The Jennings family is the TF Royal. Pat, his wife Mary, and even their children Louise, Patrick, and Jessica have all in some way shaped and been shaped by this entertainment empire in the centre of Castlebar.
Sixty years ago Pat’s parents, Paddy and Mary, began putting together ‘The TF’ on their return home from London. Named after a favourite London pub, the hotel has always been, is now, and always will be first and foremost a family business.
“My parents built ‘The TF’ as a business to support the family in the first instance, and then added to the facilities year by year. Dad was a trained chef, and knew the hospitality industry. After I completed my commerce degree at UCD in the 1980s I returned home and took over the running of the business — it’s all I ever wanted to do,” explains Pat.
Started as a guest-house and shop
Licensing laws in the late 1940s prevented a full hotel being built straight away; instead, Pat’s parents began with a modest guesthouse and shop. In 1963 the Royal Ballroom was built, becoming the precursor to the present day theatre and event centre.
“Dancing and showbands were the main entertainment of the day and people travelled from all over Connacht to the Royal Ballroom, which was one of the biggest dancehalls in Ireland. This type of entertainment ran its course after 20 years and was replaced with firstly discos and later nightclubs.”
Live concerts were the next major arrival on the scene, which led Pat six years ago to change the ballroom from dance floor to a tiered 1,500-seater theatre able to host big shows such as Annie and Blood Brothers.
“In 2003 we put a five-year development plan into action for the entire hotel/entertainment complex. As part of this plan we decided that the way forward for 21st century entertainment was to replace the standard stage with a ‘flying-tower’ stage. Such stages can be found in major concert halls such as Cork Opera House, the Gaiety, and O2 [the Point].”
€15 million revamp of entertainment centre
To handle these new developments the hotel had to close the entertainment centre for a few months and erect a temporary marquee while the €15 million revamp took place.
By developing forward in this way the TF Royal Theatre & Event Centre is now able to take in global productions, everything from ballet to rock and roll and musicals. Scores of major shows are lined up for the next six months, including Lord of the Dance, The Vienna Boys’ Choir, Footloose, Swan Lake, The RTE National Concert Orchestra, and Disney’s High School Musical.
“It was a big undertaking for us, and we titled the project ‘Bringing the West End to the West’. Our new theatre seats 2,200 and can take 4,500 people standing. Our stage is huge: 63ft wide, 52ft deep, and 85ft high — the equivalent of an eight-storey building.”
Riverdance began in Mayo
A striking wall plaque within the new event centre tells the little-known tale of what is considered to be Ireland’s greatest show ever — Riverdance — which has just been performed for the first occasion at the TF Royal Theatre & Event Centre.
“Riverdance was inspired by the beauty of Mayo,” explains Pat. “Mayo County Council devised a Mayo 5000 Programme of events in 1992 to celebrate Mayo’s rich cultural heritage. The highlight of these events was The Mayo Suite, which starred Michael Flatley and Jean Butler. Moya Doherty and John McColgan later incorporated their Mayo Suite performance into Riverdance.”
€25 million investment in Harlequin Centre and Day’s Hotel
The entire Jennings-owned complex supports 220 jobs between its 30-guestroom three-star TF Royal Hotel, the Royal Theatre & Event Centre, and the 90-guestroom four-star Day’s Hotel, which opened in 2006. This latest €25 million investment supports an on-site 300-space multi-storey car park and Harlequin Shopping Centre.
“Day’s Hotel is part of an international brand, which allows us to benefit from international marketing, contacts and expertise. Because of this we are around 85 per cent full throughout the year.
“Our entire complex is tailored to encourage visitors to ‘shop, see, and show’. Castlebar has always been more of a business town than a tourist town, but this all-inclusive development allows visitors to dine, stay over, tour Mayo, and take in a show. Our shows change every week so we can continuously cater for new audiences.”
Pat’s core market spans the east/northwest regions, but with international marketing visitors can now appear from any corner of the globe.
“Our two hotels cater for different, but complementary, markets. The TF Royal has a strong local focus, with an emphasis on food and beverages, and can cater perfectly for the large numbers attending shows and functions in our event centre.
“Day’s Hotel is built on a European model. It‘s not set up to cater for major functions; instead its forte is in superior accommodation and excellent business facilities that are used extensively.”
The Jennings family is community-oriented by its nature and supports a number of local projects to help charities, sport, and local drama.
“We staged a remembrance concert recently to commemorate all those killed in the world wars. The concert complemented the official opening by President Mary McAleese of the Mayo Peace Park and its garden of remembrance, which is next to Day’s Hotel.”
Pat had in fact revved up his Harley Davidson motorbike to cross Route 66 and raise funds for Temple Street Hospital, when an injury required him to pull out.
“However the main thing is that along with the Castlebar group we raised €50,000 for the hospital, but I would like to do the trip another time, as I love being out on the Harley,” enthuses Pat.
While conscious of our economic downturn, Pat is sufficiently experienced to recognise that even in tough times people want to eat, drink, and be entertained.
“We’re in the middle of a new social phenomenon. People work hard during the week and think nothing of travelling away every weekend to be entertained, but they want the very best for their buck. Our new 550,000sq ft facility ensures that the west/northwest is getting its share of world-class entertainment.
“Shows themselves are having to work harder than ever and travel more, as they are competing with many social changes — everything from downloading of music from the internet to the changes in drink/driving laws.”
In-house expertise runs two hotels
Keeping things within the family and the company is something that Pat sees as good business practice. Almost every service required to run two hotels, an entertainment and shopping centre is delivered in-house. Its extensive management team is supported by in-house ancillary services such as marketing, graphic design, and their own IT maintenance.
“About 30 per cent of Day’s Hotel’s business comes through the internet, which also accounts for about 22 per cent of ticket sales for our entertainment centre. Ticketmaster outlets nationwide take care of the remainder of event sales.”
Bringing major shows to the TF Royal Event Centre is an expensive business, so how does Pat ensure that he picks a winner every time?
“I travel to the likes of London’s West End, Europe, Nashville, New York, and Las Vegas to see what’s ‘hot’. Shows are expensive, so we have to be selective, and we don’t make money on every production. However our international marketing brings in an audience who expect the best, and we have to deliver on this.
“Currently we’re booking shows for 2010 and beyond, which we have either sourced ourselves or obtained through the major Irish promoters. These include a number of children’s shows like Scooby Doo and Fifi.”
Forty years of entertainment
Having staged shows for around 40 years, it would be impossible for Pat to recall each one, but the ‘mega-shows’ are the ones that keep coming back.
“We’ve had all the big names — everyone from Meatloaf and Van Morrison to Status Quo and Tom Jones. Tom Jones was one of the first stars to come to Castlebar, and he’s coming back in 2009. What is vital is that we cover every genre, from classical to country & western to pop — we must provide continuous variety to hold onto audiences.”
How different is it doing business in Mayo?
“I’m a proud Mayo man, and the Jennings family purpose was always to put Castlebar on the map as a destination venue. Not being a natural tourist-trap has meant that we have had to work extra hard over the years to get to where we are now.
“A friend of mine, Kiltimagh man James Morrissey, wrote a book On the Verge of Want, which provides a unique insight into the difficult living conditions along Ireland’s western seaboard in the late 18th century.
“I concur with James’ thoughts, and it was always our family’s ambition to bring to the west of Ireland a facility large enough to host any major event, and we’re proud to have done that.
“Our task now is ensure it’s always full. The hospitality industry is a very competitive business, where only the strong will survive. We are true hoteliers; our strength is in knowing what people want and consistently delivering on that.”
Given that our entertainment is Pat’s work, how does he take time out?
“I combine work with leisure, so on holiday I will go off and check out theatres and shows. I find it difficult to walk away from the world of entertainment as it’s in my blood. That’s why Las Vegas appeals to me so much — it provides the adrenalin needed to move on.
“One of the best entertainment venues in the world is the 3,500 guest-room Opryland Hotel in Nashville. It’s essential for us to understand the nature of global products like this in order that we can offer our own slice of that in Castlebar.
“My quiet pastime is reading biographies to give me an insight into how great leaders think, and I’ve read about everyone from Nelson Mandela to Richard Branson, but I don’t have too many quiet periods. The aim of this business is to create a buzz, and that’s what we’re best at.”