, implementation. That’s it”

Soon, more Smurfit wisdom appears and another pearl is revealed: “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best”

The hotel business, unlike a factory with automation, runs on people. People often run on emotion, conditioning, and their own experiences. Davern shares a view that is not obvious but also shows patience, understanding and why this theme of self-management is vital. “What can look easy in my life might be very difficult for others. Were they trained? What did they do before they came here? Have we explored that fully? For example, take the young manager who is now interviewing people. Does he know the law, the boundaries and the methods? It’s our duty to make sure they know what they are doing before we ask anyone to do anything”

In ‘Can You Manage?’ there’s a short piece on how managers remember the best Boss they had. Inevitably, as the book points out, they are described universally as ‘Tough but Fair’ and, curiously, never ‘Fair but Tough’. Although empathetic, patient and objective, Davern knows when he must rise his troops and that is essential for his personal philosophy of “Dealing with today whilst planning for tomorrow”. Values matter to Davern and when lines are crossed, the steel can appear:
“I have noticed a trend where people start to rationalise their mistakes. People can start to believe and quickly justify it. Let me give you an example. I ask someone ‘How did that go?’ they might reflect briefly and then there’s an instant debrief with some analysis. When I was training, learning and coming through the ranks, that’s where it stopped”

Good leaders have the intuitive art of seeing the future as well as making the complex seem simple. The late Lord Ballyedmond, Eddie Haughey, Norbrook Laboratories said: “If you don’t have a vision, it’s very hard to have a starting point”

Vision is the difference between leaders and managers. One sees, the other implements, both are essential. So what does Davern see?

“Technology has changed our business so much. This has a down side, we can assume the experts are experts in house but are they? Take revenue management for example. The learning and updating of this and IT needs to be continual and constantly refreshed. You can be out of date so fast. Sometimes management can be devoid or even abdicate from technology. Equally, young people have become too addicted to it and quickly forget the guest. I have seen the shift too where people get completely hypnotised by phrases like ‘the importance of owning the data, really? Then, of course, there’s the obsession with figures, likes and views. My question is always simple: What did that do for our business? it’s called ‘reputation management’. The principles haven’t changed”

By now the soft lights, soft music and soft sun are starting to set. The Liffey is throwing up its evening mist once more, the evening is upon us and we walk to the door. Time flies with Michael Davern and driving home, it’s the difference in the detail that sets him apart. Detail in what he sees, detail in what you didn’t say but he heard and detail in where he spots the gaps in strategy, leadership, operations and management. There’s much food for thought and just as I’m overflowing new thinking, he sees me off with this thought:

“There’s always a crisis in our business and although you can’t possibly be there for all of them, you need to be there for most of them”

With that, he was gone back into the hotel. No doubt, another problem, solution, implementation was already being managed.

 

Michael Davern will be the guest workshop leader for the final day of the 6 day University Awarded 2018 Certificate in Hotel Leadership at Shannon College of Hotel Management in association with Conor Kenny & Associates (January – February 2018)