Ask the Manager: Allen Flynn, co-owner of the 18th century Old Ground Hotel in the heart of Ennis, Co. Clare, part of the Flynn Hotel Collection.
Can I have a short biography of your career?
My parents returned from New York in the 1960s and bought hotels in Galway and Dungarvan, and once my siblings and I were old enough we started to pitch in.
I studied finance at NIHE Limerick – now the University of Limerick. After graduation, I moved to New York to work for PWC. I had no intention of joining the family business. However, nine years later in 1995, on a visit home I drove through Ennis and passed the Old Ground Hotel – a place I fondly remember my mother bringing me to.
A few days later, I saw that the hotel was for sale in the Independent property supplement – it was fate. I didn’t think I stood a chance, but I bid on the property and the rest is history. Since then, my brothers and I have combined our properties into the Flynn Hotel Collection. That also includes the Park Hotel in Dungarvan, the Newpark Hotel in Kilkenny, and we bought The Imperial Hotel in Cork together in 1999.
When did the Old Ground Hotel open and what it’s history?
Built in the early part of the 18th Century as a private dwelling, the manor house has been a hotel since 1895 and re-opened under our ownership in September 1995. We’ve undertaken five major refurbishments and extensions, bringing it from 11 bedrooms to 108 and it is now a 4-star hotel.
It is steeped in history, full of character, and has a real ‘home away from home’ feel. Areas that I love include an old fireplace in the reception area, our extensive art collection and a private library to snuggle up with a book.
The Old Ground has a long tradition and connection to the people of County Clare. Indeed, it played its part in the Republic’s tumultuous beginnings and our Town Hall Bistro was formerly a jail. The main hotel restaurant was renamed The Brendan O’Regan Room in honour of the rich connection between the O’Regan family, the hotel and Shannon Airport.
As the Old Ground is in the town of Ennis, have you been able to provide outdoor dining?
While the last 18 months has been incredibly difficult for our industry, it has given us an opportunity to renovate and to innovate our outdoor space. We have added 120 seats for outdoor dining in our new pop-up garden eatery, The Poet’s Garden. The area also has sustainable heating and is thankfully very busy.
How has business been since you reopened?
We’ve been pleasantly surprised with the increase in staycations this year. When the country reopened, we were expecting two thirds of our usual occupancy rate for the summer season. Usually Ennis would have been very much geared towards the American market, because of its proximity to Shannon airport. However, we ended up running at occupancy in excess of 80% because of a huge increase in demand from domestic tourists.
I put this down to a combination of changing our strategy and a natural increase in domestic traffic to all Irish hotels. We actively went after the domestic family market for the first time by introducing family packages and re-configuring our bedrooms to make them more family friendly, with interlinking rooms and teepees for kids.
Clare was also a top destination this summer for domestic tourists who wanted to get away from it all. The Old Ground is ideally positioned to explore all the main attractions from the Cliffs of Moher to the Burren, Bunratty Castle and the majestic Shannon estuary.
How have you coped with staff shortages, if you had any?
Like the rest of the country, our staffing levels have been heavily impacted by the pandemic. A lot of our employees were from Eastern Europe and went home to family over the past year, and it’s very difficult to recruit in the industry at present.
However, one upside is that we are delighted to now employ more people than ever from our local community. We’ve introduced training programmes for staff aged 16-18 years old, an age group that traditionally would not have found employment readily available. We hope they will stay with us for years to come.
One of the most important things that I learnt from my parents about running a hotel is to make sure your business is embedded in the local community. This is what got us through seven years of the last recession and I think it will get us through this pandemic.
What plans have you got to enhance guest experience?
We will be launching our petit spa shortly, a spa treatment room for guests to enjoy a little added indulgence during their stay. We have lots of added extras for kids, including fun teepees in bedrooms. We’re partnering with local attractions and festivals to offer added value to guests.
We’re working with the local Chamber of Commerce on an immersive shopping experience in the town. We’re creating packages to attract the over 50s market, who will hopefully start booking once the busy summer family season is over.
How are bookings going, what is the autumn looking like?
We’re cautiously optimistic about the future. My team and I are collaborating on a number of festivals and events, which should attract footfall in the autumn. We’re also getting ready to launch our Be-Leaf Autumn sale.
For just seven days from Tuesday 31 August to 7 September, seasonable savvy savers can snap up a break with breakfast for 20% less, and we’re also giving a €21 food voucher. We hope this will give domestic bookings for the season ahead a good boost.
Of course, without a concrete decision on what’s happening at Shannon it’s difficult to say how we’ll fare going forward. We need direct access into Heathrow and we need transatlantic flights again. Aer Lingus’ decision to close its base has had a huge impact on the region, and everything needs to be done to get these reinstated.
The Old Ground is popular with visitors from the United States, are there any signs of this market recovering yet?
We’re expecting 2022 to be a strong year, given indicators from our American partners, and there has been a trickle of unexpected business from September. However, Covid-19 has forced us all to relook at our business models and may stop us from putting too much reliance on one particular market in the future. We hope to continue to attract family visitors who had a positive experience this year.
Where are your guests coming from mainly?
Our guests are coming from all over the country as Clare is such a popular and accessible location. An outdoor based staycation is also top priority for many this year.
We’ve also had a notable increase in guests from Northern Ireland, who traditionally went overseas or to the East Coast of Ireland.