THE SHANDON HOTEL’S PULL-FACTOR FOR LOCAL TOURISM
Situated on the route of the Wild Atlantic Way in Portnablagh, The Shandon Hotel has rightfully gained a most superb reputation amongst its guests and visiting tourists in recent times. And with Donegal being named as The Coolest Place on the Planet by National Geographic in 2016, General Manager, Carolynne Harrison, told us all about her recent endeavours.
By Jonathan Foley (The Letterkenny Leader)
As GM of the hotel and spa facilities on offer, Carolynne holds the responsibility for the strategic business plans that bid to both increase revenue as well as manage cost. Working closely with each department manager to ensure that the highest standards are met and that excellent service to their guests – with passion and flair – is delivered regularly.
“My background would be sales and marketing. I would have a keen interest in all things digital. Many said it is unusual for a sales and marketing person to become a General Manager but I think it’s a great mix because the focus is always on driving sales and being strategic. As a marketer for 10 years, it’s refreshing to have complete control of the product you are delivering. It means that the vision is consistent, the marketing messages we put out are in fact what you get when you come and the foundations we set are solid,” she told.
“I think the key for us at the Shandon is that we employ for attitude over experience. I was given that same opportunity by the owner Warren McCarthy when he gave me a chance to be General Manager for the first time – which I sincerely appreciate – so because I was given that break, it’s only fair that I continue that ethos with our own recruitment and it has paid off very well” she added.
In addition to that, Carolynne was recently asked to speak at Harvey’s Point at the tail-end of last month where none other than the acclaimed National Geographic personnel were in attendance. Thus helping immensely with the rise of Donegal as a most popular spot for tourism.
“I was flattered to be asked to speak at the Donegal Tourism Seminar on the 26th October. In fact, just after the Shandon opened in 2016, I sat at that very conference and I watched Deirdre McGlone – owner of Harvey’s Point speak about their exceptional results of late – and I wondered, what do we need to do at the Shandon to be invited to speak at such an event like this?”
“I was inspired by Deirdre’s presentation. So, to be asked was something very special to me and our team at the Shandon. It meant we were doing something right! I was honoured to be speaking alongside industry experts such as Michael Collins of Travel Media, Greg Fry a renowned digital expert, Joan Crawford of Failte Ireland and Matthew Jackson, Managing Director of National Geographic Traveler UK” told Carolynne.
“The Shandon was a hotel that typically closed down for the winter; as did many seaside hotels town and villages along the Wild Atlantic Way. I had no intention of closing as it never crossed my mind. Not only that, during my interview process with the owner, Warren, I made a presentation of my strategy and I committed to opening through the winter with above average occupancy levels; all whilst maintaining the talented team I was going to recruit” she told.
“Maybe that is why I got the job, perhaps no one else had the same confidence! I had no choice but to deliver on my strategies. I had encouraged good people to leave secure jobs and come with me, so there was no way I was going to risk their livelihood – it was fight or flight as they say!” she told enthusiastically and with great deliberation to her words.
Yet with all the great achievements that The Shandon has enjoyed over a short timespan, there’s targets and objectives for the future that are they are setting their sights on. Highlights of which include an upcoming redevelopment of the building as well as a televised feature on TG4 that’s due to air in 2018.
“The Shandon is always developing with the demands of the business. We are close to completing our new restaurant which will be on the 1st floor with outstanding views over the bay, we have just completed a mini refurb of our luxury, award winning spa and introduced a new bar. Construction has begun for the addition of 18 new bedrooms – 14 originally but based on recent developments – we are delighted to increase that number. We have plans to develop the spa to an indoor & outdoor spa right on the Wild Atlantic Way” said Carolynne.
“My objectives are to remain sane through the upcoming construction and to keep our guests happy on top of driving the business and developing our team! Personally for me, I always need to be challenged. I love to start new things and see them grow, or take on a project that is struggling and watch it flourish. Thankfully, there hasn’t been one day in career at the Shandon where I have not felt challenged! Every time we get one thing to a level of normality, there is a new project or development right around the corner that needs developing!” she added.
“The Shandon has also been successful in securing a fly on the wall TV documentary on TG4 which should air around next autumn time. It is a four-part series about the hotel as 90% of our team speak fluent Irish. I keep saying I need to learn it myself, because the staff often converse as Gaeilge and I have a feeling it’s because they are saying something they shouldn’t be!” she jokingly added.
“The documentary should be fun to watch, I have tried really hard not to try and control what the TV cameras see. I want it to be real and it will be a true reflection of life in the hospitality industry. I often wake up in the middle of the night worrying because each week, the TV crew tell me how amazing it’s coming on – Goodness knows what they have captured – hopefully it’s nothing too crazy and I manage to keep my job when it airs! It’s a big risk allowing TV cameras unlimited access to behind the scenes, but regardless, it will be great publicity for our industry, for the Shandon brand and for Donegal tourism in general” she happily told.
“I come from very humble beginnings, originally from a council estate called Ballymac in Derry City. My mum worked in hospitality all through my childhood;she managed kitchens and spent some time as a prep chef. My dad was a sports editor of a local newspaper. We were reared with strict routines, everyone ate breakfast together each morning – no one was allowed a lay on – dinner was the same time every night and the house was always neat” she recalled.
“Respect and integrity was very important in our family and we had a great upbringing! I started work part time when I was 13 in Glendennings Jewellers and I loved the buzz of sales. The Derry News launched as a new newspaper in 2000. My dad was the sports editor and my brother Neil was the graphic designer. A position came up for advertising sales executive and I applied, without telling my dad and my brother, I was only 17!” she told.
“I couldn’t believe my luck when I got the job and the manager at the time assured my dad that I got it because I had the right attitude and drive, not because I was his daughter! That was my big break, I worked so hard that I needed new heels every two weeks because I was walking the city streets knocking on doors to build up my client base. Advertising sales was a great grounding for me, each week you started with zero revenue and you had to be resourceful and creative in securing new business week after week.”
“At the age of 19, I was Acting Advertising Manager, managing sales executives who were all a few years older than me! The transition from advertising sales to hospitality was another case of ‘attitude over experience’! I applied for the role of Sales & Marketing Manager at the Best Western White Horse Hotel. My interview was with the owner, Issam Horshi and I must say, it was definitely one of the toughest, in fact, it even included the ‘here is a pen, sell it to me’!!” she added.
“Issam remarked that he had many applicants with degrees in marketing or hospitality management and I told him that none of them will work as hard as me! He gave me a chance and I enjoyed two great years at the White Horse, I learned so much from Issam, Ramona, Keith and the late Noel Gault. They ran a tight ship! So then, in 2009, during the worst recession most have known, I went to The Mount Errigal Hotel in Letterkenny as Sales & Marketing Manager. Although it was a bleak time in hospitality, I enjoyed every minute because it was the beginning of the digital era in hospitality and Terry McEniff put his trust in me to increase the occupancy.”
“Together, we came up with various strategies that really drove up the occupancy levels whilst every other hotel was struggling to slow down the decline in their occupancy. I spent seven years in the Mount Errigal and again, I learnt so much from Terry and the pressure of trying to fill 140 rooms and 9 conference and events suites makes filling the Shandon feel like a piece of cake sometimes!” she joked.
“Nowadays to get away from it all, I like to go to the Shandon Spa and have reflexology… so technically not getting away at all! I love taking our dog ‘Georgie’ on a walk with my two girls Elaina and Eva and hubby Colin. We love to cook at home, watch a series on Netflix when I get a chance and we also love eating out and staying in hotels – again, always absorbing new ideas!” she told happily.
“Outside of our annual trip to Portugal, we spend a lot of time enjoying Donegal, along the Wild Atlantic Way, eating in the local restaurants and staying in various hotels. I love everything about Donegal and what it has to offer as a collective,” she concluded.