John Fitzpatrick is one of Ireland’s most successful exports. Acknowledged as a leading figure in the hotel industry in New York, Mr Fitzpatrick is the president and CEO of the Fitzpatrick Hotel Group, North America, and currently serves as chairman of the Hotel Association of New York City.
Born into the famed Fitzpatrick Irish hotel family, Mr Fitzpatrick began his training with a four-year hotel management course at Fitzpatrick Hotels in Ireland, followed by the prestigious hotel management course at UNLV in Las Vegas.
After honing his skills with two major hotes in Chicago, Mr Fitzpatrick returned to Ireland to work at the family hotels in Dublin and Bunratty. In 1991 he returned to the US and opened his first New York hotel.
In 2008, he was recognised for his contributions to the peace process in NI with an honorary OBE. In 2010, Irish America magazine recognised him with its most prestigious award, Irish American of the Year. He addressed Hospitality Exchange in Belfast last year.
What is the biggest change you have seen in the last decade in the hotel industry?
The role that the internet has come to play in our industry. The internet really took off around the time of 9/11. The economic downturn after 9/11 created the perfect environment for internet distribution channels to flourish. People were looking for bargains, and sites like Expedia and Hotels.com to deliver them.
It’s left us needing to pay a lot more attention to where our rates are viewed and how |they are positioned. Now, we also have a large mix of social media like TripAdvisor.com and Facebook. In many hotel companies, managing social media has become a full-time position.
What has been the biggest challenge for your hotel group in the USA?
Definitely the proliferation of so many big brands. As an independent hotel group, we can’t possibly expect to have the global name recognition or marketing dollars that brands like Marriott, Starwood and Hilton do.
We are fortunate enough to have brand recognition in Ireland, being an Irish hotel company originally, and that remains critical to our success.
For you, what for you makes a great hotel?
Personal service and recognition are what matter most to me when I stay somewhere else, and they matter most to me for our hotels as well. They are the building blocks of our brand. Also, good housekeeping and attention to detail.
You came from a famous hotel family — what are the advantages and disadvantages?
Well, while we are well known, we can hardly be considered famous when there are hotel families with names like Marriott,
Hilton, Doyle, and Hastings out there. Still, it did offer some advantages and some challenges.
The biggest advantages were that it allowed me to learn from a great hotelier, and that having a recognised name in Ireland helped us establish ourselves in New York.
The biggest disadvantage was that early on some people perceived that my siblings and I had it easy. In fact, our father was probably harder on us than he was on anyone else, and there was a lot of pressure to prove ourselves.
You have visited NI many times — what does the province have to offer tourists?
The advances made through the peace process certainly point to a very bright future for hospitality in the North.
Northern Ireland has an enviable range and mix of tourism products and attractions to offer visitors — from the Giant’s Causeway, Fermanagh Lakelands and the Mournes, to |the impressive Titanic Signature Building and the Ulster Museum, just to name a few. Ironically, I myself didn’t get to
spend much time there until after I moved to the US. I’m so glad to be able to get there fairly often now. It’s a beautiful place with terrific people, and |it has some of the best golf courses in the world, added to which you now have a fantastic ambassador for golf in US Major winner Graeme McDowell, who can help spread the word around the world.
Belfast is an exciting city with a gorgeous waterfront, and I think the Grand Opera House is a special place. The recent announcement that Londonderry has been chosen as the UK’s first City of Culture in 2012 is a fantastic accolade and will offer a unique opportunity to promote the city and the rest of Northern Ireland on the world stage.
What advice would you give to anybody starting out a career in the industry?
You have to be passionate about it. It can be a very tough industry, but it can be very satisfying. You have to love it, you have |to be committed, and you have to really like dealing with people. If you have doubtthen you should find another field.