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The Big Idea: 'Ireland was the land of 1,000 welcomes, but only if you had €100,000. We wanted to change that'

Paddywagon tours is almost twenty years old, and has gone from shaking up the Irish market to planning its first international move.

IT’S SEVENTEEN YEARS since Cathal O’Connell set up Paddywagon tours in a bid to change the face of Irish tourism.

The industry, and bus tours in particular, were in a moribund state, he says, when the first bright green bus came on the scene.

“When I started 20 years ago, a lot of the (tourist) sites in Ireland were run down and not minded.”

He started with a vision of changing the facing of tourism in Ireland, and “refreshing” it.

“The big idea was to change the face of bus operation in Ireland from being the local fella in the village with a bus to being a branded system of tourism in Ireland, where young people could come.”

However, the garish colours and unorthodox tours weren’t given a warm welcome by the powers that be.

“The tourist board didn’t want to know us. No bus drivers from any other companies would talk to us. We were seen as upstarts, problematic – but a new broom sweeps clean and this was a very dusty mat we were going along.”

He now rates the Irish tourist experience as world-class, and is happy to be in the market.

“We’re a serious operation now in Ireland. We’ve top class hotels, great tourism facilities, and professionalism has come on so much.”

Standing out

O’Connell’s company reflects his personality – brash, aggressive, unapologetic. His formula has proved effective, with the company growing consistently since being founded.

It’s a simple enough model in a lot of ways – as he describes it himself, it’s “stay in a decent hostel or a decent B&B, have a decent meal for a tenner, and go out and have a lash of pints and enjoy yourself.”

PWSignup Source: Paddywagon Tours Facebook

But within that simple model, the message and experience is consistent. Simple it may be, but not easy going, especially in the context of the industry it was born into.

“We took it (tourism) by the scruff of the neck. We painted a bus green and stuck a leprechaun on the side of it. We played up the Irish charm-roguery.”

He trains all his drivers himself, encouraging them to sing songs and tell stories, to give Paddywagon tours a unique feel.

Source: PaddywagonTV/YouTube

“It’s not about 1689 and King Billy and King James had a barney – it’s more than that, it’s a bit of the Fields of Athenry going around the country and having a bit of craic.”

O’Connell is keen to put pay to the idea that his tours are booze-fuelled jaunts around the country.

“We don’t allow drinking on our bus. Absolutely not. This is not a yeeha around Ireland. The last thing we get involved in is stag parties and hen parties and anything like that.”

“I bring a lot of religious groups, that you never think would come with us.”

As a businessman, O’Connell has shown an agility that has allowed him to adapt the Paddywagon brand on the fly. His CV – from commerce graduate to chef to safari guide – shows that he’s not dogmatic about what a career, or a company, should look like.

Concerned that his company was getting overly associated with backpackers, he arranged tours that booked accommodation in hotels and B&Bs, not just the traditional hostel market.

The next steps

Not content with becoming one of the dominant players in the coach tourism sector in Ireland, O’Connell is already planning a move into retail.

The company has already established its first shop on O’Connell Street in Dublin, and  has established operators firmly in its sights.

PWShop Source: Paddywagon Facebook

“In Ireland our intention is to go into retail. We want to build a big retail brand in the Carroll’s mould, but more colourful and with more razmatazz.”

An expansion into the UK is also on the cards, with a London tour and route already in the advanced stages of planning. More work on the concept is slated for this winter.

He dismisses talk of taking an investor on board, with the company largely financing expansion out of existing revenues.

“Finance companies give 90% on buses and you pay them back over four or five years. You don’t need an equity investor for that.”

He’s weathered the recession remarkably well, a fact that he unsurprisingly puts down to the Paddywagon brand.

“We grew every year. When you’ve a good product, it doesn’t affect you.”

Read: What I learned: making a business work in the Wild West (of Ireland)>

Read: The Big Idea: High end training that pays for itself>

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About the author:

Jack Horgan-Jones

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