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The Caterer

The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Beppo Buchanan-Smith

17 August 2012 by
The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Beppo Buchanan-Smith

Now in the hands of the second generation of hoteliers, the Isle of Eriska has expanded beyond a seasonal hotel to a year-round destination property. Owner Beppo Buchanan-Smith tells James Stagg how the business has adapted to appeal to new markets through a local approach

What has changed at the Isle of Eriska since you took control of the hotel?
In the 1990s, when I came on board, we realised we had to either carry on as we were or step apart from the pack and become different. So we chose to go down the leisure angle.

It wasn't just leisure as in having a swimming pool, but that we are a leisure business, not a corporate business. In the 1990s, we set ourselves on this different course. Now we plough our own furrow in that we are different. We've added a golf course and indoor leisure facilities in the past decade.

What further developments do you have planned?
I don't want to grow the hotel any further. When my parents started we had 25 rooms, three offices, a dairy, a boiler house and three staff rooms. We now have 16 rooms and none of the other rooms, so as you can imagine, the rooms have all changed in size.

Everything in Eriska is about what the guest wants to do. I went to a hotel recently with my wife and she became angry one morning when I got up and started tapping on my computer, so I thought we needed rooms next door for guests to tap away in.

How do you plan to grow the business?
There are three ways of bringing in extra business. We can bring them in through spa treatments, food and beverage and leisure. Those are the areas we're looking to develop.

We look at making the most of our facilities. So we've opened Arnott's House, the first self-catering venture we've done on this island. It's three bedrooms and three bathrooms.

We want to look after the guests that we have, attract new guests and use as many local suppliers as possible.

Are you conscious of the hotel's responsibilities in terms of sustainability?
It's important to me. We're going to be on the board of VisitScotland's "food champions" committee of producers, restaurateurs and hoteliers and we take provenance and food miles seriously.

How do you establish working relationships with the right local producers?
We like to work with people locally, although you have to be careful that these things don't become a hobby.

We are doing a joint venture with Heaves Farm in Cumbria as we wanted to serve veal and have worked with them on their rose veal. The problem was that they became so successful that they weren't looking after us well enough. But we've since addressed that.

It's a matter of communicating with people what we want and how we use produce in the kitchen.

Do you look at the same issues in the rest of the business?
It's not just what we do in the kitchen, it's everywhere else, too. We have a gold award from the Green Tourism Business scheme and that's quite unusual for a five-star hotel. But in no way do I suspect that it will make a difference to the guests that will come here.

We've said to suppliers they can deliver in any material they want. But they have to take it away. For example, vegetables and fish arrive in plastic boxes, which are taken away. One of our vegetable suppliers even takes additional cardboard boxes away as he can use them elsewhere.

Some suppliers were surprised because they thought it was all about price but these are things that matter to us in the business. It has meant that some suppliers have been ditched as they have different values. We've been blunt about that.

How do you engender the Eriska philosophy in the team?
You can't give the team a book and say this is how you deal with guests. You have to start from when you employ people. You need to give them two weeks to find their feet and see if they are compatible.

The best members of staff aren't always the most efficient. My father always used to say that you should reward for loyalty and promote for ability. The person who is best isn't necessarily the guy who is paid most.

You can have a junior member of staff who is loyal and is great at their job but will only do half the work of another employee. Too often we promote those people and it's carnage. It's nice to be able to reward them but we need to make sure the right people are promoted.

Has the guest profile changed over the years?
Our average stay in 1974 was 3.1 days and our average stay in 2011 was 3.1 days. What has changed is our mix. Previously, many people came for a week or two nights, now it is three or four days. It's a sign of the times, people tend to have a lot of little holidays now.

About 80% of our business is British, 10% is north American, 5% is Swiss and the rest is the rest of the world. But I recently spent a few days in Dubai and Bangkok at the Destination Britain and Ireland Show and I have no doubt that in five years' time the majority of the world travellers will be from India and Asia.

Whether any part of that will want to come to a wee island on the west coast of Scotland I have no idea, but we ignore that market at our peril.

Is the luxury market as a whole changing?
I get in a bit of trouble for saying it but I think the country house hotel days are over. We are now hotels in the country.

I went to the Relais and Chateaux congress last year and I got quite upset as I was split into the resorts group. But we all had the same problems and issues. A resort is somewhere where you can spend time, not necessarily just somewhere to spend the night.

We are just strange because we have 16 rooms and resorts have 250 rooms. But we offer the service, privacy and seclusion that you won't get at larger resorts.

How does the hotel evolve to keep up?
The biggest thing we have is that we've been here for 40 years and we've had to evolve in that time. Some changes have to be slow and considered but others I can make immediately as I don't have to go to a board of directors - just my wife.

If the management team has an idea that is thought through and has purpose, we can do it.

The hotel itself is in the middle of an evolution. It's very traditional as you come in the front door but more modern inside the building. I would never overemphasise the fact that we're a hotel, as we're a house. What we're doing is offering five-star service and amenities in the confines of a Scottish country house.

Are you attracting more people from outside to the restaurant now that chef Simon McKenzie is on board?
What we used to say was when we were busy in the hotel, we didn't take extra bookings for the restaurant. Now, we probably have one table a night from outside, which is more than it was but we'd like to grow it. However, we don't reset, so when we're full we don't want to take in more customers.

What is it like working as a husband and wife team?
It's difficult because you're never away from it. I think last year we had one night away from here and that was when we went to eat the food of a chef we were looking at to come here.

We have different responsibilities. Seona is interested in the spa and looks after the staff while I am interested in the food and beverage and what goes on front of house.

My wife is from a hotel background and she is far more qualified than I am at running a hotel. She's fairly stubborn as well, so if I have a stupid idea I can't just sneak it in.

What is the next project?
What we're looking at is adding one bedroom, self-catering accommodation; potentially three or four in the same location on the island so that we can use a combined heat and power unit. I think there is a gap in the market for that. It would give us potentially more food and beverage, spa treatments and leisure, without impacting on the main house.

We will always make our money out of people sleeping in the hotel. For example, our wine list mark-up is 50%, then we go down to the nearest £5. I want guests to have two bottles of wine, or leave half a bottle as they don't want it without feeling bad.

When guests leave and think about how much they've spent I want them to feel it was good value. With that in mind I'm currently separating the spa bill from the rest of the hotel bill, so that a guest buying a jumper in the spa doesn't make the stay look overly expensive.

The Isle of Eriska: from religious retreat to leisure destination

The isle of Eriska on the west coast of Scotland was bought by Robin and Sheena Buchanan-Smith in 1973 with the intention of operating the house as a hotel for four or five months in the summer. Robin was a minister and wanted the 250-acre island to serve as a religious retreat for the winter, where students could spend some time thinking.

The hotel was opened in June 1974, operating during June, July, August and a couple of weeks in September. It reopened as a religious retreat in October. But after a month the Buchanan-Smiths gave it up as they realised that any money made in the summer had to be put back into the business to redevelop for the next year. So the family continued to work on the house as a hotel instead.

Some 40 years on, the hotel is operated by Robin Buchanan-Smith's son Beppo, and his wife Seona. It turns over some £2m a year and employs 55 members of staff.

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