A fresh approach to historic Scottish resort

Conor O’Leary admits that he doesn’t have an off switch.

“Some people snooze to dial down; I indulge myself in blue-sky thinking about business,” says the 43-year-old Stratford-upon-Avon native. “I love the challenge of figuring out how something can be done better.”

That made Ennismore’s 2016 offer to be hotel manager at its crown jewel, The Gleneagles Hotel, a professional pinch-me moment. Never a friend of the status quo, Sharan Pasricha, Ennismore’s founder and CEO, served notice that, while the new owners would be good stewards of this beloved landmark, a multimillion-dollar investment would transform the 96-year-old resort synonymous with golf and keep-off-the-grass formality into a “glorious playground” for today’s high-spend travelers – and would future-proof the 850-acre Scottish resort by encouraging fresh thinking on everything from marketing to eco-friendly paving.

This was O’Leary’s chance to test his managerial and operational ideas for what would be one of the most scrutinized overhauls in the past five years or more and to change the 5-star conversation. He drew on lessons garnered during his career-opening stint as assistant F&B director at the venerable Ritz Hotel, London, and a 12-year climb up Hyatt’s career ladder to blend the best practices of commercial and bespoke luxury hotels.

Conor O'Leary: "With all the tools at hand, we shouldn’t have to ask what our customers want; we should know.”
Conor O’Leary: “With all the tools at hand, we shouldn’t have to ask what our customers want; we should know.”

Contributed by Mary Scoviak

 “Conor knows the industry. He knows his competitors, and he knows operations. But, beyond that, he’s always working on taking the pulse of emerging trends,” says Michael Gray, former vice president at Hyatt Hotels U.K. and general manager of the Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill in 2009 when O’Leary took over as F&B director; he’s now founding partner of hospitality advisory Gray Matters Intl. Ltd. “He’s not afraid to ‘shake the trees’ with new styles of service and products. And he can drive that to the top and bottom lines. He demonstrated that with his innovative design and operational concept for the renovation of The Churchill Bar, which is still one of the must-visit bars in London.”

Initially as the hotel manager and, since 2018, as joint managing director, O’Leary’s had a lot of opportunities to “shake the trees” at The Gleneagles Hotel. In many ways, the initiatives being explored at this rural Perthshire estate are beta tests for the evolutionary changes reshaping luxury hotel management and marketing. (Find out how he and staff are managing through the COVID crisis in the sidebar.)

“Hoteliers can no longer dictate to guests as to how they should enjoy the property,” he says. “Ideas about luxury continue to change… We’re selling to more knowledgeable, self-aware and curated travelers. With all the tools at hand, we shouldn’t have to ask what our customers want; we should know.”

The fun for O’Leary has been finding the “never saw that, never did that” offers that will attract a broader target market to Gleneagles’ hotel. “We’re known as one the world’s premier golf hotels, but golf delivers only 15% of our revenue,” he says. “We had to communicate a strong brand message to those contributing the other 85%.”

Part of Little Glen, geared for younger children and complete with pretend train station and horse stables.
Part of Little Glen, geared for younger children and complete with pretend train station and horse stables.

To play to the growing multi-generational family travel market, The Gleneagles Hotel upgraded the traditional kids’ club with “a significant investment” in two separate spaces: Little Glen, for young children is a miniaturization of the hotel complete with its own pretend train station, steam train and a stable full of hobby horses. The Den is a hangout for teens with interconnecting rooms providing PS4s, Xboxes, analog games, pool, air hockey and a film screening room.

Customer priorities

To be relevant, modern luxury has to be approachable, aligned with its prospective guests and experiential, says O’Leary. He predicts climate change will be one of the biggest change-makers in the 5-star world.

“The Gleneagles Hotel brand’s message has to be that our values are the same as its customers in terms of environmental priorities,” he says. “That can’t be lip service. We have to institute proactive eco-friendly practices, buy ethically sourced and environmentally responsible products and, if we make a mistake, face up to it and rectify it as quickly as possible.”  

Single-use plastics will be eliminated in the next quarter, and a collaboration with environmental agencies has resulted in the planting of well over 1,000 trees. Then there are the leading-edge initiatives: A trial-run driveway surfacing is made with melted-down carrier bags. “We were really excited to be a test case for a product like this,” he says.

Social impact is another big issue. “Concerns over our carbon footprint aren’t going away, but we also have to consider our footprint in our community,” says O’Leary. The hotel’s maintenance team helped renovate a nearby six-room shelter. O’Leary and his colleagues are talking with local prisons and the armed services about setting up training programs to help meet’s the staffing demands of the hotel’s 1,000-member staff.

Having been introduced to the industry as a 16-year-old weekend pot washer while pursuing his studies, O’Leary is well aware that “staff” are also customers. He next-gen take on top management’s priorities is to get rid of the frustrations that impede team members from doing their best work.

“Some of the staff were very cynical when I first met with them, and rightfully so,” he says. “I addressed that by reviewing pay grades, meeting with them in small groups and setting up an internal system called Workplace that showed which ideas could work and which couldn’t and why. We did the big things such as reviewing pay grades and the small things like introducing ice cream pop-ups and pumpkin-carving contests. But the most important action for getting buy-in was to replace managers who couldn’t adapt to this approach.”

On course to meet “high EBITDA and profit goals,” O’Leary is turning his musings toward the successful launch of The Gleneagles Hotel’s first sister property, Gleneagles Townhouse Edinburgh, 43-room hotel with a private membership club slated to open in summer 2021. “We have to know what our customers want from bed mattress to linen to room setup,” he says.

One thing that’s certain is that even 5-star travelers are time poor. “We stripped away anything that anything that eats time. There are no long forms to complete. We kept the rooms low tech because too much tech can cause more frustration rather than less. However, technology is a big priority behind the scenes. We’re using it to become more data rich on what people spend on, how much they’ll spend and why. That gives us many ways to cut and slice data so that we can be more intuitive.”

Those are some of the things O’Leary’s tackling during his mind-clearing walks over the moors with a cocker spaniel named Rolo. Then, there’s his current fascination: developing a truly disruptive fast food brand. “No one’s really done that since the launch of Pret A Manger [in 1983].” Long term, he’s thinking the letters CEO could be the goal. One caveat: “I wouldn’t work for anyone for who didn’t mirror my purpose.”

Even a 24/7 thinker has to power down. That’s where his wife, Ilana, and 7-month-old daughter, Eadie, come in.

“We’re a unit, fortunately,” he says. “We’re lucky to be out of the city right now. We wouldn’t be feeding swans during our walks if we were in a gateway. When I do leave work, it’s wonderful to come home and try to figure out how to make my daughter giggle.” True to form.