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We’re all guilty of it, no matter what role we’re in – immersing ourselves so much in our daily chores, that we miss many business opportunities that pass us by. Or worse still, unwittingly continuing to operate poor practices simply because that’s the way it’s always been. But hospitality doctor Conor Kenny is a man on  a mission to change all that. He and his merry band of industry experts are committed to helping clients see the wood from the trees and develop a strategic, and crucially, an easy to implement business plan for driving profitability and success in the future. He shares his vision with Sarah Grennan.

First things first, we must divulge, Conor Kenny is an old pal of Hotel & Catering Review. Our paths first crossed way back when I, as HCR’s fresh faced cub reporter straight out of journalism school, was sent by then editor Frank Corr to cover a story on a newly refurbished Monaghan hotel (so fresh faced, in fact, that forgot to take any notes and had to ring back afterwards to confirm details – heaven help us). Kenny, as then commercial director of McNally Design/Irish Pub Company was my guide and our paths have regularly crossed ever since as we both progressed our careers – I (despite early blunders) going on to become editor of the bar magazine Licensing World, and then back to Hotel & Catering Review to succeed the retiring Mr Corr, and Kenny going out on his own to set up Conor
Kenny & Associates five years ago.

Such is life that it feels like only yesterday that Conor Kenny & Associates was born, and yet so much has happened to change the direction of Kenny’s business in those five years. Originally established as a design consultancy business catering predominantly to the pub market, the firm was soon pushed in the direction of training as clients soaked up more and more of Kenny’s customer service lessons, gleaned over years of travelling the globe during his tenure  with the Irish Pub Company. They were heady days, when all the world wanted an Irish pub, allowing Kenny to work with a myriad of hospitality businesses, from small Irish bars in Hong Kong, to towering hotel complexes in Vegas. Little wonder he found he had lots to talk about when he got home.

Since then, design has remained a constant service within the firm, not just because of Kenny’s sharp skills in the area but because design and style perform such a vital role in the overall success of any hospitality business. In the meantime, Conor Kenny & Associates’ offering has grown beyond its initial design brief to include strategic planning and training in the areas of customer care and service, sales, marketing and PR and, in the latest string to the bow, operational training and solutions. Simultaneously, Kenny’s client list has spread from his traditional pub base into hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, theatres, fashion design and even celebrity mentoring (not to mention family counselling for favoured clients) and his core hospitality client list includes leading lights in the trade such as Select Hotels of Ireland, Private Ireland, Luttrellstown Castle, Harvey’s Point, Lee Hotels, the Tower Group, Renvyle House, the Westin and Brook Lane to name but a select few.

So what’s the secret to his success? First up, he knows his stuff. He eats, sleeps and drinks hospitality – literally – giving him an expansive knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, a knowledge he’s built up over years of travelling the world, working with the industry. Second of all, he has been blessed with great communication skills, allowing him to devise educational-yet-fun workshops which are a hit with front line workers and managers (check out for testimonials). Thirdly, he has a great eye for talent, knows where to use it, how to get the best out of it, and – unusually for a consultant – learns from it himself to better his own skills. And finally, as those who know him can testify, he’s a charmer – a people person through and through with a natural talent for putting people at ease in stressful situations, such as when a consultant comes in and tells you everything that is wrong with your business.

But it’s Kenny’s unbridled passion for hospitality and good customer care which drives him most. He notes that these are demanding days for the industry, not just because of the overwhelming increase in supply in the hotel trade but because with our new found wealth it is becoming harder and harder to offer customers something that extra bit special. ‘Years ago people used to stay in a hotel because it was a treat, it was better than their own home, but that’s not the case anymore – people have so much money and they invest so much in their homes that it is becoming increasingly difficult for hotels to offer that wow factor. Hoteliers now have to work harder than ever before. The ones that are doing well are doing very, very well but the ones that aren’t have a long way to go.’

While a feel good factor is peddled in the industry, with overseas and domestic tourism numbers hitting an all time high, Kenny warns that a number of hotels are still struggling – particularly with mid-week occupancy. He believes however
that some savvy marketing can put businesses back on track. ‘So many hotels are not creative about how they fill their rooms. They’re very trenchant about rates. It’s not about price, it’s about value. If you put an ad in the Indo offering "2NBB&1D" then why are you surprised that what people talk about is cost? If you talk about the experience then that’s what you will be judged on. Why not offer guests a chance to "unwind in a luxury country retreat where they can escape from it all and be pampered" rather than use abbreviations that no one outside the industry understands?’

With so much new investment in the sector, Kenny notes ‘there’s a lot of nonsense coming in’. He cites as an example a recent stay in a nameless, newly built hotel: ‘It cost 180 for a tiny room and I had the worst night sleep ever. The bed was uncomfortable, I could hear everything going on in the corridor outside all night long and the hotelier had spent more money on the tiles in the bathroom than he had on the essentials. A lot of hotels have become so focused on design that they have forgotten what guests’ primary needs are: (1) a comfortable sleep – that’s why we stay in hotels after all, to sleep (2) good food and (3) the ability to use our laptops without being screwed on price.’ Of course, all of that needs to be married together with good service and Kenny is most vociferous when talking about the standards of service in Irish. Peppering his conversation with the names of hoteliers which are ‘getting it right’ such as Ray Byrne in The Wineport Lodge (‘the only place in the world where I walked in and thought "I can’t teach them anything that they don’t already know"’), Colm Hannon in Luttrellstown Castle (‘if you want to know what five star is all about, then go to Colm’) and Deirdre McGlone in Harvey’s Point (‘the warmest person I’ve ever met, staff imitate their leaders, that’s why the service in Harvey’s Point is so good’), he continuously underlines the importance of investing in staff and training. ‘The guys who are successful are the ones who are constantly investing in their people and constantly looking for new ways to reinvent their offering.’ Little wonder then that staff training is one of the busiest elements of Kenny’s business.

He offers a series of ‘One Day Wonder’ workshops on everything from customer service to brand development which are developed with the client and tailored exclusively for their business to match their requirements and budgets. Most popular is the one-day ‘Ideas Factory’ which helps businesses and their staff develop ‘simple and effective high customer impact ideas’, and new courses delivered by Kenny’s colleague Grace Gallagher include the one to two day ‘Operational Healthchecks with Solutions’, where Gallagher, an ex-Bewleys and Absolute gm, visits hotels to assess where and why they are losing money or losing out on opportunities and provides an easy to implement remedy to the problem. So confident is Kenny in the success of the course he says ‘If we don’t save you money we will give you the course for free’.

In the meantime, as Conor Kenny & Associates celebrates its fifth anniversary and undergoes its own rebranding to reflect the changing direction of the business, Kenny is relishing the diversity. ‘If you asked me what I was going to be doing in five years from now I wouldn’t know – I don’t know what I could be doing next week. This is what I love about my life – I deal with so many wonderful people in so many different areas that I don’t know what my phone is going to bring me when I answer it during the day.’ But whatever it is that life, and his phone, brings him one thing is for sure, Kenny is happiest when he’s dealing with people, mentoring and coaching. ‘Maybe I have a bit of a gift of seeing beyond the fog and helping people to see what they need to do to become more successful.’ Maybe he does.

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