I love getting under the skin of what’s happening in a hotel...

In our latest WoW! Bites article by KATE RYAN, meet the Cork-based woman who is inspiring change in the hospitality industry - Karen Healy
I love getting under the skin of what’s happening in a hotel...

Cork-based Karen Healy, of Meraki.ie, 

WHEN we think and talk about food, about producers and restaurants, it’s easy to overlook a vital link in how we engage with the marvellous food on our doorstep – hospitality.

As consumers, diners, and guests, we intrinsically know the value of good service; how often have you remarked an experience has been made or spoiled by service – irrespective of how good the visit was otherwise? Yet, for all that we know, rarely is the service arm of the food industry viewed with a respect for the profession that it is. Too often, working in a restaurant or a hotel is seen as a stopgap, a holiday job, or stepping stone to something else in another industry altogether.

Karen Healy has dedicated her professional life to turning that perception around. Originally from Armagh, she settled in Carrigaline with her husband and two children in 2016 after an illustrious career working in some of the world’s best and exclusive hotel brands, including the luxury arm of The Hilton Group.

Karen established Meraki.ie in 2017 and has been busy building her career as a self-employed Learning and Development Consultant for the hospitality sector.

But it wasn’t hotels Karen thought she was destined for; a career in air stewarding was originally on her mind, but a conversation with a careers adviser at school suggested considering the people industry – hotels or hospitality. She did, and after gaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in hotel and catering management from Dundee University, joined the Ritz Carlton’s Training and Management programme.

From there, a whirlwind career spanning some 26 years and three countries saw Karen increasingly specialise, from hotel operations to HR to learning and development, where she found her sweet spot combining passions for hospitality, operations and people.

A brief, and, as she admits herself, less than successful stint as a recruitment consultant led to landing a role as assistant HR Manager at Clontarf Castle.

“I loved that job, and it was where I specialised further into Learning and Development. There was a huge push at the time for diversity; I learned how to deliver a diversity training course and I just thought: this is me; this is what I want to be doing.”

After three years, Karen moved onto the Conrad Dublin as their training manager, and it was here, working in the luxury end of hospitality, that the professionalism of careers in hospitality and service were brought to the fore.

When Conrad Dublin became part of the Hilton Group, Karen inherited nine Irish hotels, some of which had been through the ringer with multiple owners, including NAMA. In some cases, says Karen, it was a case of “here’s another owner with another set of notions. It was a tough crowd, but I knew that going in, so I scouted out those in the room that would challenge me the most.”

Setting context is everything, says Karen – if people are suddenly sat in a room with someone they don’t know, telling them what to do, there is going to be pushback. To counter that, Karen says her philosophy is about facilitation.

“I firmly believe the answers are already in the room,” she says, “I’m not going in as a know-it-all, rather that these people are professionals, they have expertise, at all different levels, so I facilitate and challenge their own notions and get them to think for themselves.”

When Karen moved to Cork, her husband’s home city, she left behind a company she had loved working with for a decade to move to a city she didn’t know or have any professional connections with.

“I had two smallies at the time, and it was tough going with the work I was doing. I thought, this is my opportunity to do something for myself, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll consider going back into the corporate world. Let’s just say [my husband is] very thankful that I love it here!”

Going out on her own, Karen admits she had a lot of learning to do.

“I knew that what I did, I was good at, and I knew that I absolutely loved it, so I hoped that that would carry me; and my Local Enterprise Office gave me some great guidance.

“But I didn’t know anyone in Cork, either professionally or personally. The Irish Hospitality Institute, who I’d been very active in networking in Dublin, had no presence in Cork. They contacted me and asked would I be willing to be part of a change, and in my mind, you can’t complain about something unless you’re willing to be part of the solution, so I said yes.

“It was off the back of that I met Dr Donagh Davern at MTU, who said there was a need for learning and development in hospitality in Cork and no-one was really doing it. There were a few people doing customer service, HACCP, manual handling – that kind of thing - but no one doing soft skills, management development, so I tentatively went out there.”

Now Karen’s client book boasts hotels such as Hayfield Manor, Castlemartyr Resort, Celtic Ross Hotel, Montenotte Hotel, Carton House and Trigon Hotels Group, among many others.

“There’s a really positive shift happening; employers realise people are more transient when they’re not happy. Employees are asking, if they’re going to come here and spend a lot of my time working in the hotel, where’s the good for me. They’ll be paid a wage, but they’re also asking what kind of culture there is? What’s the management style like? Do you do family days? Learning and Development becomes a massive piece of that because people expect that development now.”

The hospitality industry faces huge problems in attracting, retaining and getting talent with the right skills and experience, yet demand for staff is huge. It’s a perennial problem, but has become a crunch issue post-pandemic, particularly the shortage of chefs.

It was at an annual gathering of friends at Rick Stein’s restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall, that Karen had a moment of inspiration that led to creating the inspiring programme, West Cork Chef Academy.

“I came away from there thinking, chefs go there to train and customers go there because they know it’s a foodie destination – that’s West Cork! Chef recruitment has always been a big issue, so I thought, why don’t we do something in West Cork because it’s known as a foodie destination.”

Karen quickly got Neil Grant, General Manager of the Celtic Ross Hotel and fervent believer in food tourism, and Sally Ferns Barnes, of the fabled Woodcock Smokery, on board.

“I just went for it and got six hotels involved to do a pilot programme and to see where it goes.”

Where it went was via John Byron at the Cork Education Training Board (CETB), who secured agreement with City and Guilds in London for a Level 2 qualification, as well as free training in manual handling and HACCP, chefs whites, safety shoes and knives. Damien Long, of West Cork Connect, stepped up to generously offer free transportation to West Cork for students.

West Cork Chef Academy requires students to attend one day a week at the CETB purpose-built kitchen and accommodation training facility on the Model Farm Road, and four days a week at one of the six partner hotels: Celtic Ross, Fernhill House, Liss Ard Estate, Eccles Hotel & Spa, Blue Haven, Waterfront Hotel.

The programme runs for six months, and at the end, students receive their City and Guilds qualification and the opportunity to go on to the National Commis Chef Apprenticeship programme.

“It was important to me that trainees had no prior experience or qualifications. I want this to be for people who have maybe lost their way in life, maybe people on the live register but don’t know where to go, or even a solicitor who has had enough and wants to retrain as a chef. I don’t want anyone to be inhibited by qualifications,” said Karen.

“This is a labour of love for me, I’m giving back to the industry. I want the students to complete West Cork Chef Academy feeling so passionate about cheffing that it’s in their soul!”

The first cohort of six students began their studies in April and are due to complete in October, and there is good news!

“All six students on the programme have been offered employment and two of those have applied to the Commis Chef programme,” Karen tells me.

Such is the success and interest in the initiative that, in advance of the next cohort beginning in March, 2023, it is expanding to cover the whole of County Cork, becoming Cork Chef Academy. With the net cast further, the county is taking control of the skills shortage and offering a unique opportunity to learn from some of the best in the business, earn a qualification and set them up for a fulfilling career in hospitality.

The Academy is Karen’s passion project, but what lies on the horizon for her and Meraki?

“The luxury market has really taken off, so a lot of my work is currently with senior management and how they manage their people. What I do has become more relevant because we’re very conscious about employer branding as an industry. Employers realise that they don’t interview people for a job any more, but the people are nearly interviewing the company back, to see do they want to work there - it’s about what is the employer going to do for the employee.

“Employer branding makes senior managers aware of how their actions impact their team and how that impacts turnover.

“In my industry, I love that no two properties are the same, that there is the same common thread throughout, but it all presents differently. I love getting under the skin of what’s happening in a hotel and seeing where I can genuinely help.”

See www.meraki.ie for information on Learning and Development for Hospitality. karenhealy@outlook.ie for more information on Cork Chef Academy.

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