In 2008 Caroline Gregory, managing partner of the Lovat, Loch Ness, won an Acorn Award. She talks to Neil Gerrard about what the award means to her and the hotel, and about her passion for the environment.
Caterer What has happened since you won the Acorn award two years ago?
Caroline Gregory The hotel has gone from strength to strength. When I won the award back in 2008, the hotel had really only been going for one year and now it has had another complete year to really push itself forward.
We now have 25 staff members when the hotel is at full capacity, across 28 bedrooms. The hotel has a lot of different strengths and elements that we try and push, and one of them in particular is the environmental side of things [see below].
Caterer 2009 has been a tough year - how have you survived it?
CG The hotel was awarded two AA rosettes in August, which has added to our reputation; and Visit Scotland is using us as an exemplar hotel, so there is a lot of talk, which is great.
In terms of business, over the summer months we were between 17% and 20% up. Like many people, we had to deal with a big downturn in November; we had a 30% reduction in sales. But overall, we had an amazing season and we have been about 15% up on occupancy compared with last year.
Caterer How has winning an Acorn award helped you?
CG To be recognised within the industry for what I am getting involved with and what I am achieving is just fantastic and it kind of blows you away a bit. It gave us some great PR, both for the hotel and for myself, because it is for the UK, not just for Scotland, so it takes me to a different level.
I have kept in contact with about five other winners and it is great to have that connection. It gives me the confidence to understand that I am making a bit of a difference. Often when you are working in the Highlands of Scotland, you are in a bit of a bubble. In fact, when you are working in hospitality in general you are in a bit of a bubble.
Caterer You have won a lot of other awards besides the Acorn. Where do you find the drive and ambition to succeed?
CG My parents have been involved in hospitality, so it is in my blood. It fuels me and excites me, and I am exceptionally passionate about it. I love offering a service and I love looking after people. It is all about trying to take that to a different level.
Caterer You take the environment very seriously. What measures have you introduced to make your hotel more sustainable?
CG When we did the big refurbishment back in 2005, we had an amazing opportunity to work with as many environmental and green applications as we could. So we had a wood chip boiler installed at the hotel instead of using oil, and that has saved us a huge amount of money - about £1,000 a month.
I used to do composting on a very ad hoc basis at the hotel and I decided I had to do something a little bit more professional. I have been in contact with an organisation called Compost Doctors Scotland. I had a Rocket composter installed, which is the first one in the Highlands. It takes all food waste and cuts down the amount of waste going to landfill. It has also made life a hell of lot easier than doing it manually.
Caterer Is it true that you have also helped the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop new software for measuring customers' carbon emissions?
CG I was contacted last year regarding my environmental policies and a group of people from MIT came to see me. They were writing an environmental application that businesses could use so I told them about what we do at the hotel.
When guests come to the hotel, we work out their carbon emissions in terms of where they came from, how long it took them to get here and their mode of transport. I then put a donation towards Trees For Life, which is a local tree plantation. It is not carbon offsetting, because that is a bit of a grey area, but it is about offering a carbon-conscious donation.
So the team from MIT has written a computer programme called SourceMap, which allows me and other businesses to manage our carbon and convert our customers' carbon footprints. Since then it has expanded even more, because I said I wanted to know how much carbon is emitted in terms of produce that comes to the hotel, so now there is a supplier section. All of this is interesting for the guests because then they can see a map of exactly where all our produce is from.
Caterer What other initiatives have you undertaken since winning the Acorn award?
CG I have set up a new company with three other people within hospitality in the Highlands, called Feedback Scotland, to gather customer feedback. We did a pilot scheme in 2008 to compare customer feedback from the visitors who were coming to this area because nobody does it.
We have written a software application to be used on handheld PDAs, which is going to be rolled out to around 600 members. There are 10 questions that every business needs to ask and then they can have their own questions.
All that data means that as a member, I can see where the majority of customers for a business down the road come from. They may not be the same as mine but maybe I want a piece of their market.
Caterer What does the future hold for you?
CG My ambition is to roll out the Lovat brand. I have the Lovat, Loch Ness and I would love to be able to spread this to a different location because I feel that what we have achieved at the hotel, and our ethos, is transferable.
CAROLINE GREGORY'S TOP TIPS
â- Get buy-in from your team - there is no good having a harebrained idea that nobody understands
â- Be flexible - you have to adapt to any situation, and take an opportunity when it comes along
â- Foster a strong corporate culture - your team is driving the business as well as you
â- Always listen to your customers
CAROLINE GREGORY'S AWARDS
- 2008: Caterer and Hotelkeeper Acorn Award
- 2009: Young Ambassador of the Year at the Highlands & Islands Food & Drink awards
Awards for the Lovat, Loch Ness
- 2008: Business Management of the Environment winner at the Vision in Business for the Environment of Scotland (VIBES) Awards
- 2009: Two AA Rosettes
- 2009: Gold Green Tourism Business Scheme
2010 ACORN NOMINATIONS
Since the Acorn Awards began in 1986, each year 30 people under 30 have been distinguished for making a significant impression in their field. From sous chefs to hotel managers, the Acorn Awards recognise talented young people honing their skills in hospitality.
Those able to add the coveted title of Acorn to their CV join an exclusive roll call that includes industry leaders Michael Caines, Marco Pierre White and Marcus Wareing.
This year's winners will take part in Acorn weekend (13-14 June) when they will be some of the first guests of the new Abode Chester Hotel. They will take part in a day of team building, organised by Team Spirit, followed by an evening meal and a celebratory award lunch the next day at nearby Chester Racecourse.
So if you know of a young talent that deserves to be nominated, visit www.caterersearch.com/acorns2010. The closing date for nominations is 26 February, with judging taking place on 7 April.
If you have any queries, contact Lisa Goold on 020 8652 3656 or eâ'mail firstname.lastname@example.org