Born-again Scotsman

31 May 2001 by
Born-again Scotsman

For Jonathan Wix, the soft opening of the Scotsman hotel is the culmination of three years of waiting. For the first two years he counted down the days to the end of the lease held by the Barclay Brothers and the move by the Scotsman newspaper staff to their new abode in Leith. Then, last February, the builders walked in, and on 28 April this year, 50 bedrooms opened to the public. The remaining 18 bedrooms will be ready by early June, as will the Escape leisure club. The 50-cover fine-dining Club Room restaurant is due to open by the end of June, while the 80- to 100-cover Scoop brasserie will be finished by mid-July.

"When I start, I have these mad, passionate love affairs with my projects. But it's also true that I'm fickle and I've now moved on to the next one," laughs Wix. "I create pretty real estate and then someone else has to create a living hotel from it. I've done it before [at 42 The Calls, Leeds] but that's not my job now, and I don't have a moment's regret about it."

Wix realised he wanted to create and allow others to manage the day-to-day business. This is what prompted him to sell the Scotsman building and his original creation, 42 The Calls in Leeds, to former Regal Hotel Group chairman, Charles Vere Nicholl, now chairman of the Scotsman Hotel Group (SHG).

With Nicholas Crawley on board as managing director of SHG, Wix is free to design and search for new hotels for the expanding group. Bolstering management further, he also drafted in Andrew Buchanan, former general manager of RF Hotels' St David's Hotel and Spa in Cardiff, to be operations director of SHG. Buchanan knows that the hotel has its work cut out in Edinburgh, where there are three other large five-star hotels competing for business.

The Balmoral, owned by Buchanan's former employer RF Hotels and standing directly opposite the Scotsman hotel, has 188 bedrooms. The Sheraton Grand has 260 bedrooms, and the Caledonian, now a Hilton property, has 249 bedrooms. So there is no lack of choice for the 2.8m overnight visitors received by Edinburgh each year.

Yet Buchanan is adamant there's room for another player in the game, especially one offering five-star service within a small, intimate environment where the rooms have been individually designed. He estimates that 60% of the guests will come from the UK and 25% from the USA.

Price is another key factor. The rack rate at the Scotsman starts from £149 for a single room and goes up to £350 for a suite. The penthouse costs £800. Buchanan is reluctant to discount for corporate clients.

"These are the rates. Unlike other hotels that offer a much higher rack rate and then cut the price for corporate guests, we are offering the one fixed price," says Buchanan. However he acknowledges that the average achieved room rate to the end of December is forecast to be £123.

The value theme is continued through to breakfast. The Scotsman has steered clear of offering a "continental" breakfast at a fixed rate. Instead, guests will be able to have as much or as little as they want, and will only pay for what they eat. "If all they are having is a bacon sandwich and a cup of coffee then they'll pay £2.50 not a £16 flat fee," adds Buchanan. "In the rooms, a Mars bar, for example, will cost you the same as it would at [local retailer] RS McColls."

The hotel has cost £19.5m, including purchase price, to create and highlights Wix's ability to offer a hotel that is comfort-led, with good design, rather than design-led, which can result in "sterile, cold surroundings", as general manager Andrew Stembridge observes.

The conversion has certainly been challenging, with four storeys of the 11-storey building actually below entry level. "That's how I got the building in the first place," says Wix. "While other prospective buyers knew what to do on the floors with windows, I knew there were uses for floors with little daylight, and put in the health club and the nightclub. There was real value in creating them."

This and the wealth of original features dating back to when the building first opened in 1905, and its location at the east end of Princes Street, overlooking the trains at Waverley Station, made it prime hotel fodder for Wix. Higher up, the bedrooms afford views of the city, some as far as Fife.

In keeping with the design of 42 The Calls, Wix has steered clear of an old-fashioned feel to the hotel. Touches of modern design creep into the rooms. The penthouse and the drawing room feature glass tables, which sit on and incorporate sculptures. In the penthouse, for example, the bottoms of three upside-down ducks protrude through the glass table, their beaks and necks forming the legs.

Buchanan has been closely involved in realising Wix's vision. The recurrent theme throughout the hotel is all things Scottish. Yet this does not equate to the tartans and plaids of the North. Instead, the company has favoured the sombre tweeds of the Lowlands.

"We wrote to all the relevant people in the Lowlands to ask if we could use their tweeds in our rooms and 50 wrote back saying OK," says Buchanan.

The tweeds are used in the bedrooms on large headboards and in heavy curtains. As well as the traditional tweeds, SHG commissioned Johnson of Elgin to produce the company's own tweed design, incorporated in staff uniforms and in the woven covers for guest information books, situated in each room.

Another unique touch is the bedroom tables, which have the Edinburgh version of the Monopoly game board, allowing guests to buy up the streets they will later visit.

Many of the original features from the building's heyday as a newspaper office have been retained. Comprehensive wood panelling, ornate carvings, the marble staircase and the fireplaces all remain to add depth to the character of the hotel. The editor's pledge - to honesty and impartiality - lies untouched in room 303, originally the editor's office.

The Scotsman logo is painted on the warm stone walls of the drawing room and, throughout the hotel, hot metal press panels have been used to direct guests to the different areas.

Once Buchanan moves on to the group's next project in September, it will be down to native Edinburgher Stembridge to achieve the projected turnover of £2.7m to the end of December for rooms and restaurants. By the time the health club revenue is added in, total turnover will be £3.2m.

As Caterer went to press, Wix was hoping to finalise the purchase of a property in Prague that would result in a 94-bedroom hotel in the heart of the historic old town. Assuming all goes to plan, Wix believes it could open in spring-summer 2003.

In the meantime, he is already on site in Paris, creating a new hotel, and he is planning a 70-bedroom hotel in Cambridge, although the property deal has not yet been finalised.

With the transformation at the Scotsman nearly complete, Wix is breathing a sigh of relief. "It will be perfect in a month-and-a-half, but I'm already pretty chuffed," he adds. "When guests come back and say they enjoyed it, that's what I really want to hear."


The Scotsman hotel

North Bridge, Edinburgh

Tel: 0131-556 5565


Owner: The Scotsman Hotel Group

Directors: Charles Vere Nicholl, Nicholas Crawley and Jonathan Wix

Operations director: Andrew Buchanan

General manager: Andrew Stembridge

Soft opening: 28 April 01

Bedrooms: 68

Other facilities: 50-cover Club Room restaurant, 80- to 100-cover Scoop brasserie, and Escape leisure club. Conference facilities, with four syndicated rooms that can hold up to 120 people, and a cinema. The 399 bar, featuring 399 malt whiskies is already open.

Investment: £19m

Average achieved room rate: £123

Projected turnover for year one (ending December 2001): £2.2m for hotel; £0.5m for health club; £1m brasserie

Projected turnover for year two: £4.5m for hotel; £1.5m health club; £1m brasserie

Projected occupancy for year one: 50%, with an average achieved room rate of £123

Projected occupancy for year two: 73%, with an average achieved room rate of £145

Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 31 May-6 June 2001

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