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Gleneagles' managing director Conor O'Leary on a new chapter for the historic hotel

03 February 2021 by
Gleneagles' managing director Conor O'Leary on a new chapter for the historic hotel

Gleneagles has transformed itself, from slightly tired ancient pile to a contemporary, grand ‘playground' with expansion on the cards. Janet Harmer meets Ennismore chief executive Sharan Pasricha and managing director Conor O'Leary to find out how they plan to compete with the best hotels in the world.

The acquisition of Gleneagles in Auchterarder by Sharan Pasricha and his family from drinks giant Diageo in 2015 took the hotel world by surprise. Pasricha is the founder and chief executive of Ennismore, which, at the time, was still the new kid on the hospitality block, having entered the sector just three years earlier with the purchase of the Hoxton hotel in London, a brand renowned for combining value with a cool, creative vibe.

For some, the move by the Indian-born entrepreneur into the traditional and luxury hotel space was seen as an audacious step. However, any concerns that the iconic five-AA-star, 232-bedroom hotel set within 250 acres of rolling Perthshire countryside was going to become an outpost of the hip Hoxton have long since been swept aside.

The completion in autumn 2020 of a total renovation at a widely reported but unconfirmed cost of £30m of the 97-year-old hotel underlines the respect Pasricha has for the history of the property while at the same time moving it into the 21st centenary.

"I was lucky enough to visit Gleneagles many times before its acquisition and I remember sitting at the bar thinking what I would do if I managed to get hold of the keys to the amazing, historic building," Pasricha told The Caterer. "In my eyes, it was a sleeping giant that had the potential to be the best hotel in the world, so we've been working hard over the past few years to make sure it becomes just that."

Sharan Pasricha
Sharan Pasricha

Pasricha believed the hotel had lost the magic it had on its opening in 1924, when the hotel swiftly become renowned as a leading social destination. "Cars used to race the train from London to see who would get there first, and when they arrived they had the biggest party you could imagine!" he enthuses. So, he set about reigniting the glamour for which it had once been renowned by emphasising its "glorious playground" tagline.

Winning ways

The completion of the newly revitalised Gleneagles, of course, came during an extraordinary year for the hotel – one in which it was forced to close for nearly six months as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and yet also celebrated 16 awards bestowed across every department, as well as for the entire property. Successes included being named Best Hotel in the World in The Times and The Sunday Times Travel Awards and Best UK Hotel in the Condé Nast Traveller Readers' Choice Awards. Elizabeth Forkuoh, assistant manager in the Strathearn restaurant (Gold Service Scholarship) and Katharina Strasser, guest experience co-ordinator (AICR UK Receptionist of the Year) were among the individual team members to be honoured.

Overseeing operations during this momentous time and chief implementer of Pasricha's vision for taking the hotel to a new level was Conor O'Leary, who was appointed managing director in April 2019 after arriving at Gleneagles as hotel manager two-and-a-half years earlier.

Gleneagles
Gleneagles

O'Leary had stayed at the hotel as a guest nearly 10 years previously, and he was inspired by the grandeur of the property and took a keen interest in its subsequent sale to Pasricha. "Sharan's ownership of the property played a huge part in my decision to join Gleneagles," he explains. "He was ready to invest and introduce creativity into the property in order that it reached the pinnacle of international hotels."

O'Leary arrived at Gleneagles with the experience of working in a large-scale property – the 600-bedroom Grand Hyatt Dubai, where he was director of the 20 food and beverage outlets, and various roles in London hotels, including the Hyatt Regency London – the Churchill and the Ritz London.

"London is the capital city of hospitality, especially when it comes to food and beverage, with evolution happening at every level of dining, whether it is a coffee shop or a restaurant. Gleneagles aspires to be within that circuit and stay just as relevant."

Fresh thinking

The hotel's new competitive edge has been helped enormously by the creation of a new look, kick-started by leading hospitality designers David Collins Studio, Macaulay Sinclair and Goddard Littlefair, with Ennismore's in-house design studio completing the project.

Structurally the property, built to replicate a French chateau with the solidness of a Scottish baronial pile, was sound, but its interior look had become somewhat tired. Archives were used to enhance the history and style of the property in order to respect the past, while at the same time the refurbishment injected elements of a more contemporary style.

"Sharan's overall vision was to grow the room rate by creating a more cohesive business with a youthfulness and quirky creativity relevant to today's travellers," says O'Leary.

Sharan's overall vision was to grow the room rate by creating a more cohesive business with a youthfulness and quirky creativity relevant to today's travellers

For instance, the hotel's business centre was removed and replaced with a ‘playground snug'. With leisure guests in pre-Covid times accounting for 65% of Gleneagles' business (when the hotel reopened between lockdowns last year, the figure was closer to 100%), the demand for a business centre was never huge.

"Guests come to the snug to chat with the playground planners – our version of concierges – to plan their activities during their stay, whether it is booking a round of golf or helping them to step out of their comfort zone and climb trees," says O'Leary. Competitive features include scoreboards highlighting the guest who has caught the biggest fish or achieved the best score in clay pigeon shooting or golf on any given day.

While golf is what Gleneagles is renowned the world over for – it has three championship courses, including the PGA Centenary Course, host of the 2014 Ryder Cup – Pasricha was keen to remind people that it offers much more than that. "In fact, only 15% of our bedrooms are booked by golfers," explains O'Leary.

The intention was not to change the demographics of guests or attract a certain age group – it was more about appealing to like-minded people of any generation by offering a wealth of indoor and outdoor attractions. In particular, there is now more to appeal to multi-generational families than ever before. Alongside the traditional pursuits of fishing, shooting, falconry and gun dog training, there is a ferret school aimed at youngsters and the Trail Yard, in which guests of all ages can enjoy zip wires and bug hunts and learn woodland skills. When it snows, sledges are provided for use on the golf course and kits handed out to build snowmen.

Gleneagles
Gleneagles

Indoors there is the spa, gym and two swimming pools (plus one thermal outdoor pool), And if parents want to take some time for themselves, there is the supervised Little Glen crèche for two- to nine-year-olds and the unsupervised Den for six- to 15-year-olds, with the latter offering a cinema room.

The stage is set

Strathearn, at the heart of Gleneagle's F&B operation, has emerged from the refurbishment with a glamorous new look inspired by the fine dining experiences of the 1920s and 1930s.

Dinner within the restaurant, which served around 160 covers a night with social distancing measures in place, is a theatrical affair with the intention of highlighting that, if done with flair and at the highest quality, a place still exists for a formal style of operation. Waiters offering guéridon service from bespoke trollies carve smoked salmon, offer a dressed salad or flambé the signature steak Strathearn, accompanied by red onion marmalade, potato terrine, baby leek, chestnut mushrooms, Arran blue cheese, whisky sauce and walnut crumb.

American bar
American bar

Pasricha said that he didn't want to radically change the fabric of the restaurant. "Instead, we wanted to take the essence of the Strathearn and turn up the volume. By amplifying all the elements that are so well-loved – the elegant decor, the history, the lively atmosphere, the culinary theatre and the exceptional food – the team has brought back the vibrancy, energy, playfulness and glamour of fine dining experiences a century ago."

The team has brought back the vibrancy, energy, playfulness and glamour of fine dining experiences a century ago

The hotel, of course, suffered the terrible loss in January 2019 of 54-year-old Andrew Fairlie from a brain tumour. Fairlie had overseen the eponymous restaurant, which was awarded two Michelin stars, since 2001. Today the restaurant continues under the guidance of head chef Stevie McLaughlin and general manager Dale Dewsbury, under an agreement reached between Fairlie and Pasricha in the final months of his life.

The Ballroom
The Ballroom

"Restaurant Andrew Fairlie continues to go from strength to strength," says O'Leary. "Dale, Steven and Kate, Andrew's wife, have continued to evolve the restaurant while keeping the ethos that Andrew created at its heart. It's still a hugely important part of the F&B offering at Gleneagles and will be for many years to come."

Gleneagles' newest food outlet is the Birnam Brasserie, which has replaced Desio. It offers a Mediterranean menu and is a point of difference from all the other eateries across the estate, be it the Dormy Club House (grills, pizza and tandoori dishes), the Garden Café (all-day light bites), Glendevon (afternoon tea), the Century bar (drinks include one of Scotland's most extensive collection of rare whiskies), Auchterarder 70 (craft bar pub), the American bar (Champagne, cocktails and caviar), and the Blue bar (alfresco whiskies and cigars).

Conor O'Leary
Conor O'Leary

O'Leary says that the boost in demand from leisure guests wanting to escape the cities during the pandemic resulted in stronger than expected business levels during summer 2020 after the hotel reopened on 15 July following the first lockdown, with occupancy of 90% achieved during August. Unfortunately, Gleneagles closed again on 12 November when the return of government restrictions made it increasingly difficult for guests to travel to the hotel. Today, around 900 staff are on flexible furlough.

The idea of an expansion of the Gleneagles brand, so successful for nearly a century, has often been mooted in the past and will now become a reality when a former branch of Bank of Scotland on St Andrew Square in Edinburgh is transformed into the Gleneagles Townhouse Edinburgh. The 33-bedroom hotel and members' club with a large F&B operation in the former banking hall is set to open in autumn 2021. However, plans by Ennismore to launch a London outpost of Gleneagles within a Grade I-listed building in Grafton Street in Mayfair have been shelved in favour of a project yet to be revealed.

Gleneagles
Gleneagles

Meanwhile, back in Auchterarder, Easterton Farm, comprising 250 acres of land just two miles from Gleneagles, has been acquired and planning permission obtained for additional accommodation and restaurants, but the plans have been paused while focus is given to the Edinburgh project.

With domestic and international guests eager to visit a newly revitalised Gleneagles when Covid restrictions are lifted and a second property bearing the iconic name on the horizon, Pasricha must be delighted that the concerns of the sceptics from six years ago have been unfounded.

About Gleneagles

Gleneagles, Auchterarder, Perthshire PH3 1NF

01764 662 231

www.gleneagles.com

Owner The Pasricha family

Operator Ennismore

Managing director Conor O'Leary

Hotel manager Daniel Baernreuther

Executive chef Simon Attridge

Bedrooms 232

Starting room rate £400

Average length of guest stay Four-five days in summer, two-three days in winter

Staff Up to 1,000 during peak periods

Guests (Pre-Covid) 65% from the UK and Ireland; 35% from overseas (predominately North America)

Annual turnover £55.3m in 2018 (£51.2m in 2017), according to Companies House

Pre-tax profit £55,000 in 2018 (£505,000 in 2017), according to Companies House

Marketing consortia The Leading Hotels of the World## Gleneagles and Ennismore

Just as the sale of Gleneagles to the Pasricha family for around £150m took the hospitality industry by surprise, the announcement in November 2020 that Ennismore was to merge with hotel heavyweight Accor was also unexpected. The new management company, which will operate under the Ennismore name, will result in the creation of a worldwide collection of 73 lifestyle hotels operating under 12 brands.

The bulk of the properties will come from Accor's existing stable of brands, including Delano, Mondrian, Mama Shelter, 25hours and Jo&Joe. Meanwhile, Ennismore's key contribution to the new business is the Hoxton brand, which has grown from the single 208-bedroom hotel the company acquired for £65m in 2012 to nine properties across four countries: three in the UK (all in London), four in the US and one each in the Netherlands and France. Italy will be added to the list next year when a 10th hotel opens in Rome, with further openings set for Berlin and Vienna.

From the outset, the brand has offered an innovative experience within the lifestyle sector, with lobbies offering collaborations with local neighbourhoods, ‘Working From' co-working spaces and ‘Flexy Time' 24 hour check-ins.

The newly expanded Ennismore, which will see Pasricha work alongside Gaurav Bhushan, chief executive of Accor's lifestyle division, as co-chief executive, will not impact the operation of Gleneagles as the hotel remains as a private family investment outside Ennismore's ownership. However, the Perthshire property will continue to be operated under a management contract with Ennismore.

Future announcements are expected about the other projects Ennismore was working on prior to the tie-up with Accor. Its new budget hotel brand NoCo was scheduled to launch this year with a 312-bedroom property in London's Canary Wharf. Additionally, detailed plans for Eynsham Hall, a 135-bedroom country house hotel set within a 3,000 acre estate in Witney, Oxfordshire, are yet to be revealed. All we know is that the hotel is currently closed for a renovation that aims to "return it back to its former glory and create a world-class hotel".

The impact of Covid-19 has undoubtedly resulted in Pasricha giving consideration as to where business will come from in the future. "Our hotels aren't just for guests, but also for our communities, and we have full belief our cities will bounce back," he says.

"And if our guests don't fancy coming to the city, we'll keep our eyes peeled on where they want to go. We recently popped up Camp Hox (comprising 12 tents in the grounds of Eynsham) during August 2020 as we saw people wanted to relax in the countryside. It may pop up in other places too… Watch this space!"

Conor O'Leary portrait: Marc Millar Photography

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