On June 7, the boy from Limerick will stand up in front of the audience to deliver a talk at the TEDx Wilmington Lust for Life: Adventure Travel & Hospitality event. He will be among other hoteliers invited to give 18-minute talks, but it marks an interesting turning point – a time when “innkeepers” as he is fond to call them, get philosophical about the world of hotels.
“The theme I hope to get across is one of ‘pride before profit’ and I hope the talk will be one which will have an influence on the future generation of hoteliers,” says Walshe during the group’s recent annual UK roadshow. “When I look around at colleagues, I feel I am always the person with the most meaningless title in the room – ‘the chief of the executives’. But I always try and rebrand myself as ‘chief pride officer’. We are here to make customers and staff feel proud.”
Of course the more obvious story during his recent visit – which also included a party for 175 travel industry guests at London’s Playboy – was the opening of the eye-catching 477-room Viceroy Palm Dubai, which even in a shiny place like Dubai, looks especially shiny.
The group’s 14th hotel is one of superlatives of course – an architectural marvel, it’s home to the ‘largest freestanding glass structure in world’; ‘the longest pool in UAE’; and was also the location for a launch event for the Ferrari 812 Superfast, which was craned onto the top of the glass structure. So far, so bling.
With Dubai demanding “different” on a daily basis, Viceroy was happy to deliver, not just with the dramatic architecture of the hotel, but also with the recruitment of staff for the hotel.
“Theatre improvisation training was used to find the team,” he explains. “We wanted to see how people genuinely interacted with others and among the actors and so on in an improvised environment. It really highlights people’s ability to engage, pivot when necessary and genuinely interact.”
Walshe is keen to always point out that at the heart of the brand - started by Brad Korzen in 1999 – remains the oxymoronic idea that it delivers “consistent individuality”.
He likes to think of “hotels as theatre”, and having recently turned 50, perhaps Walshe is in even more philosophical mood than usual.
Maybe this small-town Irish guy pinches himself every day as he enjoys the LA lifestyle, travels 175 days a year and runs a hotel company half-owned by one of the wealthiest funds in the world - Mubadala, the strategic investment company of the Abu Dhabi Government. “We are one small part of what they do, but I think they are very proud of how we do it,” he says.
He stays rooted to the core business – having moved to Dubai for a month pre-opening to muck in and see how things were going. “I smile to myself when I see bosses of big groups turn up with the giant scissors to cut the ribbon on openings – we prefer to live and breath each one as it reaches completion,” he says.
He wakes up to daily messages on his phone from various construction sites around the world and is excited to soon be in Chicago to “lay the last brick” of the piece-by-piece renovation of the next opening, which is now taking reservations for October.
The 180-room hotel Chicago property (pictured) has had its entire brick facade painstakingly replaced and a glossy new tower set atop it. Walshe is particularly proud of the upcoming Somerset restaurant by chef Lee Wolen within the hotel, where he will be for the “brick party” on June 1.
Also recently announced is a huge hotel in Vietnam, making it the first for the brand in Asia.
Set to open in 2020, Viceroy Da Nang Vietnam will be at the heart of the Cocobay entertainment and hospitality hub; something of a contrast to the nearby ancient town of Hoi An but all just 20 minutes from Da Nang airport.
Cocobay's master plan features a convention center, opera house, sports arena, beach club, retail stores, and numerous nightlife and dining destinations – along with the twin towers of the Viceroy, with its planned 700 rooms and eight restaurants.
Then there’s the other recent news – the slightly obscure addition of a Serbian ski resort with 120 rooms, set to open at Viceroy Kopaonik in 2018, set within the nation’s largest mountain range.
“It will be our second ski hotel – look what happened with Snowmass,” he recalls. “It was not the best known of Aspen’s mountain resorts, but now it’s been hugely elevated. We have taken it to the stage where it is a destination in its own right. We can do that for Serbia too – there are tens of millions of people within a three-hour drive of the hotel.”
Sadly “mothballed” for now however - given the slump in travel to Turkey in its recent turbulent times - is Viceroy’s super-luxe 77-key Istanbul project.
“It’s an unusual situation we find ourselves in, as the project is ready to go. It has a wealthy Turkish owner who can sit and wait until things look up in the country and then we would be ready to go pretty quickly with an opening, maybe by April 2018,” says Walshe. “It’s an incredible project on Princes’ Islands, which is the ‘Hamptons of Istanbul’.”
The hotel is a “secluded sanctuary” built around an historic mansion with a private beach – a client even joked to Walshe that he should pitch it as a temporary film set back in LA to the studio bosses in Hollywood while he waits for it to open.
Walshe won’t exactly be twiddling his thumbs however while he ‘waits’, as there are other areas of the world to attend to. Like South America, where he says there is huge potential.
“With all my travelling and with the big focus on the region, you could say I’ve stopped reading my James Patterson novels on the go and switched to Rosetta Stone to learn Spanish!” he says.
“We chased a project in Nicaragua but didn't get it, but that’s somewhere we definitely want to be,” he sighs. “There is a hotel coming up in Buenos Aires and the whole vibe and confidence in Colombia is brilliant to experience after their years of trauma – the hotel we have there will be the best in the country. But there is the small matter of first having to remove the remains of two saints that are within the building.”
The building he refers to is the Viceroy Convento Obra Pia in Cartagena, which is a restoration of a convent in the upcoming – and Unesco-protected – Getsemani neighbourhood; the hotel will be home to 102 suites when it opens in 2019.
A project Walshe seems equally excited about is Viceroy Bocas del Toro in Panama, an idyllic beach resort on the Caribbean Sea that by 2020, will have introduced the region to its first-ever Maldives-style over-water villas.
“I think for fear of hurricanes, no-one’s ever done over-water villas before in the region,” he says. “But we plotted hurricane history since 1851 and discovered that nothing has ever come within 200 miles of where the resort will be.”
Closer to home for the UK market will be the Ombria Resort on the Algarve, with 76 guestrooms and seven restaurants and bars; and being as though he is in London – the obvious question is why Viceroy doesn’t have a hotel here yet.
“You’re looking at £2 million per key in terms of development, so it’s tough for us to bring that level of finance to the table, although we do have two deals in play at the moment,” he hints. “London is the number one market for the brand, in terms of where we want to be, and the UK outbound travelling to our portfolio is very meaningful.”
So, with 14 hotels now in operation and eight ongoing projects, the group count is into its twenties and there could also be “two more to come” this year; “we will likely take over a US and Latin American property this year”, alludes Walshe.
And within five years there could be another 10 on the drawing board, but Walshe says it’s not a numbers game, rather doing the job well and constantly evolving. And of course, being proud of what you do.