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Fri 19 Mar 2010 04:00 AM

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Old boys’ network

Bill Walshe was Jumeirah’s chief of marketing when he decided to leave it all behind to return to Ireland. CEO of the Doyle Collection now, has the move worked?

Old boys’ network
Bill Walshe, CEO of boutique hotel group The Doyle Collection, says the chain has taken advantage of a decline in luxury spend by refurbishing nine of its eleven facilities during the downturn.
Old boys’ network
The Doyle Collection has not ruled out a move into the Gulf‘s busy five-star market but, says Walshe, its hotels will need to be ready to compete with the best.

Bill Walshe was Jumeirah’s chief of marketing when he decided to leave it all behind to return to Ireland. CEO of the Doyle Collection now, has the move worked?

When bill walshe left Jumeirah, he must have done so with a considerable sense of trepidation. Chief marketing officer for the company during its halcyon growth days, Walshe left to work for a, by comparison, tiny hotel chain based out of Ireland. Given that he wasn’t pushed, and that many very talented people within his industry would see working for the Jumeirah Group as the pinnacle of their career, the question must be asked: what was he thinking?

Walshe chuckles at the question, and says, as if it were so obvious it hardly needs stating: “I’m Irish.” The call of the motherland was too hard to resist.

“It was an opportunity to return to Ireland. And having been out of the country for nineteen years at that stage it was attractive to me. Having heard all the wonderful stories about how the country had developed, I thought I would go and see for myself.”

Walshe moved back to become CEO of The Doyle Collection, previously known as Jurys Doyle Hotels, which comprises eleven luxury hotels in six cities. He arrived at the start of a seismic change in the way the company went about its business. It was also a step up in terms of job title.

“The opportunity was there to take the lead role in the company, as CEO, one in which the ambition was so huge," he says.“This particular company wanted to undertake massive renovation and re-launch — it was the right thing at the right time. We’re an interesting company in that the company has been around for 30-years but we consider ourselves this year to be almost a start-up organisation because the level of change in the company has really been so profound.”

When Walshe left Jumeirah, the company could fairly claim to have successfully climbed into the top tier of international hotel chains — the hard work that had seen it grow from one hotel in Dubai into an increasingly massive international chain had been done. The challenge at the Doyle Collection could not have been more different.

Walshe says: “Over the past year the company has gone from being private to merging with another great Irish hotel company called Duries. It had been a PLC, but about five years ago the company decided to take it private again, and really try to take it back to what the founder’s original vision was, which was a small, luxury, quality-focused hotel company.”

To do that, to take the chain back to its roots, or rather the vision of founder Pascal Vincent Doyle who started the company by opening the Montrose in Dublin in 1964, the company’s board, which comprises Doyle’s daughters, took some radical decisions.

“We looked at the portfolio, and we disposed of some of the Irish hotel assets — four Irish hotels. We recognised they didn’t fit what we were trying to do with the company. So that left us with eleven; three in Ireland, four in the UK; three in London, one in Bristol. We have one hotel in Boston, and three in Washington. We have now fully renovated top to toe nine of our developments. We didn’t do the other two because they are new — less than five years old,” Walshe says.

Asked how horrendously the financial crisis treated the Doyle Collection — after all, spending a, no doubt, massive sum of money on renovation when nobody was interested in staying in luxury hotels might not in hindsight seem like the best plan of action — Walshe is stoic, choosing to accentuate the positive. And to hear him tell it, perhaps he has a point.
He says: “We look at it in a glass half full way. If you’re going to take virtually your whole inventory out of the market to do a renovation, there was no better time to do it than over the last two years when there has been significant decreased demand for hotel inventory. So from that perspective it was perfect timing. Now that we are starting to detect some positive momentum returning to the hotel sector we have brand new products, we have upgraded significantly our service standard, we have rebranded the organisation, we have a new technology infrastructure within the group, and so we are in pole position to take advantage of any upturn that becomes evident.”

And with that renovation done, he argues, the Doyle Collection finds itself in a position many of its rivals would dearly love to be in: namely, focused on consolidation rather than trying desperately to expand.

“I think what has happened within the industry is interesting, in that everyone in a hotel company capacity is generally obsessed by who they are going to be in the next three to five years. We are obsessed with talking about who we are now. And the magnitude of change that we have brought about in the organisation. We are happy over the next couple of years to just enjoy that and achieving a market leading status for those hotels before we worry about whether we can add value to the company by growing.”

Walshe must be doing something right. When his old boss, Gerald Lawless, CEO of Jumeirah is in town, Walshe says he makes a point of staying in a Doyle Collection hotel. Dublin’s Westbury, to be exact. “It’s a lovely opportunity to catch up,” Walshe says.

What sort of stead does he believe his days with Lawless et al have stood him?

He says: “I think a lot of hallmarks that belong to Jumeirah, and the organisation’s culture, are what I have taken with me and where appropriate, replicated. I think Jumeirah is an outstanding success story. I don’t see their numbers anymore, but from what I know and what I hear about, they are one of the hotel companies that have weathered the economic storm better than just about anybody else. I think that is because they have got such a phenomenal quality of product. And a reputation that helped them to continue to generate demand.

He continues: “Clearly, I think their international expansion may have has been slowed to some degree, because they were expanding or they are expanding through the acquisition of management contracts, and they are dependent on the ability of investors in all parts of the world to bring the product to market for Jumeirah to market. I hope that happens for them, but I think they are one of the best hotel companies in the world.”

Given how well he must know the UAE market, is it not tempting now to become a competitor to Jumeirah, or at least to use his old contacts to make his life easier in his new role? At this comes much laughter. And then a thoughtful response.

“We very much have the UAE in our sights, but as a market to develop for outbound business from the UAE into our locations. I am very aware that particularly London and Washington are two cities that get very frequent travel from the UAE, whether it is UAE nationals or expats. I have been fairly quiet over the last two years, I mean the temptation was there because I have a profile there and know quite a few people to hit the ground running on day one and say ‘come and support me and give all your business.’

“But I know what a discerning market the UAE is and you don’t get a second opportunity to get it right," he says. "So I took the decision, as we did with our promotional and PR plan overall, to keep our head down for two years, get the work done in the hotel and make sure that the products are outstanding and stand up to rigorous testing. So that when I do come over — and we will have a big push in the UAE for business in 2010 — that I am not disappointing anyone. If I come to the UAE and say ‘we are now among the best boutique hotels in the world’ I want it to be the case that when the guests try us, that will be evident and not just marketing spin.”

So that’s the plan. The best boutique hotels in the world? That sounds awfully like the Gulf exporting expertise to us. Time will tell.

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