“We have to think more outside the box” — Alison Kealy
The new Chair of Dublin’s Licensed Vintners Association is delighted with just how well the pub trade there has bounced back after the income-flattening Covid Lockdowns.
“The majority seem very happy with how the last few months have gone,” says Alison Kealy, noting the return of the regulars along with the visitor market to the capital.
“After the last Lockdown, a love of the pub trade saw draught bouncing back,” she observes, “We’re also moving into becoming more of a food society and I think pubs are adapting to that too. Loads of us are giving great food offerings – a great night out in the pubs which people appreciate between the draught product, the wine, cocktails and the food that we can now offer the customer.
“I want to keep focusing on driving the Dublin pub trade, encouraging tours into the market and keeping the customer happy with the offer.”
In taking on the LVA Chair, third generation family publican Alison follows in her father Derry’s and grandfather Joe’s footsteps.
The family business – Kealy’s of Cloghran in North County Dublin – is a big family affair with father Derry, his wife Elaine and Alison’s sister Kathryn all working alongside her in the pub beside Dublin Airport.
“Like all of us growing up with family pub businesses, I grew up working in the pub and continued to do so all through my college days as I studied and worked as a Chartered Accountant,” explains Alison, “I later moved on to become a Financial Controller for a Swedish IT company – Intentia – that was in the Enterprise Resource Planning market.”
In 2006, she rejoined the family business and that’s been her full-time job since then.
Post-Covid, the main challenges for the industry lie in recruiting staff alongside containing costs and tackling inflation.
Looking to the future she says, “We’re going to be working all this year on the hospitality sector itself; we need to attract new people into the sector and invest in training and development for staff.
“In my own case, some of my staff want to work a four-day week and we need to be adapting to that.”
The Dublin trade is a very competitive market.
“Even personally, we’ve a number of vacancies – but before you can even get to meet some of the interview candidates they’ve already secured another post! We’re also trying to get international workers to come back from home but accommodation is a major obstacle. We have to think more outside the box.”
In her own case she cites Kealy’s where she’s helped out a number of her kitchen staff with accommodation by renting a five-bedroom house in the area to house them.
“We have to put extra thought into what we can offer employees at the moment,” she says.
For example, another person she hopes to hire is a bar manager who’s currently in the UK where there’s a skills shortage too.
“He’s willing to come over here but I have to sort out accommodation before he’ll come,” she says, “It’s tricky and there’s a lot more to it at the moment.”
Nevertheless, such woes aside, it’s a great, vibrant industry to work in and the trade needs to highlight this, she believes.
“Staff can work their way up through to management and some can even get their own pubs in the long run.”
Innumerable challenges seem to be marching down the line for the Dublin pub trade which finds itself – like most businesses large and small – experiencing staff shortages, increasing operating costs, accommodation shortages and of course there’s the issue of the cost of liability insurance.
“I’m not seeing any passing-on of reductions in Liability Cover which is a very significant cost to doing business,” she says, while nevertheless complementing immediate LVA Past Chair Noel Anderson and the Alliance for Insurance Reform’s Peter Boland for doing a good job in representing businesses and highlighting this to date.
Promoting the pub
She’s keen too that the trade publicises its virtues.
“The industry has to speak up for itself in promoting this trade. It could maybe run a campaign to show success stories within the industry and maybe use social media platforms to show case studies of people who’re thriving within the industry and moving up the ladder,” she suggests, “For example, our General Manager started part-time at 14. Now 32, she’s come back to us with all the training she’s got, having gone to college, got a degree and gone to Canada. She’s now a great ambassador for hospitality.”
It’s great too, she adds, that Fáilte Ireland is running its tourism campaign to get more people working in the tourism sector.
“We’d just like it more if they had one campaign promoting jobs in the hospitality industry specifically,” she says.
With a view to the longer-term future, the Association’s main focus must concentrate on the impending Licensing reform.
“We’re fully supportive of this Government in streamlining and modernising these laws. The two areas we’re concentrating on are the trading hours – we’re in support of later trading in the city to provide a dynamic and European-style city – but we’d be seriously concerned at any talk of liberalising the number of licences. This Bill is the Number One priority for the LVA in 2022.”
Night-Time Economy moves
The mooted opening up of the Night-Time Economy by Government is unlikely to affect that many LVA members.
“Even if the hours get extended, suburban pubs won’t be going any later than they do at present, but it will be great for those that operate in the late night economy.
“Even then, there’s only a certain cohort who’ll go later. There would be no appetite where I am to go later, but it’s different in every place.
“I know of Dublin city centre pubs that wouldn’t go late as they’re traditional city pubs – but certainly some late bars and nightclubs want to go much later. Each to their own on what they decide to do but it will be great to have the choice.”
The LVA runs its own diploma course and the Association’s Human Resources Manager Gillian Knight organises this very successfully, says Alison.
“She’s also representing us on the Tourism & Hospitality Careers Oversight Group. This is about reviewing recruitment in the hospitality industry and trying to address the skills gaps within the industry.”
Consistent reports of unsatisfactory remuneration levels for hospitality staff have not escaped her attention. And while she cannot answer for other Dublin pubs she knows that the salary scale within the industry is increasing as everyone’s competing for staff.
“Rates are higher than ever before and we have to pay the market rates.
“We’ve a great team in our own place and reward them as best we can as we want to keep them with us,” she says.
Keeping up with changing consumer trends vital
To increase the potential of the Dublin pub, Alison believes that there’s always room for improving the offering that it gives the customer to reflect the consumer’s own broadening taste.
“New cocktails are coming in” she points out, “we’re improving our wine offering and expanding our food menu – all attract tourists and these are things that people love in pubs.
“The culture has changed through Covid. These days one notes more outdoor socialising and I think it’s great to see the variety of ways that we’re now socialising in Dublin; it’s great to see the innovation and colour that’s on the street in the outdoor spaces that we’re all investing in.
“It’s good to see too that even in the darkest days of Winter people will sit outside and some even bring their dogs! It’s lovely to see that relaxed socialising in Dublin.”
Kealy’s of Cloghran already has two outdoor spaces with awnings and is now introducing a third one, such is the demand for it.
Having pointed out the new outdoor socialising trend when ‘out-out’ as the silver lining, Alison Kealy looks up apprehensively at the clouds themselves in this all-too-slowly clearing Summer sky: “All we need now is the weather!”.