Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Wednesday, December 6, 2023
HomePeopleInterviewsMaking an Impression: interview with Conor O'Leary of Gleneagles Hotel

Making an Impression: interview with Conor O’Leary of Gleneagles Hotel

The Gleneagles Hotel, Scotland’s flagship 5-star property, has been transformed since it was bought by Ennismore in 2015. It’s not just the hotel that has changed but the management has evolved too. SUSAN YOUNG caught up with Joint MD Conor O’Leary to find out more.

When I sat down with hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray last month he regaled me with stories of his family holidays at Gleneagles where his father would golf, his mother would enjoy afternoon tea and the children would play. Roll on 60 years and it seems that Gleneagles is going back to its roots.

When the hotel opened in 1924 it was described as the 8th wonder of the world, and management had a key focus – ‘to create happiness’. It seems that today’s management team have the same ethos.

Conor O’Leary, the hotel’s Joint Managing Director, has been instrumental in steering the hotel, which sits on an 850-acre estate and boasts 232 bedrooms, through the biggest period of change and investment in its almost 100-year history. Since he joined nearly three years ago as Manager of the hotel, the grand lady of hospitality has had a well-earned facelift, which has given the hotel a new lease of life. She doesn’t just look
ab fab but the energy in the hotel is somewhat changed too. Conor, too, is less formally attired than managers of pre-Ennismore days. In a smart stylish plaid jacket, an open-necked shirt, and with the ubiquitous mobile phone, he is the very epitome of a modern-day hotel General Manager, which is the role he assumed in 2017. In April 2019 he was promoted again to Joint Managing Director with direct responsibility for operations, people and culture and commercial functions while David Kemp has responsibility for all the projects and financial aspects of the business.

Says Conor,“I think that Gleneagles has now recaptured the excitement and glamour that first put it on the map in the 1920s.This has not just been about the décor, we have looked at everything that we do – every touch point a customer has – with the aim of improving the overall guest journey. The Gleneagles experience should now be one of seamless luxury – whether you are dining, shooting, golfing, using the spa or cycling, everything has been improved.

“By the end of this year, we will have renovated more than 200 bedrooms, launched three new bars, three restaurants, a private events
wing, a café and we have also taken back a meeting room to its original purpose as a tea lounge.”

He continues,“I’ve worked in lots of lovely hotels. Some are just bedrooms, with a nice bar or restaurant, but here we have horses, golf courses, fishing, lakes, off-road cars, and much more, as well as world-class professionals on
our team.The business is very diverse and it’s challenging. But challenging things are exciting. One minute I can be having a conversation about room rates and profit and the next the Solheim Cup which takes place here in September.”

Today Conor has a team of approximately 1,000. He says, “During the transition (from Diageo ownership to Ennismore) we retained a lot of the original team – generations of families work here. We have also strengthened the team.” He has also helped change the culture at Gleneagles.

He suggests, “We, like a lot of businesses, may have been too hierarchical and a little bit too formally structured.This can inhibit creativity and personality so we have tried to shift that a bit and encourage people to be themselves. We embrace the fact that people here should have personality, character and warmth – these are all Scottish traits and they are Gleneagles traits.”

“I do try and encourage people to have fun. That may sound glib, but if we all take things too seriously that reflects on the customer experience. I am absolutely certain of that. If our team smiles warmly our customer feels it.”

Conor continues,“We don’t have a hard and fast rule when it comes to recruiting. After all, with so many jobs, there are roles which will suit just about anyone who wants to work here. We have a real mix – we have brought people from other international hotels and some from coffee shops down the road. The majority of our staff are Scottish but it is not a pre-requisite, and although in technical roles you would need experience, in most other roles we can train you. What matters is character and personality. Gleneagles has always had a diverse group of people working at the hotel and a diverse group of guests.”

However, he admits that hospitality is not right for everyone.“I certainly don’t believe in forcing people into roles. Sometimes it is about finding the right role for the right personality. For example, I get more compliments about a member of the team that we moved from fine dining to our craft gin bar at the golf club than just anyone else.”

Despite the number in the Gleneagles team, Conor does his best to get out and about and get to know them. “I do my best”, he says.

In fact, he finds it frustrating the amount of management time spent in meetings in offices in the industry.

He tells me,“Not one of us joined hospitality to sit in an office – so how we have all got to a point where we spend so much time there is beyond me. We have shifted that habit here. As a result, I spend a huge amount of time with the team in the operation and meeting customers. When I meet customers I find out what we are doing well and what we can do better, after all that’s how I get paid.We constantly need to find out what customers are asking for, and we need to know how we can make people happier so they come back more.

The best idea doesn’t have to come from high up but it is up to the leadership team to implement them.”

A recent idea was a garden party on the lawn. Says Conor, “We did vintage china, chairs, pretty meadow flowers, there was a jazz quartet, blankets and rugs on the lawns, croquet and a tennis match. It was beautifully decadent.A guest said to me,“Can I say the most impressive thing about today was seeing the Gleneagles transformation – a few years ago there were signs saying ‘keep off the grass!’”

Gleneagles was built for people to come and play and relax – it was a playground.Why were we stopping it? The more we can allow people to relax and enjoy themselves on both sides – our team and our customers – the more revenue we will generate.”

t’s very refreshing talking to Conor – his management ethos is a breath of fresh air. He tells me,“The people that we hire in leadership roles must have the mindset to focus on our people first. Every single thing that we do now should be people-focused. Not commercially focused or product focused – these two for me would be secondary to finding the right people because you can’t do the other two without the right people.”

He says,“This is normal in other industries so perhaps we are playing catch up. In the past, we set ourselves commercial targets but we had no people strategy in place to get there. We also talk about recruitment instead of retention. How easy is it to keep people? We have to work on that first.Yes, I might be being idealistic, but if we can reduce staff turnover by 10/15% that would be a huge saving financially to our business, and our customers would see an increase in quality of service. It’s all about changing our mindset.

He gives another example of changing mindsets.“The number of times over the years that restaurant managers have said to me,‘What are marketing doing to get me more customers?’ My response is, “How many customers did you have last night? Why don’t you focus on getting them back in rather than focusing on marketing finding you 50 more? Again it is that shift of being thankful for what you have got and building meaningful relationships with the current team and customers – I think if we spend more time focusing on that and less time on recruitment we would be far more successful.”

As for admin – he has taken this away from operational staff.“A good example is the bar – the people there need to be running the bar for the customer.Their job is not to be caught up with admin.”

Although he himself doesn’t switch off, he does not expect his colleagues to do the same. Saying,“I think it is very important to have a work-life balance.We may be a 7-day a week business and our guests come for a variety of reasons, but we have to be realistic when it comes to the team. I don’t expect them to have to pick up messages on their days off.

We do have an internal platform – Workplace by Facebook – and sometimes I don’t know when people are working or not, so I might send them a message, but I don’t expect them to answer if they are off. If you can’t organise a business so that people don’t have to work overtime you are not doing something right.”

He is certainly doing something right and obviously has a passion for what he does. He also made the right decision when he dropped out of University and got a job with The Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington. A few years later he joined the Hyatt Group where he met his wife. He remained with them for nine years moving up through the ranks and prior to joining Gleneagles had spent three years at
the Grand Hyatt Dubai – the group’s flagship property. He became Food and Beverage (F&B) Director of the hotel – which was the largest F&B operation in the group’s worldwide portfolio.

Then he was lured back from Dubai to Perthshire. He said,“I was really impressed with Ennismore’s plans for the property, for example the very fact that they had brought in designer David Collins to enhance the property. I realised how invested the owner was in the significance of the histor y of the proper ty and we had quite a few conversations before I moved back.”

However, it was quite an adjustment – not least the weather. Dubai had been very hot and we moved here in time for winter – rain, hail and snow and so a new wardrobe was required! In Dubai, the roads are huge, multi- lane, but here we had to get used to country roads.

It seems that the adjustments all round have been positive.The hotel reported record revenues and profits in 2018 and Conor
tells me that the first half of 2019 is looking better than 2018, but that they are having to work harder to get business in. Leisure guests are booking much nearer the time – while corporate guest business (35% of Gleneagles business) is “slower, paused perhaps.”

But he is just working smarter. Says Conor, “We are trying to be a bit more creative and agile than before – and a bit more agile than our competitors.We are trading well, maybe just not as buoyantly as we were 12 months ago.We need people coming through the door. Other properties with less of a leisure offering can dial down.We can’t as easily.”

But he is bullish,“We are really lucky because less than 5% of our business comes through Online Travel Agencies (OTAs). We are heavily weighted through direct business to the hotel – people call.The cost of acquisition
is not necessarily cheaper – but with us, it is better because our guests need information. They don’t just book a room.They want to book dinner, they want to know how long the shooting takes, what else can they do? We
are also continually investing in our website and social media. For instance, our Instagram
is more about painting an impression of Gleneagles – what it feels like, rather than what it costs.We are trying to create an emotional connection and tell people about the wonderful experience they can have here.”

He has also noticed that more and more people are choosing to spend their money in Scotland rather than going overseas, for example Dubai or the South of France. “There’s certainly been a shift in the perception of the local market and there has also been a shift in guests’ behaviour. Conor has noticed that families are doing more activities together. He says,“In the old days parents would dump kids in the play area and go to the bar. Now they are going on guided walks with the family up to the glen with our hotel dog Henr y. They are also more interested in country field sports – salmon, fishing and such like.”

“Five years ago if you had come to Gleneagles you would have come to an International Resort, but today we have positioned ourselves as an internationally renowned Scottish country estate.You are likely to be picked up in a land rover, we have swapped our pansies for wildflowers, and relaxed our uniforms.

I’m not criticising the way things used to be done, it was a successful strategy at the time. But now we have created a different environment and experience to meet the demands of today’s consumer and make Gleneagles relevant to a new generation of guests.”

He does, however, wish that more people were aware of what Scotland has to offer. He thinks we should be marketing more effectively and confidently.“In America, everywhere you go people are aware of what Ireland has to offer. Perhaps Ireland overstates what they have but we understate it.”

What is not an understatement is the passion that Conor demonstrates for his adopted country and for Scotland’s most iconic hotel. The next experience for Conor is fatherhood – his first child is on the way. Says he,“Perthshire is a great place to bring kids up.” It is indeed!.

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