The Steam Packet Inn on the Isle of Whithorn has won awards from Les Routiers, Camra and the Good Pub Guide. Owner Alastair Scoular gives Neil Gerrard the lowdown on the business
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Alastair Scoular, owner of the Steam Packet Inn on the Isle of Whithorn, describes the location of his business as being "at the end of the world, pretty much".
And it's true that the stretch of Irish Sea coastline in Dumfries and Galloway that his business sits on is pretty remote. But when it comes to awards and accolades, the small pub-restaurant is far from lacking in prominence.
It was voted Best Inn in Scotland by Les Routiers in 2005. Meanwhile Camra awarded it the title of best area pub in 2004 and 2008, and it also picked up Scottish Dining Pub of the Year in the Good Pub Guide in 2004.
Scoular has been running the Steam Packet for 12 years but he has been in the business for 28 years, ever since his parents bought it. Over that time it has built up two core target markets - the locals who frequent the pub and restaurant day-in, day-out, and the tourists who visit in the warmer months of the year.
"We are a very seasonal business and the tourist season runs from February to the beginning of November," Scoular says. Most of them come for a chance to escape the routine of urban or suburban life and walk or birdwatch in the peace and quiet of the Scottish countryside.
About 80% of all the tourism-related business at the Steam Packet comes from English customers, Scoular estimates. And of those, the majority hail from the North. "Our geographical location and transport links lend themselves to focusing on that market because we are easy to get to from that area. Our key market tourism-wise is short breaks - second holidays. It makes sense to focus on somewhere that is easy to get to," he says.
How does it market itself?
"Being so remote, you have to focus on as many different little local markets as you can," Scoular says. Traditionally, he has focused on marketing the inn purely through a small selection of guidebooks, which has proved very effective. But that is starting to change. "Our most effective form of marketing is getting reviews in the publications you don't pay for - the Good Pub Guide, Good Hotel Guide, and Good Beer Guide," he says. "The Good Pub Guide, especially, has been absolutely first class. We don't keep an official track but it is the one that is the most commented on."
Thanks to the Steam Packet's reputation and its prime location on the coast, Scoular says it already has a high level of repeat custom. But the aim in the coming year will be to increase occupancy, particularly in the closed season and during the week. He is planning to launch a "two for one" offer on rooms in November and December to drive trade in what are traditionally quiet months as the steady October trade dies down. The revamped website is expected to play a major role on this front. And in the kitchen he hopes to continue to focus on the quality of the produce in a bid to keep in front of the competition.
Scoular's favourite wine supplier is Edinburgh-based Irvine Robertson. "It's a small wine merchant so we get lots of things that aren't in the supermarket," he says. Meanwhile, on the food side, he and his chefs like Kilmarnock-based Braehead Foods which supplies a lot of game and quality Scottish produce to the pub. And, of course, the kitchen can also buy its seafood direct from the boats that come into the harbour at the Isle of Whithorn itself.
SPOTLIGHT ON CASK ALE
Cask ale has been a staple behind the bar for many years, but as it comes back into fashion and with sales of mass-produced lagers suffering, Scoular decided to take a couple of kegs out and replace them with casks. That means that there are now five cask ales on offer at any given time in the Steam Packet Inn, with Timothy Taylor Landlord as a constant and four guest ales. The results have been good with beer sales up 25% within just one year.
"It has been a real success story," says Scoular. "This summer was the first where cask ale actually outsold lager and for the west coast of Scotland that is absolutely nuts." He tends to keep three of the four guest ales Scottish, to tap into drinkers' appetite for more unusual beers local to the area. And in 2010, the most successful of those has been Fyne Ales from Loch Fyne.
Once the extra cask ales were installed, the increase in sales was not hard to achieve, according to Scoular. "The best promotion is being in the Good Beer Guide and being popular among Camra," he explains. "Real ale drinkers find out where real ale pubs are and they make the effort. So once you attract that group, and you look after the beers and make sure there's enough on, they come back."
Favourite hotel Glasgow ABode
Favourite restaurant Martin Wishart in Edinburgh
If you weren't a publican, what would you have been? I would be in the tourism business somehow, maybe doing boat trips
Who do you most admire? Tim Martin, chairman of JD Wetherspoon. He started a real revolution in pubs
How would you describe your business in five words? Friendly, family-run pub-restaurant
Business advice Target your market before you even think about doing anything
Motto Treat everybody like you would like to be treated - that goes for staff and customers
FACTS AND STATS
Owner Alastair Scoular & family
Number of years open 28
Average weekly occupancy (summer) 80%
Average spend per head £20