Dressed in his brightly colored academic robes, John Fitzpatrick began his graduation procession into Queen’s University in Belfast last Wednesday. Overwhelmed by the grandeur of his surroundings, the New York hotelier admits he wasn’t sure what to expect.
“I didn’t realize there would be 1,200 people in the room,” he told the Irish Voice during an interview on Monday.
Part of the prominent Fitzpatrick hotel family, the Dubliner was awarded an honorary doctorate last week for his contribution to business and commerce. Surrounded by hopeful graduates and their families, Fitzpatrick said his own parents, from whom he learned so much, were not far from his thoughts.
“I imagine they would have said, ‘What the hell did you get that for!” Fitzpatrick laughed. “Overall I think they would have been proud.”
Fitzpatrick admits he was anxious addressing such a large crowd in one of Ireland’s most prestigious universities, something he described as "nerve wrecking."
“It wasn’t just about the ceremony, it was graduation day in Queen’s and the students were being awarded their degrees, something they worked so hard for," he told the Irish Voice.
Norma Sinte, the director of development and alumni relations at Queen’s University, described the Irish entrepreneur as an “astute businessman” whose philanthropy has brought joy and comfort to those who need it most.
“John is committed to charity work in the U.S. and here in Ireland. Through a memorial fund set up in honor of his late parents, he has been instrumental in raising over €1.3 million for various charities, including the Corrymeela Community and Barretstown," added Sinte during the ceremony.
For Fitzpatrick, who was named Irish American of the Year for 2010 by Irish America magazine, sister publication of the Irish Voice, the honorary doctorate is just the latest in a long list of accolades. In 2008 he also received an OBE in recognition of his exceptional contribution to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
Fitzpatrick is one of the Irish American community’s most prominent philanthropists. Each year he hosts a golf outing in New York to raise funds for the Eithne and Paddy Fitzpatrick Memorial Fund, named in honor of his later parents. The event has been running for the past 18 years and has raised millions for charitable causes in Ireland.
Fitzpatrick is also actively involved with the American Ireland Fund and for many years was a top New York fundraiser for both Bill and Hillary Clinton when they were campaigning for office.
The president and CEO of Fitzpatrick Hotel Group in North America, the hotel industry has always been in his blood. Fitzpatrick’s parents Paddy and Eithne Fitzpatrick established two successful Irish hotels including the Killiney Castle Hotel in Dublin, and Fitzpatrick’s Shamrock Hotel in Bunratty, Co. Clare.
After studying hospitality in Ireland, Fitzpatrick’s hunger for the business led him to Las Vegas where he attended UNLV and continued his training. “I needed some U.S. experience,” he recalls.
Assimilating to the U.S. hotel trade, he worked part time in a hotel while studying, which offered him a valuable insight. He then went on to manage a hotel in Oak Lawn, Illinois, before the call came from home to return.
“To work for somebody else is very important, it gave me the confidence to run a hotel when I came back home,” he said.
After a brief stint in the U.S., Fitzpatrick returned to Ireland to harness his valuable U.S. experience within the family orientated hotel group.
Tempted back to the American soil and dedicated to expanding the family business, in the early 1990s the hotelier set out to find a suitable location for a potential Fitzpatrick hotel.
Settling on New York City, a prime location merely across the pond from Ireland, he acquired a site on 57th Street and Lexington Avenue.
After an extensive renovation, the hotel finally opened its doors in December 1991 and quickly evolved into a popular destination for heads of state, well known Irish actors and of course the roaming Irish locals and tourists.
“When we moved at first no one knew who we were. It was a huge pond and it was very hard to get the brand recognized,” says Fitzpatrick.
Recalling those formative New York years over two decades ago, Fitzpatrick reflects the hospitality industry was in a different place at that time.
“We had a different style of hotel in those days. Back then having a two-line phone in your room was a big deal but now the Internet and Wi-Fi is considered basic,” he says.
“Things have changed and we are appealing to a different market now. When people travel now they expect a lot more.”
With the Lexington Fitzpatrick hotel thriving, a few years later the hotelier expanded his New York operation and opened Fitzpatrick Grand Central.
With two bustling hotels in the heart of New York City, Fitzpatrick insists his father’s mantra continues to resonate.
“Back to the very beginning in 1991, my father always told me no matter how many hotels you have remember you are an inn-keeper -- it’s all about personal service and getting the customer what they want,” says Fitzpatrick.
Back in his home country last week, where it all began, Fitzpatrick says it was difficult to witness the overpopulation of the Irish hotel trade during the Celtic Tiger years.
“Ireland has a unique situation,” he reflects. “It has way too many hotels.
“We have a really good standard of hotels in Ireland and it was difficult to see hotels built by people who weren’t in the industry. “A lot of those hotels were built for tax reasons; they don’t and never will make any sense."
“It’s very frustrating trying to compete to stay open when the banks are supporting hotels that will never make sense.”
He describes the challenges that lay ahead for the Irish hotel industry as a “tough, uphill battle”.
Fitzpatrick, the current chairman of the Hotel Association of New York City, says the business here is in stark contrast to home because in New York there is a constant demand for rooms.
“We have 11,000 hotels rooms opening in New York City this year,” he revealed.
Mindful of the tireless work of his staff, Fitzpatrick admits the success of his hotels would not have been possible without them.
“In the service industry it is a team effort,” he says, adding that he is extremely grateful to all his employees.
Conscious of the new wave of Irish emigrants to the U.S., the hotelier has made efforts to utilize Irish graduates seeking work abroad.
“We do take interns from Ireland,” he told the Irish Voice. “What we try to do is get people who want to be in our business and we look at their skills. The graduates are very qualified they have great experience. “They are eager to learn and expand their own horizons,” he added.
As Fitzpatrick’s Castle Hotel in Dublin celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, the New York hotels are also delighted to reflect on the last 20 years of success this side of the Atlantic.
“We are very proud of showing our Irish heritage and moving forward,” Fitzpatrick reflected, once again paying tribute to all those who have helped him along the way.
“A lot of what we have become is about the people who work in our hotels as well as those who stay,” he says.“We are a little oasis in New York and the Irish are just great supporters.”