When Fitzpatrick finished secondary school, he worked as a junior manager at Killiney Castle. But his father decided John needed more schooling, so he sent him to the prestigious hotel management course at UNLV in Las Vegas. “I think it was really just an excuse for him to visit me, because my father was a big gambler,” says Fitzpatrick with a laugh. At UNLV, Fitzpatrick studied finance and hotel entertainment. He even took a class in which Sammy Davis Jr. and Liberace made guest appearances.
Upon graduation, Fitzpatrick returned to manage the Killiney Castle, and yet he still wanted to go back to the United States—and to work for someone other than his father. So he moved to Chicago, where he had successful stints with both an area Holiday Inn and a Hilton. But those were big hotel chains, and Fitzpatrick wasn’t getting the experience he needed in order to run the kind of small, boutique hotels that were the Fitzpatricks’ specialty. After a few years, Fitzpatrick returned to Ireland again to work at the family hotels in both Killiney and Bunratty and in 1991, he and his dad decided to open a property in New York City.
“Dad had a dream to open a hotel in the States,” says Fitzpatrick. “He also realized my desire to return. So we went to New York City. The bankers looked at us like we were crazy for choosing New York, the toughest city in the world. And my dad looked at them and said, ‘It’s like the Frank Sinatra song: If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere!’” Fitzpatrick worked closely with his dad to find the site that would become the Fitzpatrick Manhattan hotel, and when they nailed down the building on Lexington Avenue and 57th Street, Paddy handed his son the keys. “As I grabbed them, my dad said, ‘Off you go—now don’t mess it up,’” says Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick took his father’s directive to heart. To wit: Soon after the Fitzpatrick Manhattan opened, one of their first guests was Gregory Peck, and the Academy Award-winning actor requested a private line when he checked in to the penthouse. “We all panicked,” says Fitzpatrick, “but then I came up with an idea.” Fitzpatrick had a private line in his office on the second floor; the penthouse was on the 17th floor. So he ran to Radio Shack, bought all the telephone cables they had in stock, connected all of them, and then ran the line out his office window and up to the penthouse. “Then, I phoned all my friends to tell them not to call my number because Gregory Peck might answer the phone.”
Considering feats like this, it’s no surprise the Fitzpatrick Manhattan was an instant success. In fact, it did so well that just two years later, Fitzpatrick opened a second location in New York City, near Grand Central station. Also like his father, Fitzpatrick has given back to the industry to which he’s dedicated his life. He’s served three terms as chairman of the Hotel Association of New York City, and is now serving as the chairman of the AH&LA.
Fitzpatrick is ready to step up to the national level. “I call him the energizing bunny,” says Joe Spinnato, president of the Hotel Association of New York City. “He fires up everyone around him because of how he is.” Spinnato points to 2001, when Fitzpatrick opened a new property in Chicago and commuted back and forth to get it off the ground. “He was so energetic in getting that hotel to become the success that it was.” Fitzpatrick sold the property in 2006 to Denihan Hospitality and now it’s an Affinia Hotel.
“Unfortunately I bought the Chicago property just before 9/11, so the first two years of getting it off the ground were really tough,” says Fitzpatrick. “But the hotel eventually did well, and I sold it at the top of the market just before the crash.” He used the profits from the sale to buy his family out of the two New York properties. “Up until then the hotels here and in Ireland were all part of the family business,” he says. “So owning the hotels outright gave me independence.” Fitzpatrick’s sister, in turn, bought him out of the properties in Ireland. “My family is still very close and we work well together, but it was a personal goal of mine to have 100 percent ownership in the New York hotels because it would allow me to do management contracts and bring in other investors.”
Fitzpatrick is putting the energy he’s used to establish his hotels toward reshaping the lodging industry’s preeminent association. “AH&LA is going through a really exciting change right now,” says Fitzpatrick. “We’re attempting to grow from 10,000 to 55,000 members and really focus on advocacy, communication, and education,” he says. “I’m proud and honored to be chairman.” Is he a little nervous? “I think if you’re not a little bit nervous, you’re not on your guard,” says Fitzpatrick. “But what I don’t know, I’ll learn.”
Fitzpatrick’s work ethic and humility doesn’t surprise his old boss, chef Sean Dempsey. “He’s still the same John—all of his success hasn’t changed him,” says Dempsey. “When he’s home in Ireland, he always comes into the hotel here in Killiney to say hi. And he’s still robbing food off the plates as he’s running through the kitchen. You turn your back and the piece of chocolate cake is gone.”