Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview: Steven McLeod, Aurora Hotel Collection

08 February 2013 by
Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview: Steven McLeod, Aurora Hotel Collection

Steven McLeod is the chief executive of the Aurora Hotel Collection, a rapidly expanding portfolio of luxury hotels and lodges in central Scotland. The flamboyant character tells Janet Harmer about his plans to create the most dynamic and welcoming hotel company north of the border

From winning an Acorn Award in 2000 to being named Scottish Hotelier of the Year at the Scottish Hotel Awards last year, you have achieved considerable success. To what do you attribute your achievements?

How would you describe the essence of the Aurora Hotel Collection? All the hotels are unique, grade A listed buildings with lots of character. I'm very hands 
on in the design, which is bespoke for each property.

How did you get the hotel bug? My family never had very much when I was growing up - just a lot of love from a fabulous mother, brother and two sisters. I was OK academically, but a bit of a class clown, and the teachers seemed to be delighted when I said I was going to leave school. A job washing dishes in a hotel in Stirling is what kicked it off. I was quickly moved to front of house and immediately loved the interaction with guests. If you make an effort, then customers love you. In fact customers from back then are my customers today - the son of one of them got married in one of my hotels just recently.

I went on to study at Falkirk College and Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, but I always retained a weekend job in a hotel and it was that practical experience that always drove me forward.

After an early career working for a number of leading hotels throughout Scotland, you set out on your own. What was the driving factor? I've always been quite entrepreneurial and I don't always like being told what to do. I also got bored working for other people and knew that I was prepared to work very hard creating something for myself.

Tell me about your first hotel, Airth Castle? I bought it eight years ago for £9m, when I was nearly 30. It has 125 bedrooms and had been a hotel for 50 years, but at the time I bought it, it was in receivership and was doing very little business. I suppose it was a risk, but I was used to taking risks with properties, having bought and sold a number of flats. I have a business partner and the bank gave me 70% of the value, something that would be much more difficult to achieve now.

We spent around £1.5m on completely refurbishing the hotel and adding a restaurant and bar. The business very quickly improved, largely because when we say that we are going to look after people, we deliver. It is that which makes it easy for me to steal business from elsewhere. We mainly employ local staff, who are so important in ensuring we give the right service.

How did the second hotel come about? We were so busy at Airth Castle - particularly with weddings - that we bought a second property, Glenbervie House, a Victorian manor house, just a few minutes away. It has a number of function suites and 12 bedrooms and is used mainly as a wedding venue. There is also an exclusive lodge, the Coach House, which sells for £1,500 a night. And some time this year we are going to start developing a 120-
bedroom hotel and 28 seasonal ownership properties within the 100-acre grounds.

Weddings are very big business for us - we do between 500 and 600 across the company, each year, but only ever do one a day at any one venue. Some weddings can cost up to £30,000, but the average cost at our hotels is around £10,000 for everything.

After setting up two successful businesses, the next one didn't run so smoothly. What went wrong? Our next opening was meant to be Hotel Colessio, which was due to open within a Victorian building - the old infirmary - in the centre of Stirling, in 2009. But unfortunately I was seriously let down by the contractor, who went out of business, and lost a serious amount of money - around £4m. The work was 50% done but I had to step back from it for two-and-a-half years and put security guards into the property. It was really the darkest moment of my existence. I felt it affected my integrity.

However, it proved to be an enormous learning curve - I thought I knew what I was doing, but I trusted certain people too much.

Thankfully the development is now back on track, with all guns blazing. The management team are in place and the hotel is due to open in June this year as a boutique, five-star hotel with a ballroom for 250. There will be some influences from Hotel du Vin and there will be a Grill Room concept. All in all, by the time it opens, Hotel Colessio will have cost £10m.

How did you deal with the bookings you had already taken for Hotel Colessio? We had 74 weddings on our books and I had mothers of the brides screaming at me, as it is clearly my name above the door and, as I've already said, I pride myself on always doing what it says on the tin. However, I was fortunate as in May 2010 I completed on the purchase of Solsgirth House near Dollar, which has 12 bedrooms. I had actually bought it as a family home, but we added a pavilion, which can take 500 guests, and it also has its own chapel. In the end, we only lost 10 weddings, with the rest being transferred to Solsgirth.

Your last hotel opening, Cairn lodge and hotel in Auchterarder, scooped three accolades (Scotland's Sexiest Hotel, Rising Star Luxury Hotel and the Scottish Hotel Design Award) at the 2012 Scottish Hotel Awards, just one month after opening. What makes it special? It is small (10 bedrooms in the hunting lodge and five in the lodge), sexy, quite decadent and very luxurious. The interior is dramatic, with a palette of black and white throughout. I do all the design myself, working with Corinne Muir - who interprets my ideas - and using Andrew Martin furnishings. I know I won't be able to do it forever as the business continues to grow. However, I always intend to keep a very close eye on how every property looks.

How many staff do you employ? There are now 400 across the group. We have a very low turnover of people. I'm very good to the staff and pay above the minimum wage. They know that working for me is an adventure and that things get done. The head office is basically me - we don't have a board room with 24 sitting round the table discussing ideas. If we are going to make money, then things have to move quickly.

Beyond Colessio, what other plans do you have for expansion? Colessio in Stirling will be the first of a brand that could grow to six or eight. I think we could open more in key city centres such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, as well as taking it south to Leeds, Manchester and London. Unlike our other properties, Colessio won't be function-driven - each one will have 40 to 60 bedrooms, be very elegant, and sit within converted iconic buildings. It is a brand we could even take abroad.

Later in the year we will open the Parsonage at Dunmore Park, near Stirling. It is a Victorian house, which we are gutting to create a high quality, contemporary 12-bedroom property with swimming pool, two large public rooms and a tempenyaki kitchen. It will be very exclusive and we eventually hope to open stables and log cabins in the grounds.

We are also looking to set up a management company as there are so many people who buy hotels, but don't know what to do with them.

What is your ultimate objective for the Aurora Hotel Collection? I would eventually like to have 24 hotels by the time I retire. I have no intention of stopping early, work is what keeps me going. I'm at my desk at around 7am every day. I have my phone on from the moment I get up and work until late at night, often seven days a week.

I don't take much time off to relax, but when I do, I might go to a horse show - my partner is an equestrian - or if I'm lucky, I might have a spa day at Gleneagles.


Now aged 38, Steven McLeod began working in hotels as a kitchen porter, to help support his family, when he was 14. He completed work placements at the Dunblane Hydro and Old Course hotels whilst studying at Falkirk College and Queen Margaret University and then undertook management training at the Stirling Highland hotel.
McLeod joined Macdonald Hotels & Resorts in 1997 as operations manager of the Inchyra Hotel & Spa, near Stirling, and went on to become the hotel's general manager, at the age of 23 - the youngest in the group. He says that during the eight years he spent with Macdonald, he learnt "what to do and what not to do" when running a hotel.

Acting on his long-term vision to run his own hotel, McLeod took the plunge in 2004 when he bought Airth Castle - a property he regarded as run-down and with bags of potential - as the founding hotel within the Aurora Hotel Collection.

Having come from a challenging background on the Raploch housing estate in Stirling, McLeod frequently returns to his roots, visiting schools to give motivational talks, encouraging students to strive for their dreams.

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