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Fair ways ahead at the old course

Excitement crackles in the air around St Andrews’ best-known hotel, the 125-bedroom Old Course Hotel. With the four-day Open Championship starting on 20 July, temporary scaffolds of seating dot the surrounding greens and a spanking new clubhouse stands opposite the Old Course Hotel ready for an official opening by the Duke of York on 16 July.

He’ll also be travelling two miles up the road to cut the ribbon on the Old Course Hotel’s pièce de résistance the Duke’s Course, its own 18-hole golf course and complex on a 330-acre site at Craigtoun commanding panoramic views of the Firth of Tay and the distant Highlands.

For the born-again Old Course Hotel, the development of its own golf complex – which will eventually include a clubhouse, function rooms and a golf academy – will mark a milestone in the hotel’s journey to luxury resort status.

Having weathered sharp criticism about its jarring exterior design during its first two decades, the hotel has had a substantial overhaul and redesign since 1990 and now boasts state-of-the-art spa facilities.

Already rebranded as a “golf resort and spa”, the hotel will now be able to offer prospective guests both a room and a “tee time”. The latter has been impossible until now because play on the publicly owned, world-famous Old Course green is only permitted via a strict ballot system.

While all admit that events such as the Open provide ideal publicity for St Andrews, pre-contest preparations mean that the Old Course is closed weeks in advance, creating annoyance among the Old Course Hotel’s guests. Many of the irked are Americans, who comprise 25% of its custom. It also means that bookings at the hotel slump in the period immediately before the Open.

For now, general manager Patrick Elsmie is pinning his hopes on guests being happier that they can book a tee at the hotel’s private course and also enter the ballot for the Old Course.

Driving around the new Duke’s Course, Elsmie says: “Before this, we were just a hotel beside a golf course but now we are a true resort. We haven’t been able to promote ourselves specifically as a golf hotel even though most of the guests come here for that reason. Part of our growth will now come through offering golf packages. Occupancy was 48% last year and we hope for 52% in 1995. That sounds terrible and it’s not great but winter has the most potential for growth.”

The aim here, as in the town generally, is to coax people to come out of season or to stay longer and of course, therefore, to spend more.

These are fine objectives but they all need incentives – and that’s where marketing comes in. The Old Course Hotel’s marketing director, Hugh Thomas, is hopeful that not only can he stretch the average 2.25 days length of stay, but that he can seek out new business.

At pains to stress that St Andrews sits in a relative sun trap in north-east Fife, Thomas is keen to publicise the district’s relative aridity. With wry rivalry, he notes: “Turnberry gets most of the rain and the rest falls on Gleneagles. We have the same rainfall as Stratford-upon-Avon.”

Thomas is linking in, via upmarket consortium Connoisseurs Scotland, to the Scottish Tourist Board’s (STB) Autumn Gold initiative.

The aim is to extend the Scottish holiday season into October and November. At the moment, 60% of all overseas visitors and 40% of all UK tourists come to Scotland between July and September. In St Andrews, as across the country, this creates congestion in the summer followed by over-capacity for the rest of the year.

Already, 500 companies have joined the Autumn Gold campaign, which will be spearheaded by TV and press advertising, public relations and direct mail. The focus will be on presenting Scotland as an attractive short-break option.

There will be an Autumn Goldcard and information pack with details of special offers spanning both restaurants and accommodation as well as running the gamut of other visitor attractions. The plan is to distribute 100,000 of these cards. It is hoped that this promotion alone will boost tourism revenue by 7%, or £5m.

Thomas and his team will be glad to take even a tiny slice of that sum and special promotions are already forming the basis of the hotel’s policy. Weekend and short breaks and the growing conference sector offer top-priority growth potential and have in the past year shown encouraging signs.

The Old Course Hotel is an Inter-Continental Global Partner and works with the St Andrews Conference Bureau to promote the town as a quality and desirable destination through trade exhibitions such as Confex. Both these liaisons are yielding results.

“Luckily we have the magic name of St Andrews and the Open offers great exposure. With our new facilities, we will be offering a whole “new” destination for people. It is now gratifying to hear the press refer to us as the world-famous Old Course Hotel,” says Thomas.

Whether that is through confusion or convenience, hardly matters. It simply makes the job of marketing easier by a long shot.

What’s cooking

A difference of both opinion and approach is causing changes in the district’s food and wine sector too. Apart from a Scottish chain restaurant, Littlejohn’s, there are no group-owned eating outlets in the town and the emphasis is on either pub grub or hotel restaurants. Otherwise, there is an important fine dining sector, which has grown up on the back of both a wealthy local populace and affluent visitors.

Since the early 1980s, an annual food and wine festival has attempted to promote interest in cuisine in the region, while also acting as a handy marketing tool. The festival has involved gala dinners and exhibitions but the support was not always what it might have been.

With the participation of the upper-end restaurants, however, the festival was re-packaged in 1994 and specifically focused on the best of local produce. It worked well, but this year’s seven-day event in March fell apart.

According to recent participant David Wilson, chef-patron of the nearby award-winning Peat Inn near Cupar, the organisers failed to build on the success of the previous year.

Prior to 1994, Wilson shunned the festival. “It wasn’t serious about food. It was all about themes and not serious cuisine. There was no point in doing something that did not fit with my own style.”

For spring 1996, the plan is to concentrate on the gourmet element and to attract the serious foodies. The aim will be to focus minds on the rich variety of locally available produce from Fife’s game, seafood and farm herds.

Wilson says: “We’re in this corner of Fife and there is a nucleus of excellent restaurants. The aim will be to focus on our strengths and to attract visitors. We’re within easy reach of both Edinburgh and Glasgow.”

Wilson wants to involve some of Scotland’s other chefs in the food fair, such as Brian MacLennan of St Andrews’ Parkland Hotel and Peter Jukes of the nearby Cellar restaurant. And he hopes to attract sponsorship and recruit public relations help.

“We want to emphasise the chefs and their produce rather than try to be all things to all people. Quality will be the guiding criterion.”

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