Hotelier of the Year

01 January 2000
Hotelier of the Year

Nick Ryan is not your typical Hotelier of the Year. His CV isn't a long one. He has never held the position of general manager in a five-star hotel, and he has no plans to broaden his career in the future. His hotel has 22 bedrooms, two restaurants and a coffee shop in a remote village on the Argyll coast.

But the man has a hefty amount of charisma, which he couples with an enthusiasm for making things better - an inspiration to fellow Hoteliers of the Year such as Ken McCulloch, who said at the judging: "Nick injects not just life but much-needed soul into the hotel business. I have learned so much from him over the years."

Ryan's early career covered the golden years of ocean cruising. At 16, following his father, he joined the Cunard Steam Ship Company as a bell boy on the Queen Mary. At 17 he was sent on a four-year course to train as a junior catering officer.

At the end of the training he became "the very junior 13th" in a team of 13 - although he is still proud of the fact that he was Cunard's youngest-ever appointee to the job.

"It was a great life - no other job offered 99-day world cruises. I went through a sharp learning curve with my first management position in charge on the night shift - a bunch of guys who knew their way around the rule book better than I did."

In 1970 Ryan decided to return to land. He saw a manager's job advertised in the Glasgow Herald to run the Crinan hotel and two others near by for a Glasgow family. He took up the reins three days after his marriage to the nursing sister on his ship, the Oranje.

Three years later he had the opportunity to buy the Crinan hotel and was convinced he had to raise the £167,500 needed. "I knew from the first day I walked into the hotel that my future lay there. I still have the same feeling to this day," says Ryan.

Fortunately, this feeling endured through the dark times. "Fourteen months after we bought the hotel, it burnt to the ground. In a city the damage probably wouldn't have been so dramatic - but somewhere as remote as Crinan meant that the fire engine took more than an hour to arrive, by which time the hotel was destroyed, although guests and staff escaped unscathed."

Ryan soon found that creditors descended rapidly after the fire. "I went from a positive cash-flow to nothing in four hours. It used to take me about five minutes each morning to sign for all the recorded deliveries," he says.

"Seeing the building burn down was devastating, and I thought about giving up. But my father provided a voice of reason," says Ryan. "He asked me: ‘What do you worry about when you are away from the hotel?' I remember saying that my greatest fear was the hotel burning down. ‘Well, it has,' he said. ‘So why don't you take the family on holiday and decide what to do next?'

"That time out gave me back my perspective. Between us, we decided to rebuild - this time with plenty of sprinklers."

The hotel reopened two years later, by which time Ryan's pre-fire market had all but disappeared. "I knew that the writing would be on the wall unless I started marketing it myself - I couldn't afford advertising. I got out what records I had and started visiting or writing to everyone."

The hotel needed a unique selling point, and Ryan hit upon one, 20 yards from the hotel's back door. "I found out that there was a serious lack of fresh seafood on the west coast - but I had fishermen coming in every day with the most fantastic produce. I decided to dedicate the hotel's rooftop restaurant, Lock 16, entirely to seafood - and if there was no fresh fish from the daily catch due to bad weather, we wouldn't open. We still don't."

The formula worked. As the restaurant's reputation grew, so did Ryan's guest base.

One of the secrets of Ryan's success rests with the fact that he has never been afraid to question the status quo. Before Crinan, opening during the winter months was practically unheard of in Scotland. "We opened year-round in 1979 and had a difficult three years," he admits. "Some nights we had no one in, but I knew that it would work if we marketed it hard enough. This weekend we are full, I am pleased to say."

That's the hotel's occupancy status practically year-round, yet Ryan won't rest on his laurels. An active proprietor, he continues to be a member of Connoisseur's Scotland - established to market a group of Scottish hotels to US guests. And he is involved with the Scottish Tourist Board.

He has been station officer for HM Coastguard for Crinan for the past 26 years - the siren summoning him to his post often in the middle of serving hotel guests.

His latest appointment has given him particular pleasure. He is dyslexic and last month was invited to become a trustee of the Dyslexic Bursary fund.

Perhaps his nominator for Hotelier of the Year, Hans Rissman of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, best sums up why the judging panel gave Ryan yesterday's accolade. "He is a consummate professional who is passionate about his staff and guests."

The judges

Albert Hampson, business manager (hotel services) AA

Ken McCulloch, proprietor, One Devonshire Gardens

Peter Lederer, managing director, Gleneagles hotel

David Levin, proprietor, the Capital hotel

Ramón Pajares, managing director, the Savoy Group

Nicholas Rettie, managing director, Great Eastern hotel

Dominic Walsh, business reporter, The Times

The awards ceremony was held at the Great Eastern Hotel, London.

Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 9 - 15 December 1999

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