Cameron House on Loch Lomond has been rebuilt with a new ethos, where the hotel has repaired the mistakes that led to its tragic fire and is now looking forward to offering its brand of thoughtful luxury, where staff consider guests' every need and look to offer ‘Wee Wows'.
For Ben Danielsen, taking on the role of general manager at Cameron House on Loch Lomond is akin to arriving home. And yet, he has never lived or worked in Scotland. The connection he has with the location – frequently referred to as the boundary between the lowlands and the Highlands – stems from the fact that he was born and brought up in Norway.
"It is incredibly powerful to get that emotion so early on in my relationship with Scotland," he says. "The feelings I get for the country are the same as those that I get when I return to Norway. As well as the similarity in landscape, there is also something familiar with the personality of the people and their incredibly warm and welcoming hospitality."
Danielsen took over the running of the 140-bedroom Cameron House hotel in West Dunbartonshire on 19 July, just ahead of the property's reopening in August following an extensive three-and-a-half-year renovation and refurbishment, which has been held up by adverse weather conditions, planning delays and Covid-19. The previous general manager, Craig Paton, left the property in February 2021.
The main part of the hotel has been closed since December 2017 when a fire tragically killed two guests, Richard Dyson and Simon Midgley, and destroyed a major part of the main building. Earlier this year Cameron House Resort (Loch Lomond) admitted safety failings and was fined £500,000, while a porter was sentenced to a community payback order for failing to properly dispose of ash and embers from an open fire. In June an independent Crown Office review decided that a Fatal Accident Inquiry should be held into the deaths of the two guests.
To take over the running of Cameron House following such a catastrophic incident is no easy task, and Danielsen handles questions about doing so with compassion and awareness that what happened is part of the hotel's history and cannot be ignored.
"We will never forget where we have come from," he says. "The team have introduced every measure they can to make sure this does not happen again. We have appointed a new director of risk and safety [George Robertson, previously safety and health manager at the University of the West of Scotland].
"By having all the processes right and having all the people aware of why and how we are doing the things that we do, we have an environment that has safety and wellbeing at its core, for our staff, guests and visitors alike."
Back to his roots
Initially, Danielsen had not intended to move on from his previous position at the Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa in Bath, where he had been general manager for two years. But when the offer came his way, he was eager to embrace the opportunity because of the history and ambition of Cameron House combined with the connection to the locality stemming from his Norwegian roots.
"I very quickly knew that I wanted to be part of the journey of re-establishing Cameron House at the top end of the luxury resort market," he says. "There are very few places in the UK that have the width of experiences and activities we have to offer, combined with the location on the loch side and high-end luxury. It really puts us into a unique place."
Danielsen believes his mix of experience across resorts (at Vale Resort in Cardiff and Five Lakes Resort Crowne Plaza in Colchester) and five-star establishments such at the Royal Crescent and the Vineyard in Stockcross, Berkshire, will stand him in good stead for the extensive Cameron House operation.
Set within 400 acres of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, the hotel certainly provides the widest range of leisure pursuits that make it an equally attractive proposition for holidaying guests or team-building for the corporate market. The extensive space enables multiple events to take place at the same time without one disturbing the other.
At the heart of the hotel is the baronial mansion dating back to the 17th century, known as the Auld House, which houses 14 suites. The building has been remodelled by architect firm 3D Reid to open up the ground-floor spaces and capitalise on the hotel's setting overlooking Loch Lomond, as well as adding balconies to bedrooms. Original materials were used where possible, with elements that were beyond repair used as moulds to create new ceiling plasterwork, stair balustrading and timber panelling.
Interiors created by Greyline Design introduce contemporary touches as well as celebrating the history of the property. The public spaces feature black lacquered panelling with bronze velvet, antique brass fixtures, Emperador marble and dark oak herringbone flooring. Meanwhile, the panelled bedrooms include oversized headboards covered in fabric from Glasgow-based Timorous Beasties, as well as Scottish wools and tartans including throws from Johnstons of Elgin.
In addition to the existing 140 guest rooms (including 24 suites), a further 68 rooms will open in January 2022 alongside a 7,345 sq ft ballroom for 350 dinner guests overlooking Loch Lomond.
Paul Tamburrini and Martin Wishart
The hotel is also offering three new food and beverage concepts: fine dining restaurant Tamburrini & Wishart, the Tavern sports bar and the Lobby bar, which serves afternoon tea, Champagne and cocktails.
The first is headed by chefs Paul Tamburrini and Martin Wishart, both of whom have strong connections to the hotel. Wishart's previous eponymous restaurant at Cameron House was awarded a Michelin star in 2011, while Tamburrini worked at the resort as head chef for three years early in his career. They have also worked together over a period of 20 years at Restaurant Martin Wishart and the Honours in Edinburgh, the latter of which closed last year as a result of the pandemic.
Tamburrini & Wishart's five-course tasting dinner menu, priced at £110 per head with matching wines at £65, will change once a fortnight, while the three-course lunch menu (£45 per head and matching wines at £24) may include the likes of red wine-braised ox cheeks, crab and lemon grass velouté and Pink Lady tarte tatin.
While the past three-and-a-half years have been focused on rebuilding the heritage element of Cameron House and extending its facilities across an additional building, Danielsen is fully aware that the hotel will only establish itself as a leading contender in Scotland's luxury sector through the creation of "an absolutely unique and first-class service experience" for guests. To this end, he fully embraces the family culture that has become an integral part of the induction programme for all staff (see panel).
"Talking about ourselves as a clan sets the bar extremely high," he says. "One thing that Covid has taught us is the importance of the team and staff welfare. By making everyone feel comfortable in their surroundings, creating the ‘Wee Wows' – a new way of talking for me – follows on naturally. It is what I have always done in my career."
By making everyone feel comfortable in their surroundings, creating the ‘Wee Wows' – a new way of talking for me – follows on naturally
Ultimately, Danielsen believes it is his job as general manager to support the talented team already in place before his arrival and ensure they have everything to enable them to be able to deliver exceptional service. "Coming from a social democratic country, I am a very democratic leader. I invite the team to discuss what they want to achieve and together we find a way for creating a better future for staff and guests alike."
About Cameron House
Cameron House, Loch Lomond, West Dunbartonshire G83 8QZ
01389 310777; www.cameronhouse.co.uk
Resort director Andy Roger
General manager Ben Danielsen
Executive chef Zoltan Szabo
Bedrooms 140. The addition of 68 bedrooms, due to be launched at the end of the year, will take the total room count up to 208.
Food and beverage Tamburrini & Wishart (fine-dining), Cameron Grill, the Boat House (relaxed dining with focus on seafood), the Clubhouse at Cameron (sandwiches, salads, grills), Café Spa (light dishes), Great Scots bar, the Tavern (sports bar), the Lobby bar (afternoon tea), the Boat House bar.
Leisure facilities Forty-seat cinema; 18-hole Carrick golf course; nine-hole Wee Demon golf course; Leisure Club with 18-metre swimming pool, family pool with waterslide, gym, fitness studio and spin studio; Cameron Spa with 17 treatment rooms; falconry; Segway safaris; clay pigeon; pony trekking; 4x4 off-road driving; 234-berth marina; sea plane trips; jet and water skiing; paddle boarding; fishing; Champagne cruises.
Meetings and events Seven rooms, accommodating from 16 to 400 guests.
Guest profile Pre-Covid, around 75% of guests were from UK and 25% were from overseas.
Room rates Starting from £295 for a classic room in off season (£405 in high season) and from £3,095 for the 110 sq m Cameron Suite.
History and ownership Cameron House was built in the 17th century for the Smollett family. After opening the grounds as a bear park in 1972, the family went on to sell the property in 1986 when it became a hotel and leisure centre.
The hotel's current operating company Cameron House Resort (Loch Lomond) was acquired by CMH Investment II, ultimately owned by US-based private equity firm KSL Capital Partners, in November 2015, for around £80m. KSL also owns the Belfry Hotel & Resort in Sutton Coldfield and Village Hotels.
Cameron House was previously operated for 12 months by QHotels, having been sold by De Vere Hotels in November 2014. According to the latest annual report and financial statement for Cameron House Resort (Loch Lomond) for the year to 31 December 2020, the cost of the recent renovation amounts to £29.7m. An additional £17.5m is being spent on a yet-to-be-completed extension comprising 68 bedrooms and ballroom.
Wee Wows and a different approach to finding staff
Jennifer Jurgensen has been director of human resources at Cameron House for 15 years and has never previously struggled with such a dire recruitment headache as she is experiencing now. With a requirement for a full staff complement of 540, building a team in time for the reopening of the hotel has been a real challenge.
With the entire UK hospitality industry desperate to recruit staff or keep hold of staff they already have, Jurgensen has made a number of appointments that have been accepted and then later turned down when current employers have persuaded team members to stay.
So what has Jurgensen and her team been doing to attract staff? "We've enticed people through an active social media strategy over the past two years," she says. "We have been shouting about the great things happening around the reopening and building Cameron House up as a first-choice employer. And we have set out to be very accessible by offering our mobile numbers so that candidates can speak to us at any time, rather than having to deal with a faceless online process."
Direct approaches have also been made to potential employees, something that rarely happened before, and three recruitment days were held as soon as Covid restrictions allowed.
"We are all about the personality – many skills can be trained," says Jurgensen, who has made many appointments from outside the hospitality industry, particularly from the retail, care and airline sectors.
At every opportunity, the message is that, despite the size of the operation, Cameron House is a close-knit family where the working culture is fun, friendly and positive. Indeed, this is something that is emphasised during what Jurgensen describes as the "phenomenal" three-day Clan Welcome induction programme for all staff.
To reinforce Cameron House's intention to be Scotland's leading luxury resort, the Clan Welcome incorporates a full-day of guest service training focused on the fundamentals of exceptional service, from creating an memorable first impression to delivering unrivalled personalised service known as ‘Wee Wows', through to a genuine fond farewell on departure.
"Wee Wows are all about anticipating guest needs and creating any opportunity to surprise the guest in an intuitive way," says Jurgensen. "This could be adding specific items to a menu to meet the guest's likes or creating a personalised bedtime story for a young guest, incorporating the child's name."
Ongoing training is available to all team members based on six-month appraisals. Meanwhile, a graduate programme has appointed six individuals, twice the number the hotel had before its closure, and a new chef apprenticeship programme had been launched to provide on-the-job training for 18- to 24-year-olds.
By early July, 305 staff – appointed during the previous three months – had joined the existing 180 individuals who had remained on-board during the renovations, including the executive team, sales, marketing and health and safety departments, and those working in outlets that remained open: two food and beverage sites, leisure facilities, golf courses, spa and lodges. With a handful of staff still to be appointed, Jurgensen highlights skilled chef and front of house food and beverage staff positions as being the most challenging to fill.
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