WorkWild Geese

‘We’re genuinely interested in our guests and want to learn how to delight them’

Wild Geese: Chris O’Sullivan, general manager, Fitzpatrick’s Hotel, New York

For 14 months during the pandemic Fitzpatrick’s Hotel in Manhattan was closed to guests. But behind the scenes, general manager Chris O’Sullivan and three of his colleagues lived in the building to keep things ticking over. The hotel was silent and New York’s normally busy streets were deserted. O’Sullivan says the whole experience was surreal and not one he’d want to repeat any time soon.

“We have permanent residents in the penthouse and, as we hold the fire certificate for the building, someone had to be here,” he says. “Being in an empty hotel when you’re used to the constant bustle felt really strange and wasn’t much fun. By day we worked. In the evening, we’d meet up and cook dinner together. John [Fitzpatrick, the company’s chief executive] would come and join us to make sure we were all well and we kept each other’s spirits up.

“It wasn’t too bad during the summer, but it got a lot harder when winter closed in,” says Cork-born O’Sullivan, who has spent the last 22 years working in the hospitality industry.

O’Sullivan’s mum is a chef and she tried to dissuade her son from joining an industry notorious for hard work and long hours. She even got him a part-time job in a country house hotel so he could see how demanding it was first-hand. However, O’Sullivan stuck to his guns and studied hospitality and hotel management at Cork Institute of Technology.


He cut his teeth as an intern at the Park Hotel in Kenmare before moving to the Aghadoe Heights in Killarney and then up the career ladder, with stints at Hayfield Manor, Dunboyne Castle and the Dylan Hotel in Dublin. In 2009, he was appointed general manager at Racket Hall country house in Tipperary and, in 2012, he took the plunge and moved to New York as assistant general manager at Fitzpatrick’s Manhattan. Two years later he was appointed general manager.

“I came here on my own and knew nobody, which was a bit of a shock after the familiarity of home,” he says. “For the first few years, I would go to the opening of an envelope to build up my network of contacts because here it’s all about knowing the right people when you need to learn how to navigate things.”

O’Sullivan says one of the other things he had to get used to was dealing with a different work culture. “Generally speaking, in Irish hotels people do whatever is needed. In New York, the labour culture is different. Demarcation lines are more firmly drawn and can be harder to negotiate,” he says.

O’Sullivan hails from Kanturk, where he grew up around open fields and horses. He still rides out despite a bad fall at 22 that has required four spinal surgeries to fix.

“It hasn’t really stopped me from doing anything I want, and I was away skiing recently. I’m not sure my mother was impressed by that, though. I think she was afraid I’d fall and cause more problems,” O’Sullivan says.

“I’ve made good friends in New York and am about to buy an apartment in Woodlawn Heights which has a strong Irish community. So, I guess you’d say I’ve settled in. Initially I didn’t have a car, but I do now and tend to go to more rural upstate New York on my time off as I like to hike and explore new places.”

There are two Fitzpatrick hotels in New York – Manhattan and Grand Central Station (which stayed open during the pandemic to cater for airline crews and healthcare workers) – and O’Sullivan says it was gratifying that the hotel managed to hold on to most of its furloughed staff during the lockdown.

“We lost some to places with less severe restrictions but we’re almost back to full occupancy and our full complement of staff of around 80 people,” he says.

“We’re not a large hotel by New York standards – we have 91 rooms – but we have a solid reputation for hospitality. This is one of the reasons why almost 70 per cent of our business is from repeat guests. John [Fitzpatrick] really understands how to look after people and we take our cues from him. He’s built a strong hospitality culture here.

“When recruiting, we tend to put personality and attitude before experience because that’s how we differentiate ourselves in a crowded market. In a lot of US hotels, the exchange is transactional: name, passport, credit card, room key. In Fitzpatrick’s, we’re professional but also warm and welcoming because we’re genuinely interested in our guests and want to learn how to delight them.”

O’Sullivan says one of the most difficult things to call as Covid receded was when to reopen.

“We ended up playing it by ear month to month. Initially, we thought it would be April 2020, but the date kept getting pushed out as Covid lingered. Then the arrival of the Omicron variant pretty much ruined Christmas that year and we eventually reopened on the 26th of April, 2021.”

One of the things that has changed since Covid is the mix of business at the hotel.

“Hybrid schedules and people working from home have affected travel patterns for sure. Now we have business travellers on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and leisure travellers from Thursday through to Monday,” O’Sullivan says. “New York has definitely come alive again. The shows are back, the audiences are back, the city’s energy is back and the whole place is buzzing. It’s great to see.”

Olive Keogh

Olive Keogh

Olive Keogh is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in business