Reinvented and refurbished, the Torridon now offers luxury accommodation and fine dining, coupled with adventure holidays and a budget inn. Aaron Morby reports
Need to know Twelve years ago Dan and Rohaise Rose-Bristow were made an offer they could not refuse. Rohaise's parents aimed to retire in a few years and suggested the young couple manage the Torridon hotel.
The former Victorian hunting lodge is situated in one of the most stunning locations in the Scottish Highlands in 58 acres of parkland, on the shores of a sea loch.
Dan admits moving from London where he worked in the City was a very steep learning curve. "It was very hard work at first, but we loved every moment and decided to stay and take over the business in a staged buyout.
Target audience "What exceeds all our guests' expectation is the location," says Dan. As a destination location some 60 miles west of Inverness, the hotel tends to get three-day break short-stayers, typically middle aged couples and upwards.
"Because we are isolated in the last great UK wilderness, our guests are usually mid-way through their holiday by the time they get to us," he explains.
Around 80% herald from Britain, the rest travel from Europe and United States, which has been impacted by the recent economic downturn.
The Torridon hotel is the star turn of the wider estate business, boasting 19 luxurious rooms, a roaring fire and a three AA-rosette dining experience as well as a treasure trove of over 350 malt whiskies. More recently, the accompanying inn and leisure activities have come into their own for budget-conscious, outward-bound guests seeking the thrill of an adventure holiday.
Business step change With around 50 staff helping to run the Torridon in the summer, both Dan and Rohaise have found time to step back a little from the daily front-of-house operations to concentrate on strategic planning.
In 2008, they relaunched the Torridon. The bold move saw the estate's luxury hotel, its inn, two-bedroom boat house and leisure activities brought under the single Torridon brand.
This proved a turning point, explains Dan. "Before this our inn guests never realised the hotel was open for a fine dining. It just wasn't clear that all our facilities were Torridon-owned."
The couple invested £400,000 rebranding and restyling, part financed by Highlands and Islands Enterprise grant, recognising its role as one of the region's biggest employers. "The rooms were a little West Coast chintzy," confesses Dan.
The rebranding was aimed at creating a resort feel, he explains. "Now you can stay at our boat house or the inn and still splash out £150 on a fine dining experience, or conversely take a £400 hotel room and pop to our local pub for an informal night - all charged on the same bill."
A fully refitted kitchen helped the Torridon to attract chef Bruno Birkbeck, who lifted the hotel to a three AA rosette standard within 13 months of joining.
Adventure tourism A determined move into adventure tourism is paying off as a business stream in its own right, as well as lifting takings at the inn. In a few short years, Torridon Activities has become one of the best multi-activity providers in Scotland. Both residents and non-residents can pick from a dozen activities from gorge scrambling and kayaking, to clay pigeon shooting and archery.
Up to 14 activities are on offer each week with professional tuition. Mountaineering is big business in the region, and this month the Torridon launched a walking festival. A real ale festival is next in the calendar and, for the super-fit, a duathlon starts up in April.
"It's a lot of hard work but it puts the Torridon on the tip of people's tongues when they are talking about adventure in Scotland."
Torridon Inn The shift towards the outdoors has lifted takings at the Torridon Inn, which is now drawing in families with teenage children and younger groups of friends searching for highlands adventure.
It has a thriving summer business attracted by room rates starting at £99 a night and a menu of traditional staples delivered using quality ingredients for which the region is famous.
Head chef Bruno Birbeck is in charge of both menus now, which has seen the inn revert to simple traditional pub dishes. He says: "The menu is designed to let the local ingredients speak for themselves. People want scampi and chips and good beef burgers with chunky chips, so that's what we serve there."
The economic downturn has barely affected the inn. Previous hotel guests are returning to repeat the Torridon experience, but taking the cheaper option of nights at the inn. It can accommodate between 24 and 36 people a night and with occupancy running at 60%, still has plenty of scope for growth. The inn serves around 60 covers a night, with an average two-course meal providing good value at £15.
Employing a local barman this year drew in good local trade and keeps the bar atmosphere lively with diners and drinkers.
Spotlight on highlanders
The Torridon runs a herd of 20 highland cattle, which supplies meat to the hotel and inn. Five beasts are taken every year, which means they are not fully self-sufficient, but gives a good supply of high quality meat.
The highlanders grow slower than traditional cattle taking 36-40 months to mature rather 12-18 months.
"The meat is darker with better marbling and is served at both the inn and hotel," says Dan Rose-Bristow.
He confesses running the herd is a bit of a loss leader, but the highlanders are now the mascot of the Torridon and popular with guests. So much so that the Torridon does brisk business selling a series of fluffy toy highlanders for between £12 and £30.
"It still amazes the staff just how many we sell," says Dan.
The last few years have seen a lot of change, including a 25% rise in turnover from £1.3m to £1.6m.
Dan says there is no reason why the Torridon can't lift takings to £3m in another two years. "There's no pattern to demand anywhere, which is what everybody is struggling with, so we are keeping to the strategy," he says.
Facts and stats
General manager Robert Ince
Head chef "Bruno" Birbeck
Staff 50 (high season/25 low)
Hotel rooms 19 (+12 Inn +2 boathouse)
Average spend per head in inn restaurant (ex VAT) £13.25
Average spend per head in hotel restaurant (ex VAT) £62