by Padraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolElla
Fiche bliain ag fas
20 years ago this year Patrick Delaney and I started Delaney Marketing Consultants and launched ourselves as “Ireland’s leading DMC” to the understandable annoyance of our long established competitors. Some competitors even took their chagrin to higher authorities and lodged official complaints about our promotional arrogance with the Irish Tourist Board. As it transpired they needn’t have worried. We won little or no significant business in those early years and learned that profile and popularity don’t necessarily lead to profit. Bullshit doesn’t always translate into business!
20 years later as we prepare to launch SoolElla, our boutique consultancy, I thought it worthwhile to reflect on lessons learned, milestones and highlights of a business that, despite the early hubris and naivety of its founders, managed, throughout our 20 years’ involvement, to become a significant force in business tourism in Ireland and beyond, employing over 50 talents with annual turnover of €15m+.
Creation of The Luxury Partnership 1998
After about 5 years in business we realised that the sales pitch of the average DMC – us included – held as much interest for meetings and incentive planners as the hibernation habits of small hedgehogs. Planners didn’t buy DMCs, they bought destination experiences and the role of the DMC, at least initially, was all about destination marketing. With US based David Spain, we created “Ireland: The Luxury Partnership” and initiated a 3 year campaign of print collateral, direct mail and face-to-face sales with key hospitality partners – Sandra Cummins at Conrad, Adrienne Clark at Luttrellstown Castle, Ann Cronin at The K Club and Carmel Flynn at Sheen Falls Lodge were founder members of the consortium. With some help from Tourism Ireland and Aer Lingus we significantly grew MICE market share in the US both for the destination and for each of our organisations. Delaney Marketing finally became what it claimed to be in 94.
Merger with Ovation Group July 2002
DMCs in second or third tier destinations like Ireland tend to be small operations, certainly no more than 5 – 10 employees. Business, too, is chunky with excellent years followed by fallow years through no fault of your own – if fashion and trends cause customers to select other destinations there’s little you can do about it. The solution for us was to expand into adjacent segments such as event management and conference management and leverage our experience and resources across multiple revenue streams. We purchased some small niche companies along the way and then merged Delaney Marketing with the biggest conference and event company in Ireland, Ovation. At ownership / culture level the merger was not successful and it cost us a lot of time and money to extricate ourselves from our third shareholder. However, once we re-assumed 100% ownership we were left with a brilliant business model with 3 distinct revenue streams as well as some of the finest people in the conference and events industry in Ireland – current MD of MCI Dublin Rob Allidine along with Mark Egan and Ed Ryan date from this period.
Acquisition by MCI 2007
Probably the most significant milestone of the past 20 years was MCI’s acquisition of Ovation Group. By 2007 we had taken Ovation as far as it could go on the island of Ireland – turnover had reached €15m and we had nearly 60 people in Dublin and Belfast. The MCI acquisition enabled us to assume a global role in the meetings industry and to pass on the baton of local leadership to our excellent management team. It also allowed us to pioneer the creation of a global brand in destination management – Ovation Global DMC is now in 100 destinations worldwide. It a source of immense pride to us to depart MCI with Dublin consistently amongst the top performing MCI offices (out of nearly 50 globally) and with 2 group functions – Destination Services (Ovation) and Procurement – headquartered in Dun Laoghaire.
Riverdance was first performed as an interval act at the Eurovision Song Contest way back in April 1994. Later that year, during our first year of operation, we staged the first ever performance of Riverdance for a private audience, guests of Aer Lingus, our client, attending the annual conference of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Highlights don’t often come at the beginning of a company’s history but this one did! The event took place in the Atrium at historic Trinity College Dublin. We collaborated on the production with Tony Graham (now retired) and Graeme Dowie (now with Spectra Travel in Scotland) creating a post dinner “cheese and cordials” event called “Flights of Fantasy” that went on to win a Site Crystal Award. Michael Flatley himself danced the principal role.
YPO Family University
The YPO Family University took place in Ireland in July 2005 during a week of unabated heat and sunshine. It was the single biggest event we were ever part of and, conservatively, generated over €10m for the Irish economy. Planning for the event commenced in late December 2002 when Mike Kelley from Maui contacted me about the feasibility of running an 8 day educational event in Ireland for 150 families, all members of Young Presidents Organisation. We devised an intriguing “hub and spoke” event that involved a 3 night buy out of Ashford Castle, Dromoland Castle, Adare Manor and Sheen Falls Lodge followed by a 4 night buy-out of Four Seasons, Dublin. And then we made it happen! The educational faculty included An Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams, Mitch Albom (5 People you Meet in Heaven, Tuesdays with Morrie), Jack Canfield (Chicken Soup for the Soul) and we created 50 never-before-staged activities and excursions which afforded delegates a unique and precious insight into Ireland’s rich heritage and culture. These activities included “Behind the scenes at the Abbey Theatre”, “Be a jockey for a day – an introduction to horse-racing at Ireland’s premier private stud farm”, “U2 can be U2 – record a song at studios used by U2”. It was a privilege to lead such an event and to build a lifelong friendship with Mike Kelley (Chair of the Event) and Rob Darden (YPO’s Event Director).
One Lesson Learned
Over the past 20 years I had to learn and re-learn many things. But my 1000 words are now up and I have to isolate one key learning. This is it:
Discern what really matters in business and in life and focus on the lasting things. Money can’t buy you love, success is an elusive butterfly but relationships forged on the anvil of love and truth will sustain you ‘til your dying day.
So that’s my Fiche bliain ag fás [Twenty Years a-Growing]. Get ready for the Fiche bliain fe bhláth [Twenty years a-blooming]
Padraic Gilligan is Managing Partner with Patrick Delaney of SoolElla, a boutique consultancy offering another viewpoint for meetings and events. See www.soolella.com