1. Please give a brief overview of your career history – where you started, how you
progressed, the companies you have worked for etc
The hospitality industry has been a permanent fixture in my life for as long as I can remember, as my father was manager of several outlets before I followed him into my first job at the Beechlawn House Hotel in Dunmurry at the tender and slightly illegal age of 15. Although I always wanted to become a bar tender, my father insisted I train as a waiter first - a decision I would not understand until my first role alone, where I sold myself as a multi-skilled waiter/bar tender! This was in one of Belfast’s busiest outlets - Robinsons Bars. It was here I experienced the organised structure of a company outlet, as Robinsons was part of the now defunct Croft Inns.
After 2 years I noticed a neighbouring hotel was holding interviews for an outlet in Dublin - The Portobello - and within a matter of days I had made my move south of the border to a completely different way of life! Belfast on a Tuesday lunch was quiet, Dublin on an 'any day' lunch was bedlam - you moved fast or you moved on. Again, the multi-skilled role was where the money was and although I had to technically suffer the 'Apprentice' scheme, I made enough money to embrace my developing love for travelling. I was off to Boston.
Young and naive - $800 dollars, no contacts, no job, no accommodation - I started at the bottom and aimed for the stars. Everything came within a short period of time and I started my education in a country where 'Bar Tender' has a different/official standing. It wasn’t long before I was up to speed on the compulsory knowledge of 150 cocktails - making Gimlets, Daiquiris and Martini's.
When I returned home in '99 I spent the next few years studying and working in the Errigle bar before taking my American knowledge of cocktails to the newly opened Hard Rock Cafe Belfast, where my specialist knowledge earned a management position.
In 2002 I became temporarily disillusioned with the industry and decided to try out another sector - becoming an assistant branch manager for Phones4u. I wasn’t sure if sales would be my thing but it turned out that the skills I had built up in hospitality over the years stood me in good stead, notably the ability to read a customer and assess their level of service. I stayed in Phones4u until 2003, when I decided it was time to see the world.
My trip around the globe, took me to Asia, Australia, New Zealand and several cities across North America, all of which I made notes about the differing service standards, with the intention of taking this new knowledge back to Ireland and wowing the masses.
It was only natural then, that I did NOT return to hospitality full-time until 2006, as I enrolled on a journalism course and spent the next two years working only part-time in bars.
I took the bar managers position in 2006 at the Balmoral Hotel after qualifying as I sought to incorporate my love for writing and the industry as a hospitality reviewer. However after several reviews in the Sunday World, I was offered a position that would take up all of my time and passion.
You never turn down an outlet like Tatu Bar & Grill, a renowned style bar and one of Belfast’s most cherished. To say it was an honour to be at the helm as Outlet Manager is an understatement and while there, I was responsible for putting together the best team I have ever worked with. We had a perfect balance of graft and enthusiasm - each employee complementing the next. Without a doubt Tatu was my favourite job to date, the only reason it ended was that I had a differing opinion on were the future of the outlet lay and in August 2007 I stepped away. By the summer of 2008 the outlet had closed as my fears of misdirection were realised and it has never recovered.
However I had a new life in Tenerife, as I had decided that I needed to develop a few business ideas in an environment that did not completely consume me as Tatu had. I worked as a bar tender in the Temple Bar and spent my days developing an idea for a hospitality firm, albeit lying on the beach while I did it!
When I returned home I took a bar manager’s position at the Ramada Hotel and this is where I have remained until now but the story doesn’t end there.....
I started Serve You Right in September this year, a service orientated hospitality firm and with my personal experience of worldwide service I have set out to improve the industry service standards one outlet at a time. Although in its infancy the Serve You Right Mystery Team (Mystery Diners) are already reviewing several key outlets in and out of Belfast..
2. Have you always wanted to work within hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism and
why? If not, how did you end up where you are now?
When I was studying for my GCSE's, I was only half concentrating because as far as I was concerned my future was sewn up. I ALWAYS wanted to be a bartender. I caught the bug at an early age, visiting my father at work and seeing a world fraught with equal part danger and excitement. But I also saw the comaraderie of the bar staff and I wanted to be a part of that. Who wouldnt?
3. What sort of qualifications and training have you had and what else would you like to do?
When I was younger I completed NVQ levels 1 and 2 at BIFHE, I also completed the British Innkeepers Exams, basic first aid and the food and hygiene certificate. Most recently I have received an intense cocktail training refresher from the San-Greal bar tending team as part of my staff training package. I am planning to enrol on an NVQ assessor course to better serve the development of future team members and also to gain an insight into the procedure of our awarding bodies.
4. What are the top 5 activities you would typically carry out on a daily basis?
Within my role as director for Serve You Right my typical duties would be;
5. What do you most enjoy about your job?
- Arrange and attend sales meetings.
- Book relevant employees to carry out a mystery shop on a hospitality outlet.
- Present mystery shop reports and findings to clients.
- Attend industry related workshops - for example Bacardi's 'Mix Matters' cocktail roadshow.
- Do lunch, have a cocktail, stay in a hotel - well, you have to keep in touch with your industry dont you??
The feeling that something has improved due to my influence. Whether it is an outlet with a better profit margin or a bar tender who feels a little more involved as part of something bigger than just being a drink dispenser.
I can’t deny, getting an opportunity to challenge the people who are holding our industry and staff development back, is also a major plus. If they aren’t challenged, things will never change.
6. What would you say is the biggest challenge you face on a daily basis?
The aforementioned stalwarts who resisit change, the people who use outdated and in some cases historic service methods and expect to survive in the current market. Their mindset affects our tourism impact as well as the development of their team - bad attitudes today cost us the managers of tomorrow. Einstein said 'Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I tend to agree.
7. What would you say is your biggest achievement to date?
Undoubtedly, it has been establishing my own business. Serve You Right was borne out of many things - among them, a frustration of poor service, businesses closing down and a gap in young people entering the industry but one of the most prevelant achievements was this;
At 30 years of age the amount of managers, who decide to step away from hospitality in favour of
a 'real job' with real wages and prospects, is frightening. I had a similar thought as I was concerned about starting a family with my unsociable hours and low income. However the moment of clarity came when I stopped thinking how I could get out of the industry and instead thought 'how can I make the industry and my experience, better suit my needs'. I sat down, saw a gap in service standards and the areas I have listed earlier and decided that I had too much to offer to throw it all away for the mythical 'real job'.
So my biggest achievement is this - I have decided to continue working in the industry that I love without fearing for the future by fully utilising my experience.
8. Who has been the greatest influence/role model in your career and why?
There have been several, from one of my first managers, Michael Johnson of Robinsons to my American managers but undoubtedly my biggest influence was my father. Working alongside him I learnt to read a customer, see things before they happened and generally deliver a standard of service that few people (moreso today) took the time to deliver. His lessons have survived the test of time because they were rooted in the basic principles of hospitality - the better the service, the better the success, personally and occupationally. I took this ethos and it is now a major guide within my business, which helps me advise clients - "Serve Best, Profit Most"
9. Do you have a favourite tale or most memorable moment from your career?
At the risk of sounding repetitive and telling the tale of setting up my own Hospitality business, I would say my most memorable moment came in Sydney, Australia. Working in a fine-dining restaurant called Cadmus, which was situated on the 13th floor of the last building before the Sydney opera house. My view everyday was a panoramic view of Sydney harbour! However, my tale concerns a customer to this outlet.
I have always been a massive movie fan since I first saw Return of the Jedi on the big screen as a child. So when I was asked to wait on a particular table in Cadmus one Saturday night, I almost collapsed when I realised that the diner was Baz Lurhmann - the director of Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge and most recently Australia. I was obviously star struck but I was also conscious that this guy must get tortured in every outlet he goes into so I offered a reserved and gentle service, I made no reference to his occupation and only spoke to offer advice on wines or food. At the end of the night I was happy to collect a AU$100 tip however I was happier when Baz returned two weeks later and asked to be served by me again. This happened a few times during my stay, each time we spoke a little more and when I eventually told him that I was a budding screenwriter he took his mobile out and called Craig Pearce, his screenwriter and told him to give me all the
advice I needed!!
A fantastic guy, a fanastic experience but one that would never have happened if I had not learnt to assess what kind of service an individual needs - if I had been a bolshy Belfast boy - I might have got the tip, but would I have got the advice????
10. What piece of advice would you offer someone who wants to work within our industries?
Come into this industry with your eyes open - this is a balanced industry although first, it may not appear that way. If you are worried about losing your Saturday nights, you will soon realise that you have the best of both worlds, you are out having fun and making money while doing it!
If you are concerned about the poor wages, then serve your customers better than everyone else, your effort will be rewarded in sterling if you are prepared to put in the work!
If you prefer another industry for career prospects, then trust me, there are very few industries that provide you with the transferrable skills that hospitality provides. Whether you decide to stay and become a manger or owner, or decide to change industies you will find that a lot of your experiences will fit your new career.
11. Why would you encourage someone to work in our industry?
Simply because, this industry and its inclusivity is something that every person should experience at sometime. You learn a lot about yourself when it is six deep at the bar and you have to make 6 mojito's and 4 martini's for one customer - yet if you have been trained properly, you do it with a smile on your face! Its vibrant, it’s damn hard and getting even harder but hospitality is the perfect barometer to measure personal growth as well as diverse career development.