Hospitality at the crossroads

Fergal Ryan, McWilliam Park Hotel, Claremorris

Fergal Ryan, manager of the Mc William Park Hotel Claremorris. Picture; Frank Dolan.

Fergal Ryan, manager of the Mc William Park Hotel Claremorris. Picture; Frank Dolan.

If a crossroad is a watershed indicating a choice to be made, then Claremorris is the crossroad of the west of Ireland.

Situated midway between Galway and Sligo, and only two hours drive from Dublin, Claremorris has become an ideal base from which to explore Mayo and its neighbouring counties.

“It’s a very busy market town with strong community spirit and many attractions, from golf and equestrian to fishing and festivals,” says Fergal Ryan, general manager of Claremorris’ McWilliam Park Hotel.

Now an independent hotel

The McWilliam Park Hotel has now reached its own crossroad and taken a new and clear direction. “We have just parted company with the Best Western hotel group, allowing us to follow a very clear Irish path,” explains Fergal.

“The international brand that is Best Western afforded us tremendous marketing opportunities since we opened in October 2006, but it also constrained the hotel somewhat from imprinting its own local identity on the premises. We ran the two brands — Best Western and McWilliam Park simultaneously, but discovered that our own brand was actually affording us better business opportunities.”

Fergal is now enthusiastically promoting the McWilliam Park as an entirely Irish hotel, sporting a very Irish flavour.

“We fitted the hotel out as far as possible with Irish products, such as the carpets and artwork. Without being clichéd, our aim is to give every visitor, Irish or otherwise, a very traditional Irish welcome in everything from food to entertainment. We believe that when visitors come to Mayo, they are specifically looking for a West of Ireland experience.”

In this regard, Fergal and his team make a point of serving up traditional Irish cuisine, including coddle, colcannon, and best-seller bacon and cabbage, and Fergal himself was voted World Champion Irish Coffee Maker in 2000.

Promise a west of Ireland welcome

Even if every member of the hotel’s 120 staff is not Irish, each, points out Fergal, has adopted the Irish manner of striking up conversation with customers in all areas of the hotel.

“About 35 per cent of our staff are non-nationals, but have been living and working in Mayo for some time. Of the 65 per cent Irish, most are locally based, and we enjoy great integration among the hotel staff. Because of this we enjoy regular repeat business, and have had guests staying with us seven or eight times since we opened.

“My management team and I meet every week to proactively plan all events 10 days ahead. We have structures in place that are adhered to strictly. For example, although we’re quite new and our fixtures and fittings are in good shape, our maintenance team has a schedule to work to that keeps everything in the hotel looking good. That’s cost effective and it means that the hotel is always looking its best — first impressions, especially in public areas, are crucial to a hotel.”

The 103-bedroom hotel incorporates all that we would expect from a four-star hotel: a leisure centre, a health and beauty salon — boasting a dazzling array of treatments — and credible conference/function facilities that can cater for up to 600 business delegates or host dances with the top Irish entertainers who perform regularly in the hotel.

“We enjoy both large and small corporate and social events, and are particularly well set up for weddings, which form a large part of our core market. We have for example staged 100 weddings since we opened.”

Leisure tourism accounts for 100 per cent of the hotel’s weekend trade; corporate accounts for 70 per cent of trade weekdays.

Ireland is our strongest market

“About 10 per cent of our market comes from the UK, four per cent from the USA, and the remainder is Irish. The domestic sector is our strongest market, so while we do brand abroad, we focus more heavily at home.

“With the increased hassle of airport security, long drives to and waits in airports, and increased fuel charges, we’re beginning to see people return to Ireland for their vacations — particularly for short term breaks. Sixty per cent of the new hotel bedrooms available in Ireland have been built in the last 10 years, which means that standards are high.

“I strongly believe that the Irish product is way out front in terms of quality and value for money. The criteria for grading hotels in Ireland is, I believe, stricter than many countries, and I feel that the standard of Irish hotels in general is now on a par with those of Switzerland, which is considered the hotel capital of the world. It’s really up to Irish hoteliers and the relevant tourism bodies to sell Ireland imaginatively.”

Now that the hotel is no longer tied to international directives, it has started to market the McWilliam Park name more forcefully and begun sourcing opportunities for more hotels of this quality across Ireland.

“It’s not a particularly economic time to be opening new hotels, but the hotel’s directors are keeping their eyes open and ears to the ground.”

Irish hotels are as good as any and better than many abroad

Four Mayo and one Galway-based businessmen own and act as directors of the hotel: Terry Brennan, with whom Fergal previously worked in the Galway Bay Hotel, local auctioneer John Killeen, renowned Mayo footballer John Finn, and local businessmen Damien Prendergast and Seamus Gallagher.

Fergal meets with the directors every fortnight to discuss strategy and sales plans, and he finds this an excellent forum for keeping the hotel on target.

The hotel takes its name from the site on which it is based, which was owned at one time by a landlord, McWilliam, and on which a famous battle took place — depicted by the sword in the hotel’s logo.

The hotel’s restaurant, JG’s, headed by executive chef Tom Kehoe, is named after one John Grey, a renowned Claremorris man, best known for bringing drinking water to Dublin.

Kavanagh’s Bar pays tribute to Patrick Kavanagh who, while not a Mayo man, serves, Fergal believes, as an inspiration to every Irish person.

Fergal’s pride for the McWilliam Park Hotel and for his home county is in equal measures.

“My own village of The Neale is steeped in history that I also find inspirational,” Fergal says. “One of my brothers, Damien, is a local county councillor, and my parents are still in The Neale. My father still actively farms 120 cattle and 200 sheep, which keeps him very healthy. If I wasn’t a hotelier, I’d be out there with him now, enjoying the fresh Mayo air!

“Captain Boycott and Lord Kilmaine were both based in The Neale and we actually have our very own pyramid,” he smiles. “Built in pre-Christian times, the pyramid-shaped weather cock was constructed as a worshipping site to the Gods of The Neale.

“The Neale also has a temple structure with underground chambers that were used for very early refrigeration, which was relatively sophisticated.”

Although his hotel training took Fergal across the world, it was the county of Mayo that initiated him into the hospitality industry.

“I started at 16 years of age in the five-star Ashford Castle Hotel, which at that time in the early 1990s was voted the Best Resort Hotel in the World. So I went in at the very top — even if I was only scrubbing pots”, he laughs.

After working his way up the ranks to Ashford’s dining room, Fergal left to study hotel management at GMIT in Galway, before taking up positions in the five-star Palace Hotel in Lucerne, Switzerland, Adare’s Dunraven Arms Hotel, Killaloe’s Lakeside Hotel, and for seven years as deputy GM in the Galway Bay Hotel.

“I still live close to Galway Bay and commute to Claremorris every day. With young children at school in Galway, my wife Caitriona and I thought it best to stay put for a few years, and if I pick my times carefully my travel time is only an hour each way to and from the hotel.”

Being given the opportunity to take on the running of the McWilliam Park Hotel, Fergal started work eight months prior to opening, and began designing and shaping the hotel for the future.

Locals have been very supportive of this hotel since the start

Although an hour’s drive from Galway, the hotel looks after a number of guests attending the Galway Races.

“The jockeys and trainers especially like to keep away from the hectic celebratory atmosphere that engulfs Galway during Race Week. It’s business for them, and they like to focus and maintain a working atmosphere.”

Like many hotels, the McWilliam Park sponsors local events, such as the Jazz Breakfast Morning on August 10 in aid of the Marie Carolan Fund, at which Keith McDonald and his Showband will perform. “The locals have been very supportive of this hotel since the start, so we like to reciprocate by sponsoring worthy causes.”

Working anti-social hours means that Fergal takes his chill-out time where it fits in with the business.

“I get over to Manchester now and again to support Manchester United, and with flights from Knock airport now, it’s quite easy to do.

“My real passion though is Mayo football and I’ll attend any match I can. We get many of the GAA footballers staying with us, and the Mayo team regularly use our leisure facilities.

“The team’s manager, John O’Mahoney works, with our chef to discuss appropriate post-match meals for the team. We’ll keep feeding them the best of Irish, and you never know — we might get a result one of these days,” he laughs.

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