Let The Mystery Be

The typical customer shuns complexity and unnecessary detail. He doesn’t have time for it.
Everybody’s Wonderin’

You will hear much talk in commercial circles around the notion of the busy fool. It reflects a popular concern that the business owner can be too easily occupied with activities that are high on feel-good but add nothing to the bottom line. In my experience, this frenetic industry-for-its-own-sake can lead to another kind of foolishness, the kind that over-complicates things and misses out on the very real openings that simplicity has to offer.

In a previous life, I was lucky enough to work with a number of the world’s bigger brands. As I stepped behind the curtain and saw the extraordinary machinery at play in some of those businesses, I was struck by how contrived and unnatural a good deal of the thinking around these brands had become. In some of the great brand-building companies, I gazed in wonder at the elaborate formulas, models and diagrams that stretched to dozens of charts and filled several heavy document files. Often, it made my head hurt just to try and take it all in. Afterwards, I struggled to make sense of it and found my thinking had grown muddled and fractured as I tried to piece together what I had just seen and heard.

This jars with the customer’s experience of the great brands, which is simple and uncomplicated. The typical customer shuns complexity and unnecessary detail. He doesn’t have time for it. Few customers share the enthusiasm of the technician for the machinery that drives the proposition. Yet the brand-owner often foists all sorts of complication onto the business transaction and expects the hapless customer to somehow make sense of it all. This just makes the head hurt and leaves the customer reeling.

But I Choose…

Recently, over breakfast with the team at Renvyle House Hotel, I was reminded once again of the importance of keeping things simple. It’s only a small exaggeration to say that Renvyle is one of the world’s great brands. Its name is synonymous with all that is good in Irish hospitality whilst its reputation is known in the most unexpected quarters. It enjoys a loyalty with its customers that the bigger players would pay dearly for. It seems to do so effortlessly but my breakfast companions were quick to point out that there is a lot of hard work involved in keeping things simple.

But before the hard work can begin, something else must be done first. The owner must choose a positioning for the business that allows it to stand on its own two feet and make a simple and direct offer to the customer. Too many businesses begin life without a clear sense of what that offer is. In a competitive world, this can be fatal. Faced with the choice between a simple and a convoluted proposition, the customer almost always plumps for the one that makes immediate sense.

Of course, you could argue that Renvyle enjoyed a running start on the others when it came to that early choice of positioning. After all, Renvyle is a special place, perched between the mountains and the Atlantic on the west coast of Ireland, in what it rightly calls ‘the wild splendour’ of the region. Its owners are not the first to wax lyrical on its charms. The great writers who lived and holidayed there paid tribute too: W.B. Yeats, Oliver St.John Gogarty, Lady Gregory and Augustus John, amongst others.

You could argue that and you would be right. Renvyle did enjoy a head start. But few of us have the courage and good sense to stand back from what nature or custom has provided and let it be. Too often, whether out of vanity or suspicion I’m not sure, we are inclined to meddle with what we are given. Perhaps we think we can do better or we mistrust the simplicity of what stands before us? But in many cases, we cannot improve on the happy sequence of events that has delivered us our proposition.

In that sense, the people at Renvyle are at something of a loss when asked to describe what it is that they bring to the mix. But I suggest that what they bring is vital to the success of the business. They offer a respect and regard for what they have been given that borders on reverence. The story of Renvyle is not simply intoned as a series of fortunate events, delivered for the entertainment and amusement of the customer. Nor is it offered up as a history lesson, although its story echoes the story of Ireland and features many of its leading characters. When they attempt to outline their contribution, the players at Renvyle speak of a response to the nature of the house and the place. This is their starting point.

Where They All Came From

One of Renvyle’s previous guests, a certain Winston Churchill, said something that has always seemed to me to say as much about the business of brand-building as it does about architecture: “First we shape the building, then the building shapes us.”

The building at Renvyle was shaped first by nature, and then by those poets and thinkers who saw it as a country retreat far from the business of politics and commerce at the nation’s capital. Its current owners have chosen to have their own thinking and attitude shaped by the building, and have built the Renvyle brand along those same lines.

When I asked them whether they saw any conflict between the historical nature of the house and the demands of running a modern business, the team again seemed briefly nonplussed. They do not see a conflict because they have chosen to respond to the history of the house by delivering it in a way that makes sense to the customer in the early twenty-first century. They see it as a good thing that, until recently, the mobile communications networks had failed to deliver a signal that could intrude on the sense of retreat at Renvyle. They recall with fondness the days before they added their own generator when the Christmas break at Renvyle was always punctuated by a power-cut. For the guests, the resort to candlelight seemed to add to the romance of their stay (so much so, that in the years immediately following the arrival of the generator, the hotel manager occasionally switched off the power for a short time just to recreate the experience for those guests who felt a little cheated by the march of progress!).

Some Say You’re Gonna Come Back

This respect for what has shaped the building extends into other areas at Renvyle. Many business owners speak of their staff as extended family. Usually, it is accompanied by the other jargon that litters business-speak. At Renvyle, chef Tim O’Sullivan, who has been at the hotel for dozens of years, is not inclined towards jargon. Instead, he talks about a kitchen run along family lines, one where there is no weekly meeting because “we meet everyday and when you know people that well, you often know what they’re going to need before they do.” This is reflected in the way in which the hotel’s staff (the majority of whom are international) have been absorbed into the life of the hotel. Four of the team who started life there as kitchen porters have progressed to work as chefs and Tim hopes to see them return to their home-places in time with the skills and the confidence to open their own restaurants.

The guests too feel like extended family. Renvyle enjoys significant repeat-business with many of its current visitors in the third-generation. The hotel likes to play to these enduring values in a lighthearted and self-deprecating way. An advertisement for the hotel promised cooking ‘just like mother used to make’ with the caveat “assuming she was a leading chef who caught her own fish daily at the bottom of the garden”, whilst the hotel responded to Ryder Cup fever in 2006 with the story of how the strong Atlantic breezes accounted for over 10,000 golf balls lost each year in the lake at Renvyle and noted how the hotel’s general manager had considered issuing safety helmets to the hundreds of ducks who made their home on the lake. Unsurprisingly, the story ran in newspapers across the world and offered a nice counterpoint to some of the more pompous puff-pieces that were circulated elsewhere.

Let The Mystery Be

When pressed, the team at Renvyle puts their continued success down to a genuine interest in people. I have suggested elsewhere that affection for your customer is something that cannot be easily faked. And where it is successfully faked, it is impossible to sustain. The Renvyle brand has one thing in common with many of the other great brands that I have known over the years. Its owners do not feel compelled to create massive machines in order to label and document every working part of the whole. Instead, they are prepared to trust to the power of a simple proposition, delivered with integrity and conviction. They set that proposition at the heart of everything they do. Their role, as they see it, is to shape the proposition in a way that makes sense to the customer and busy themselves only with making it work.

For more on how one of Ireland’s great hotels shapes up, visit www.Renvyle.com