Raemoir House hotel picked up a prestigious award little more than a year after renovations on the Scottish country house started. Co-owner Neil Rae talks to Helen Williams
Need to know Raemoir House hotel in rural Royal Deeside has been a classic Scottish country house hotel since 1943, but had been allowed to gradually decline from its post-war heyday. Since taking it over in September 2010, new owners Neil and Julie Rae have turned it around to such an extent that it was awarded the Scottish Hotel Awards Country House Hotel of the Year 2011.
The couple have some experience of hospitality, having owned the Milton restaurant in nearby Banchory since 2004, but were only involved in their spare time. Neil Rae was employed full-time in Aberdeen's oil industry, but left his job to concentrate on the refurbishment of Raemoir.
"Whenever we visited the Milton we always thought we could do better with it," says Rae. "We wanted to get another place that needed a bit of TLC. We first looked at Raemoir three years ago, and asked the previous owners if they were interested in selling. In January last year they agreed at last, and after 10 months of negotiations, we finally took over last autumn."
Marketing Rae is immensely proud of what his team has achieved in such a short time, but is concerned that news of their success is not reaching far. "We have a strong little band down here putting out a good product, and getting deserved recognition," he says. "We don't have any marketing expertise though, and have struggled to take advantage of what could be a great publicity tool. The awards are great to get, of course, but there isn't any support afterwards to help you raise awareness."
Target market Rae is particularly keen for the hotel to win over potential customers on its doorstep. He says Raemoir historically attracted the smart Aberdonian set, rather than locals, and this reputation persists. "It was designed to appeal to the wealthy hunting, shooting and fishing brigade, but we want to bring back a local focus," he adds. "The wedding market is proving strong for us this year and well into next, which is great, but we have decided to limit how many we do so we can open at weekends for non-residents."
The hotel also targets the wider, exclusive-use market. "We currently sleep 36 people, which is ideal for weddings, but we've found the corporate and even the private market is picking up on the idea, taking the whole house for a day or two. That's a key market for us."
Future plans The Raes' immediate priority is to get the hotel fully refurbished. "We might lose one or two of the roomstock just to be able to provide a better facility," says Rae. "We have a couple of single rooms which could be better used to create bigger en suite bathrooms, and command a higher price for those improved products."
Once the hotel is back to its former glory, Rae is considering how to diversify the business. "My favourite hotel is the Isle of Eriska, which is on its own little island off the west coast near Oban," he says, "It's got its own little spa and marquee, and our long-term aim is to create something like that using our various little outbuildings."
Business advice Rae's advice to other small businesses is simple: "Watch your peers and listen to what they suggest - they have been there and done it already. There is no point reinventing the wheel."
Spotlight on renovation
Few Christmas and New Year bookings had been taken by the previous owners, giving the Raes a clear few months to start renovating their new property, including completely refitting the kitchen. Rae believes the hotel's award was won largely thanks to its two AA rosette restaurant, whose award-winning staff were transferred from the Milton.
"I did question [the award], I must admit, as there is still a lot of refurbishment to do on the place," he says. "But as the judges said, while there are plenty of country house hotels in Scotland, this is the only one creating something and trying to get itself back on the map. I think it was really about merit rather than the finished product."
Rae's decision to concentrate on getting the restaurant up to scratch has paid off. "It's a listed building, so planning takes forever, and while we've done a fair bit of refurbishment on the ground floor, the upstairs needs attention. The food is the area we felt we could get recognition for straight away."
He brought over David Littlewood from the Milton to be executive chef, heading up a highly decorated team. Littlewood has many accolades under his belt, including being a finalist at Scottish Chef of the Year Awards in 2009 and again this year, and Grampian Chef of the Year 2007. He and his team at the Milton won the inaugural Grampian Restaurant of the Year Award in 2007. Head chef John Chomba won Grampian Chef of the Year the year after his boss, in 2008, and sous chef Alexandria Hay scooped this year's title.
neil rae's revelations
Favourite hotel Isle of Eriska (www.eriska-hotel.co.uk)
Favourite restaurant The Witchery, Edinburgh (www.thewitchery.com)
Book that has inspiredSetting the table, by Danny Meyer
Motto Don't reinvent the wheel
What would you have been if you hadn't been a hotelier? Architect or a vet
Who do you admire? My wife Julie, she has been so supportive
Describe business in five words Secluded, foodie, friendly, welcoming, honest
Facts and stats
General manager Elaine Maitland
Head chef David Littlewood
Staff 27 (14 full time)
Number of rooms 20
Average room rate £75
Average occupancy 50% (Up from 28% in September 2010