Oliver Highlights Awards Dilemma

The protest staged by Oliver Dunne of Bon Apetit at the Irish Restaurant Awards, reflects the frustration felt by many chefs, restaurateurs, hoteliers and caterers when the series of annual hospitality industry awards are announced each year.


These awards are organised by newspapers, dining guides, trade magazines, marketing groups and industry organisations to generate positive publicity and to make a bottom line profit. The Irish Restaurant Awards for instance, attracted 700 people at €120 a head, which should have made it a profitable evening for the organisers. Not all award ceremonies do as well of course and for some organisers, filling the room can involve a ‘hard sell.’

Award ceremony organisers also generate revenue from sponsors with some signing up a different sponsor for each award category. This again has proven to be a more difficult task during the recession than it was in the heady days of the ‘Celtic Tiger.’ Getting the numbers and the sponsors has however become critical to these awards as outgoings can be high involving the cost of the banquet, the awards show, a presenter and publicity.

Selecting winners is the most tricky part of an awards scheme. At one end of the scale, a group of ‘experts’, usually restaurant critics, food writers and retired practitioners, sit around a table and sift through the entries before selecting winners based on their own experiences. The RAI/Sunday Independent Life Magazine Irish Restaurant Awards however also involved the public. Readers of the Sunday Independent were invited to vote for the winners from a short list selected by an expert panel. It was this aspect of the awards that led to Oliver Dunne’s protest. He rightly argued that restaurants and hotels with a large data base had an unfair advantage as they could encourage their customers to vote for them- which is what the majority did. This may not be as unfair as it seems. Customers would presumably only vote for an establishment if their experience has been positive and regular customers are probably in a better position to assess a restaurant than any food critic who may only visit the establishment once or twice. The RAI scheme combined the public vote with expert opinion and in the process achieved a reasonable balance.


My own experience has largely been with the Hotel and Catering Review Awards which were sponsored by Gilbeys for almost 20 years. Initially these awards were made monthly with a panel of experts, which included people who assessed hotels and restaurants on a day to day basis, selecting the monthly winners from among nominations submitted by readers. At the end of the year one monthly winner was awarded the ‘Gilbeys Gold Medal’. The system was simple, inexpensive and was widely accepted within the industry. When Gilbeys ended its sponsorship the Gold Medal Awards were substantially changed. A series of category awards was developed, each with its own sponsor and entrants were invited to make a detailed written submission on their operations. On the basis of these submissions a large number of entrants was selected and all of these establishments were  visited by a jury member with no prior notice to the entrant. A very detailed assessment check list was created as a means of achieving objectivity. When the jury re-assembled a report on each visit was discussed and on this basis nominees and winners were selected. The system, which remains in place, is elaborate and expensive, but it goes a long way towards selecting winners in an objective manner.




It has been well argued that The Irish Hospitality Industry has far too many award schemes and that the currency of awards has been debased by their sheer number. Establishments which tend to be nominated in almost every scheme are repeatedly asked to buy expensive tickets for award ceremonies, sometimes without knowing in advance that they have been considered for an award.

The public and even industry people have no real opportunity to judge the merits of the various schemes and regard them all equally. Some top restaurants and hotels choose to ignore all of the awards for this reason.

And for those hospitality industry operators who complain that they never make the ‘Winners Enclosure’ it is well to remember that in most schemes, you must actually enter in order to be considered. In these awards the ‘Best Restaurant’ or ‘Best Hotel’ is the establishment which has been selected from among the entries.

As another awards season ends, it is time to put away the Louise Kennedy for another year, but also time to plan a strategy to ensure that when the gongs are handed out, you are there to take a bow.





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