LUCKY is a word used often by Karen Fleming when talking about her life, her work, and her family.
She counts herself lucky to have amazing family and friends, to have travelled the world and come full circle home to Cork, to a wonderful job.
It’s no wonder she thinks herself lucky, after all, home is in the Gate Keepers Lodge in the stunning grounds of one of Ireland’s top tourist spots, Blarney Castle — while her office is at the luxurious Hayfield Manor, Cork city’s only five star hotel.
But it isn’t just luck that has brought Karen to where she is today, as Sales Director for the Hayfield Family Collection and the newly elected President of Network Ireland Cork branch. It’s years of hard work, dedication, and a passion for the hospitality industry, which was nurtured and developed since she was a teenager.
Karen grew up in Waterfall and went to school in Goggins Hill NS, then onto Ballincollig Community School. She did her Leaving Cert aged 17 and, along with her best friend, applied to study hotel management in GMIT.
“We thought hotel management sounded very glamorous so we headed off — in those days it was to Shannon, Dublin or Galway, so off we went to Galway. I did the BA in Hotel and Catering in GMIT. Off we went for three years in Galway, and another year spent abroad. What appealed to me most travel, languages, taking care of people.
“My best friend’s cousin worked as a hotel manager in Dublin, we thought it a very glamorous job, we were probably watching Hotel at the time! We hadn’t worked in a hotel so we didn’t know.
“We came home every week on the bus for the first year.”
In fact, one of her memories as the eldest of five siblings was her younger brothers, aged seven and nine, coming in to collect her from the bus, it was the highlights of their week.
During college, Karen did her national placement at a hotel in Killarney, and her international placement in Germany.
“For the first few months (in Germany), I was so homesick, I thought I would never survive the 12 months. For a person who thought they wanted to travel, be an aupair and all sorts of things, I nearly died when I first left Ireland, on my own.
“I was very homesick, I was quite shy, although people might not believe that, I was very shy, I didn’t really want to say much in a foreign language either for fear of making mistakes.
“Then I grew to really love it. I had to come back to finish the degree, but I made lots of good friends when I was there, it was a ski resort on the Austrian border, there was a big military base there, I met lots of ex-pats. Irish, Kiwis, Aussies, and some German friends as well.”
Karen returned to Ireland to finish her degree before doing a J1 to Chicago, but then returned to Germany where she worked for seven years, on and off.
“I loved it. I went back to working in restaurants and bars, in a German restaurant and an Irish pub as well, they were the best fun ever.”
During these seven years, Karen worked in Germany for a while, then did some travelling, before returning to Germany to work again. During this time she visited south-east Asia, Australia, India, Sri Lanka, eastern Europe and Italy.
She moved back to Ireland in 2006, to Galway, where she did a Diploma in Italian, and ended up staying three years. She worked managing restaurants for Michael O’Grady, who she described as an “absolute legend”.
Karen managed Kirwan’s Lane bar and restaurant in the city, then was promoted to manager at O’Grady’s on the Pier in Barna, which won best seafood restaurant in Ireland at the Hotel and Catering Review awards — a very proud day, Karen says.
Then she returned to Cork to do a Masters in UCC in Management and Marketing.
First she took three months off to join her brother in South America, and when she came home, she began working in Hayfield. She had been aware of the hotel as her cousin was working there, trying to become a pastry chef. It was also on her radar as they had picked up a prize at the same awards when O’Gradys were honoured.
A recruitment agency sent her to the Bon Secours Hospital for a catering manager position, but when she was on the same road as Hayfield Manor, she decided it was there she actually wanted to work, so called in.
That was back in 2010 and she has been there since. She started in Orchids Restaurant, before moving to Operations, as assistant manager, and after three years they asked if she would consider a sales and marketing role, so her job changed again.
“The job is always changing, I am always learning new things,” she said.
Karen says it has been a massive learning curve and has huge praise for her immediate boss, Lisa, who she said is the brains behind the sales team.
“I get to do all glam things, I am the point of contact, I build relationships, she is driving it forward. Lisa is just brilliant.”
In fact, Karen says she has been so lucky working with all the staff at Hayfield, singling out in particular Hayfield Family Collection Executive Ettienne van Vrede, and former deputy General Manager Seamus Crotty, who is now working at Sheen Falls.
The Scally family now own a third hotel in Killarney, so that has changed everything again and expanded Karen’s role.
She says her current role in sales is about building reslationships with existing partners, including corporate partnerships in Cork and with partners in the travel industry. It allows her some travel, on sales trips to promote Ireland, Cork and the hotels. She said a lot of her job is sending quotes back to people who are staying at the hotel, or who are interested in hosting an event there.
The Hayfield Collection is family owned and Karen said that is one of her favourite things about it.
“They very supportive, they have given me every opportunity. It is great to work with them and for them. They are very passionate about taking care of guests.
“The best thing about the three hotels are the staff we have and colleagues we have — they are by far the greatest asset.”
So what has been her proudest moment working at Hayfield to date?
Karen said: “I am very proud every day to work in Hayfield and with this company, I love the brand and the hotel and the staff. Proud moments that stand out would include, last October, myself and the hotel basically did a charity afternoon tea in Marymount, it was one of my proudest moments. When I saw the whole team come out and how they transformed the reception area, I was so proud to be involved in that with the hotel.
Another stand-out moment was when she was in Dublin with Ettienne and Seamus and they won best Five Star Hotel in Ireland and the Best Overall awards.
“I was very proud to be there and to be with such colleagues.”
She is also very proud of the recent Network Cork annual Christmas dinner, where staff at Hayfield pulled out all the stops for a memorable night, as she took over the reins of the organisation.
Karen became a member of Network Cork when her role at work changed and she became involved in sales and marketing.
“I am the hotel rep for a lot of our affiliations, so Cork Chamber, the American Chamber rep, Sales Institute and Marketing Institute and Network Cork — making new contacts, making new clients. That is when I became a member because it was part of my role, four and a half years ago.
“A year in, Helen Wycherly asked me to join her committee, as corporate membership officer, then Joan Walsh asked me to be her business awards co-ordinator, then Ciara Wilson asked me to be her deputy last year, and this year I became president.
“Personally and professionally, joining Network Cork and particularly being on the committee has been one of the most valuable things, making new friendships and contacts. It has been really great. I left Cork aged 17 — I didn’t have contacts in the business community here in Cork. Network Cork definitely helped.”
Karen is gearing up to host the first Network Cork event of 2018, titled ‘Ready Set Soar’, and one of the topics is ‘to bring your best to 2018 in everything you do’.
“That is something I will be trying to enhance at all the meetings, so people feel they are getting the most out of the membership so they can put the best of themselves into their business.”
The second event will look at the General Data Protection Review, which comes into force in May and replaces the existing data protection framework under the EU Data Protection Directive.
“We need to get our ducks in a row about what information we can take and store. It is important people understand what they need to do, to be compliant,” she said.
There will also be a mix of finance-based events, motivational speakers, looking at health and wellbeing, as well as the annual Network business awards and women in leadership event with Cork Chamber.
“The over-riding theme of the year is to ensure that people are getting the best out of their membership and out of themselves for the good of their business,” Karen said.
“We want people to recognise Network Cork as a valuable contributor to the business community in Cork.”
She would also like to increase and enhance membership, with more public bodies, people in civil service, teachers, etc, as she believes Network is relevant to them too and it would be good for the organisation to have a wide mix of members.
It all sounds very busy for Karen — so does she have any time for hobbies?
“I still love to travel. Travel is my absolute favorite hobby. I am lucky my family, my partner likes to travel, my friends like to travel. Two very good friends of mine and I have done a lot of trips together, we did a Rio trip recently, we do lots of short mini break.”
She also loves to read and going to concerts. Her favourite band is Pearl Jam, and she would have seen the Stone Roses a few times. She also enjoys going to the movies.
Her home is at the Gate Lodge of Blarney Castle, and her partner Anthony works on the estate. She says: “I am really lucky, when I am doing my sales presentation, I hold up a picture of Blarney Castle and say that’s in my back garden. I leave the gated estate in the morning and then I come here (Hayfield) I am very, very lucky. I am really lucky.”
Karen is still very close to her family, she has four siblings and her parents are also a great support to her, she says.
She was the one living away for years and up until recently was the only child back home in Cork. Her sister returned recently to Leeside, while two brothers live in Wicklow and in Toronto.
“I am very fortunate with my family, they are my best friends, My mum and dad are very supportive. My siblings are my favourite people to hang out with, as well as my friends, I am very lucky with my immediate family and extended family — cousins, aunts, uncles. I have been really lucky.
“At the end of the day I am really lucky, I have amazing family and friends.”
Network Ireland Cork Branch will host ‘Ready, Set, Soar’, a workshop on professional development, productivity and time management, on January 17.
Guest speakers will be Barbara Nugent of Transilient Coaching and Eric Fitzpatrick of ARK Speaking and Training.
The event will take place at 6pm in the Cork International Hotel. Attendance is free for Network Cork members and €25 for non-members. Places are limited and tickets can be found on Eventbrite at networkcorksoar.eventbrite.ie
President of Network Ireland Cork Branch, Karen Fleming said: “We wanted our first event of 2018 to have real actionable takeaways that would ensure that our members felt better equipped to set and achieve their professional and personal goals in 2018.”
THE Network Ireland Cork Branch has almost 200 members.
New Principal Officers also appointed for the year ahead are Gillian Hennessy as Vice President, Megan Pardy as PRO, Adrianna Hegarty and Michelle Collins as Membership Officers and Josie O’Kelly as Events Co-Ordinator.
Also newly appointed this year is Elaine Wilson, as New Members Officer. This is a new role in the organisation and it looks to welcome newcomers and provide them with the support they need to maximise their membership throughout the year. Enquiries on membership can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Network Ireland is a non-profit, voluntary organisation, with more than 1,000 members nationwide, comprising of 13 branches, with two new branches due in 2018 including Kerry and Roscommon.
Network Cork is the Cork branch of Network Ireland.
See www.networkireland.ie for more