SEAN Lally, the well-known manager of the Limerick Strand Hotel, tells Hannah Wiseman about a job that brings something different every day.
How long have you been the general manager of The Strand and where did you work before arriving?
I’m now entering my seventh year here. Before this I spent seven years with the Clarion hotel group, here in Limerick, opening the hotel on Steamboat Quay in 2002 and the Clarion Hotel Suites in 2006.
My first position, when I moved to Limerick was in the George Hotel. Myself and my wife, Elaine, managed that for two years.
My first general manager position before that was in the Imperial Hotel in Cork. Previous to that I worked for a company called Trusthouse Forte Hotel, at hotels in Heathrow, Croydon and the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis. Growing up, my family had a bar in Woodlawn, East Galway -the Moniveen Inn. I developed a taste for it all there.
What was it about the job that attracted you to the idea of being a hotel manager?
It is a very interesting career move as no day is the same. I deal with new challenges every day at The Strand. You’re always moving onto to the next opportunity. You’re dealing with all sorts of people and from all walks of life. For me it’s a very interesting type of career.
Name three key qualities that a hotel manager must possess:
It is a must that you be very driven, focused and be able to identify and conduct sales. You have to deliver the service once it has been converted. Obviously, you have to make profit. You are a combination of hotel manager, accountant and sales person.
Strongly, I think you need to be in tune with what is going on locally in order to secure any business that may be coming to the region. I’m past president and currently a director in the Chamber of Commerce, a director in the Conferences and Sports Bureau and also the Limerick Marketing Company.
I’m also involved in the local Hotel Federation. So, I have strong feelings for this. I really believe that it is so important to be involved in these local organisations as a strong Limerick will automatically have a positive effect on sales at the hotel.
Have there been many changes in the hotel sector since you began?
Yes – the most obvious development is in IT. It has changed dramatically since I began. Back then you had telex, fax machines and landlines. That’s how we communicated. There was no such thing as internet or social media. You have to embrace it all now, for a business to be successful. The world is very much your audience now and everyone is connected.
However, despite all technological development, our business is literally all about experiences and family events.
Hotels see families from the cradle to the grave. Our hotel is just across from the maternity hospital. Then you have Christenings, First Communions, Confirmations, birthdays, weddings and retirements.
All the way through life hotels are there to cater for these events. People are involved in various organisations and conferences which we host. It’s all about experience, no matter what changes. It’s always going to be about the experience in the hotel.
Tell us a little about your management style:
I am a very driven person. I concentrate on being open, fair and friendly. Important to me is giving people their space to do their job. I think it’s very, very important to help out the team of the hotel, when it’s required. It is important that guests and the team see the general manager rolling up his or her sleeves and joining the group – whether it’s going to wash up the dishes, cleaning the litter outside the hotel or serving lunch or dinner.
Also, being in the lobby greeting guests. It’s important to be seen as hands-on as this motivates the team. Obviously it’s not something I can do the whole time, as I would be an expensive waiter!
What aspects of the job do you enjoy the most?
I know it’s a cliché but I love dealing with people. I like nothing better than being in the lobby of the hotel on the arrival of a conference, a wedding or dinner dance. There are constantly people coming through your doors and they are all important in their own way. A cup of coffee today could be a wedding or conference tomorrow. Of course we have our VIPs but it’s important to treat all guests equally well.
I love the sale side of the business, identifying business leads and using contacts to try and convert these leads. And then I enjoy looking after this business when it arrives at the hotel, making sure the client is happy before moving on to the next sale. I find it addictive – you just want to move onto the next one.
What tends to frustrate you about the job?
I don’t like the whole administrative side it. I don’t enjoy dealing with negativity and indecisiveness is one of my bugbears – that drives me around the bend. I do not like people who procrastinate. I like making my decision and moving onto the next challenge.
What are the biggest challenges in the job and how do you deal with them?
One of the biggest challenges we have here in Limerick is the average room rate per night in the city, as it is one of the lowest in Ireland. This is disheartening, considering we have such a great experience to offer in the city and county and such a high standard of hotels on offer.
The Limerick Strand is part of a hotel group that has other hotels around Ireland. We are constantly being compared to other cities in Ireland by the directors of the group. This is frustrating, but thankfully the rate is starting to move up dramatically in Limerick, but it has been very irritating over the last couple of years.
What would your average day consist of?
I’ll arrive first thing in the morning, receiving feedback from the night manager. I’ll check with the breakfast team and early duty manager to see if everything is OK and if I’m needed on the floor I’ll help out.
I speak to guests and see how everything is going for them. We would have a morning prayers meeting after breakfast, where a representative from each department would run through what’s going on in their area for the day and when and where help is needed.
If we have any VIPs or special requests we would run through them at that meeting. I like to keep the first two hours of the day free of meetings so I can finish administration and look at emails, get office work out of the way while it is quieter.
After that I slot in my meetings. These could consist of customers or sale leads. The evening could have a large conference meeting or event so it’s important that the general manger is seen to be linking in with organisers or brides and grooms.
The easiest way to get a customer back is making sure they are happy in the first place. They will leave with whatever impression they have of us and tell family and friends.
If we leave a good impression, that visitor can become a lifelong customer.
If you had to name the two biggest highlights of your career so far, what would you go for?
I love sport, so the two are concentrated around that. In Limerick, rugby is a very important game. Although it meant that I couldn’t go to the matches, I got to welcome the Munster team when they arrived home twice after winning the Heineken Cup. I was only here at the Limerick Strand a few short weeks when we had the All Blacks stay with us and we got the opportunity to look after them.
They were great times. I was lucky enough to win a trip over to the World Cup in New Zealand, with Heineken, for achieving a certain sales target. My name was picked out of a hat.
That was certainly a once in a lifetime trip, although I don’t think Elaine saw it like I did at the time!
What makes a hotel work well?
I think the key to having a successful hotel is having a strong team around you, letting them work and not micromanaging the team.
Where do you see Limerick in five years?
I believe in five years’ time we will have a stronger Shannon Airport. We will have more leisure tourism coming into Limerick. We’ll have more corporate companies setting up in the city, as we’ve seen a lot more job announcements in the last year so hopefully that will grow and bring more business into Limerick.
In the future I’d like to see a multi-purpose conference and event centre built in Limerick, a facility able take large scale events.
Have there been times when you wished you had a more predictable, nine to five job?
I would be very bored if I had a nine to five job. I love the buzz of the hotel industry. Even when you are off you are always on call and only at the end of a mobile phone.
I always like to look at other hotels who are at the top of their game and I might see something that I could adapt back at The Strand. This means the photo memory in my phone is always maxed out from taking photos of things that I feel will work back at base.
I don’t think reinventing the wheel will work, I adapt it to work well at The Strand.