The 2014 Ryder Cup will be the highest profile event ever hosted by Gleneagles. Janet Harmer meets general manager Bernard Murphy and food and beverage director Alan Hill as they prepare for a five-day tournament that will put the 90-year-old resort centre-stage for the world's top golfers.
There is something of a homecoming feeling about the hosting of the Ryder Cup in the 90th anniversary year of the five-red-AA-star Gleneagles.
Back in 1921, with the hotel still a building site, the players were housed in railway carriages. This year, the cream of European and American golfers staying for the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles from 23 to 28 September can expect accommodation on a very different scale.
The 232-bedroom hotel has done everything it can to ensure all the players and officials will enjoy first-class hospitality. The only thing it cannot guarantee will be the weather. However, the hotel has invested £1m in a pumping system for its PGA Centenary Course - the venue for the tournament - that blows air onto the grass and sucks water off the greens. This will ensure that the course is playable, even in the type of torrential rain that affected Celtic Manor in South Wales in 2010 - the last time the tournament was hosted in the UK.
"As part of the venue agreement with the PGA (Professional Golfers' Association), we will be ready to move the tournament to an extra day on the Monday, but with this new system - a first for the UK - we shouldn't need to do so," says Bernard Murphy, general manager of Gleneagles.
Since 2001, when Gleneagles was awarded the tournament, investment in the hotel has been ongoing (see panel on history of the hotel on page 26) to ensure the property has become the world-class resort it is today. As well as improving the drainage of the PGA Centenary Course, major changes to the topography of three of its holes - numbers 9, 10 and 18 - have seen them flattened to create an amphitheatre-like feel for some of the 45,000 spectators expected to attend the tournament daily, alongside the 7,000 voluntary workers.
For Murphy, who returned to Gleneagles as general manager in 2008, one of two major challenges for him and his 650-strong tream (boosted to 900 during the summer) during this momentous year is to remain focused on providing the very best service for guests for the 51 weeks outside of the Ryder Cup.
"Thankfully, we have not had one situation where a guest has complained they are not being looked after because of the tournament," he says.
Murphy was asked to return to Gleneagles by Patrick Elmsie, the hotel's managing director, after a three-year stint for Compass Group, looking after the RBS estate in Scotland as hotel services manager and then operations manager, overseeing staff dining and in-house entertaining. He had previously spent 10 years at Gleneagles, having joined the hotel in 1995 as front-of-house manager and leaving as hotel/resident manager.
Originally from Kent, Murphy had no hesitation in going back to the iconic property. "There is an enduring appeal to Gleneagles," he says. "People don't just come here to sleep, they come to have fun and enjoy unforgettable experiences across the 850-acre estate. Or they come to celebrate a special occasion - as is the case with every other arrival on a Friday night. That is a great responsibility."
The 90th anniversary celebrations of the hotel, of course, have given the staff another major focus this year, with a white-tie dinner redolent of the 1920s being the highlight on 6 June, which marked the date of the hotel's official opening in 1924. Meanwhile, displays around the hotel of the resort's history, created following an appeal for memorabilia and photographs from members of the public and past staff, has provided a focus on the rich heritage of the property and estate.
Murphy is all too aware that the aftermath of the Ryder Cup, which will boost the local economy by £100m, is going to be tough on the team. "Picking everyone up after the tournament when the carnival leaves town is the second major challenge of the year," he says. "Everyone is very focused and energised as we lead up to the event, but we have to be mindful about what happens afterwards. So we are putting in place a number of staff activities as well as key new products in the business to launch. We will ensure that there will be plenty to look forward to in the coming year."
Address Auchterarder, Perthshire PH3 1NF
Tel 01764 662 231
Managing director Patrick Elmsie
General manager Bernard Murphy
Director of food and beverage Alan Hill
Executive chef Alan Gibb
Staff 650 (up to 900 in the summer)
Guests 70% from UK and Ireland, 15% from North America, 10% from Europe, 5% from rest of the world
No of guests 90,000 (annually)
No of food/beverage covers Up to 4,000 a day
Annual turnover £38.8m in 2012/13 (£36.7m in 2011/12)
Profit £547,000 in 2012/13 (£795,000 in 2011/12)
EATING AND DRINKING AT GLENEAGLES
The food offer at Gleneagles has changed beyond all recognition since Alan Hill (left) arrived 25 years ago as executive chef. While there was a choice of seven outlets back in 1989, most served similar styles of food and were competing with one another.
"There was no proper food strategy," explains Hill, now the resort's director of food and beverage. "We needed a variety of different restaurants to keep people here, especially after the opening of the cottages at Glenmor."
The arrival of Andrew Fairlie (right) in 2001 and the two Michelin stars that followed were the biggest changes in the food and beverage offer at the hotel for some considerable time. Not only did Fairlie introduce food at the very highest level, but he also kickstarted the transformation of all the other outlets.
"Bringing Andrew here was a great move for us, because it showed people how serious we were about food," says Hill, who oversees a 300-strong team. "It also took the pressure off our main restaurant, the Strathearn, which had been trying to be all things to all people.
"Today in the Strathearn we can do all the things that so many other places have got rid of, such as carving and flambéing at the table - it's something guests still like us to do. The restaurant is still a very grand space, although we have reduced its formality over the years."
The likes of grilled whole Dover sole, steak Diane and Scottish langoustines flambéd in Pernod with shallots and shiitake mushrooms are all finished in front of the customer at Strathearn, where an average of 150 covers, and sometimes up to 300, are served daily.
The launch of Deseo has provided perhaps the biggest point of difference, with its extensive Mediterranean menu, served from noon to 10pm, providing a multitude of different eating experiences within one location. Tapas, pizza and pasta menus are all on offer, alongside a wide selection of meat, fish and shellfish cooked over a Josper charcoal grill. There is also a chef's table, where eight people can enjoy a specially prepared five-course menu for £720.
Overlooking the 18th holes of both the King's and Queen's course, the Dormy Clubhouse emerged from a major overhaul three years ago. Here, dishes such as prawns with coriander, lemon and chilli, and lamb with garlic, honey and roast almonds, are cooked in a traditional, tandoor oven, while the wider menu offers Scottish-inspired dishes throughout the day.
It will be Gleneagles' responsibility to deliver all food and beverage to the American and European Ryder Cup teams and their entourages. The catering for spectators, organisers and media will be provided across the estate in temporary buildings by Compass Group, Mecco and Wilde Thyme.
The teams will eat in their own team rooms, of which there will be four - two in the hotel and two in the Dormy Clubhouse - and which will also host strategy meetings and act as a base for the doctors and dieticians.
Strathearn will be the focus of corporate hospitality and Deseo will be open to Glenmor's residents. Restaurant Andrew Fairlie is booked out for the duration of the Ryder Cup by an unnamed client for entertaining.
Alan Gibb, the hotel's executive chef, has been working with the captains of the two teams (Paul McGinley for Europe and Tom Watson for the USA) and their dieticians, and liaising with the teams at the past Ryder Cup venues (Celtic Manor, Newport, and Medinah Country Club, Chicago) to ensure the approach to all food and beverage needs are met.
"We have to consider when to feed the teams - the Americans like to eat earlier - as well as what to feed them," says Hill. "There are requests for Nutella and jelly sandwiches and fried chicken from the Americans, whereas the European team want a more tapas style of food. However, we won't know who will be playing until the last minute, when we will have to take on personal preferences."
Like Murphy, Hill is well aware of life beyond the Ryder Cup. Although he believes the span and quality of food at Gleneagles is better than ever, he suggests there are opportunities for future developments.
"I think we could benefit by having a pub, which does not necessarily have to be on site, but it would provide an alternative option for guests," he says. "And I think a gelato would be a great success as we sell so much ice-cream in Deseo to the children staying with us."
THE PLAYGROUND OF THE GREAT, THE GOOD AND THE GLITTERING: THE GLENEAGLES STORY
This month, 90 years ago, Gleneagles opened on the edge of the village of Auchterarder, Perthshire. Since then it has been described as "the eighth wonder of the world" and "the Riviera of the Highlands".
The vision for the hotel had come 14 years earlier, when Donald Matheson, general manager of the Caledonian Railway Company (CRC), was on holiday in Strathearn, the area to the west of Perth that straddles the Highlands and Lowlands. So impressed was he by the countryside the railway ran through that he dreamt up the idea of a large, palatial-style, country house hotel with a golf course. The train, of course, would bring guests to the hotel.
Built in the style of a French chÁ¢teau, Gleneagles duly opened in 1924 with its own railway station and two golf courses - the King's and Queen's - which had been completed in 1919. By now the hotel belonged to the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, which had taken over the CRC a year earlier.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the hotel became the playground of the great, the good and the glittering, with regular BBC radio broadcasts from the ballroom of Henry Hall and his band firmly establishing the name of Gleneagles across the country.
A hiatus in the history of Gleneagles as a hotel followed the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, as it was swiftly commissioned as a military hospital and miners' rehabilitation centre.
The hotel reopened in May 1947 and the following year British Transport Hotels, a subsidiary of British Rail, became its owner. There was less glitz in the immediate aftermath of the war, with conferences increasingly the mainstay of Gleneagles' business.
During the 1970s, the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference in 1977 and the BBC Pro-Celebrity Golf series helped to keep the hotel in the public eye.
A year after the sale of Gleneagles in 1981 to hotelier Peter Tyrie - along with the Caledonian and North British (now the Balmoral) in Edinburgh - the hotel opened year-round for the first time, having previously operated only during the summer. Supported by his general manager Peter Lederer, Tyrie began the transformation of Gleneagles from a somewhat tired property, catering primarily for wealthy golfers, to a year-round resort with a wider and increasingly family-oriented customer base.
Considerable development took place during the 1980s and early 1990s, with the opening of a new leisure centre, the Country Club (now called the Club), the Jackie Stewart Shooting School, the Mark Phillips Equestrian Centre - the latter two are now known as the Gleneagles Shooting School and the Gleneagles Equestrian School respectively. The British School of Falconry opened in 1992 with fishing, dog training and off-road driving also available for guests.
In 1986 the AA awarded the hotel five red stars, which it has retained every year since.
The ongoing development of the hotel continued following a further change of ownership, with Tyrie selling Gleneagles in 1984 after Bell's, the whisky company, boosted its stake to 51%. Bell's was swallowed up by Guinness in 1986, which in turn merged with Grand Metropolitan in 1997 to create the hotel's current owner, drinks giant Diageo.
Since 2001, the hotel has been boosted by the arrival of Andrew Fairlie and his eponymous restaurant, which has gone on to take two Michelin stars. This in turn has led to a reconfiguration of the rest of the Gleneagles food and beverage offer, with the launch of the all-day dining outlet Deseo, alongside classic hotel restaurant Strathearn.
The hotel expanded with the opening in 2002 of Braid House, a 59-bedroom extension with four conference rooms, which is connected to the main building through a glazed concourse. Additional accommodation has been provided on Glenmor, an estate of 50 cottages, developed at a cost of £16m, which are available on a timeshare - or as Gleneagles prefers to call it "a seasonal ownership" - basis.
In 2009, the Spa by ESPA, offering 18 treatment rooms, was launched, with Scotland's first ESPA Life wellness centre, offering alternative health and wellbeing programmes, following in 2011.
Meanwhile, the Dormy Clubhouse received a £3m overhaul, also in 2011, with the installation of a new outdoor whisky and cigar bar called the Blue Bar. Earlier this year, £5m was spent on transforming The Club's swimming pool and leisure facilities, with a supervised crèche and a zone for teenagers to chill out.
Golf, of course, has always been central to the success of Gleneagles, with a nine-hole course, known as the Wee Course, opening in 1928 for players wanting a shorter game. This was lengthened to 18 holes in 1974 and renamed Prince's. A fourth course, the Glendevon, which originally opened in 1980, was later transformed, with the addition of some holes from the Prince's Course, in the early 1990s by legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus to create the Monarch's Course.
The remaining holes of the Prince's Course were later turned into a new nine-hole PGA National Academy Course. The Monarch's Course was renamed the PGA Centenary Course in 2001 to celebrate the centenary year of the Professional Golfers' Association. It is this course that will be the venue of the 2014 Ryder Cup.