Jill Chalmers on repositioning historic Glenapp Castle into a destination hotel through an extensive activities programme and the addition of Scotland's most luxurious suite
Glenapp Castle in Ballantrae, Ayrshire, will join some of the world's most luxurious hotels when it is featured in BBC television show Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby, next week.
Presenters Rob Rinder and Monica Galetti have already gone ‘beyond the lobby' of venues including Kasbah Tamadot in Morocco's Atlas Mountains, Nusfjord Arctic Resort in Norway, and Joali Maldives, and as managing director of the only UK hotel to be featured this season, Jill Chalmers is looking forward to seeing what makes the final cut. But it has taken many years to transform the 21-bedroom property into the amazing hotel it is today.
The 110-acre Glenapp Estate had been well established under the Earl of Orkney when industrialist James Hunter acquired it and commissioned the construction of the Scottish baronial castle in 1870, in which the hotel now sits, combining Gothic and Renaissance touches as well as sandstone battlements, turrets and towers. Over time, the property fell into disrepair, until the McMillan family of hoteliers purchased it in 1994 and spent six years restoring the dilapidated castle and gardens and turning the venue into a luxury hotel.
The hotel was acquired by its current owners, Paul and Poppy Szkiler, in 2015, Paul being the chief executive of private equity fund management business Truestone. Jill Chalmers joined the business two years later, having previously worked at Scandic Hotels and Skibo Castle, and at the time Glenapp was operating at around 28% occupancy.
"While the previous owners did a fabulous job, Paul wanted to take it to a different level," explains Chalmers.
Part of the challenge was the location – Ayrshire isn't necessarily top of the bucket list for tourists heading straight to Edinburgh and the Highlands. Getting Glenapp on that list meant raising awareness and a focus on distribution channels. "Were we talking to the right agents, the right online companies? Who didn't know about us and how were we going to get them to know about us?" were the questions facing Chalmers. Critical to making Glenapp an attractive destination, she stresses, has been the venue's activities and experiences programme.
"Why do people come to Glenapp? Why do people come to this area? We thought, we need to make it easy for them and give them a lot of things to do and see while they're here," she explains.
Glenapp's activities and experiences
The hotel now has a portfolio of 70 activities and experiences on offer, from trips to Ailsa Craig or the Isle of Arran to sea eagle fishing, getting up close with Highland cows, tours of the Bladnoch Distillery and beekeeping with the estate's resident beekeeper.
"That's been a big part of our positioning of Glenapp, not just as a lovely place to come for dinner, bed and breakfast, but a great Scottish experience – more like a destination," says Chalmers.
The diamond in its collection of activities is the Hebridean Sea Safari, which has been a particular revenue driver for the hotel. The multi-night rib boat adventure along the Scottish West Coast includes islands, castles and an ancient monastery, glamping on the island of Jura, and dinner under the stars cooked by a private chef. It's also a chance to see wildlife – Atlantic seals, basking sharks, dolphins and minke whales, as well as puffins, guillemots, gannets and razorbills. Prices can range from £16,000-£40,000 and 2022 saw 22 sea safaris take place, the highest number of bookings since the activity launched.
Further to the strategy of keeping guests on-property for longer, as well as attracting more high-net-worth individuals, has been the opening of the hotel's Endeavour Suite in May 2021, a 4,500 sq ft, £2m penthouse apartment accommodating up to eight guests. The suite can be booked from £4,950 per night and it has four bedrooms, five bathrooms, media room, library, sauna, private kitchen, dining room for up to 16 guests, and private chef and butler service. The suite has been a particularly significant revenue generator over key periods such as Christmas and New Year.
"It certainly attracts that high-net-worth customer... I know nothing else like it that exists in Scotland," says Chalmers. The suite and activities have together been "great revenue generators", she explains, "and a lot of that revenue goes to bottom line".
Dining in the Victorian glasshouse
The F&B offering has also been a consideration as part of the continued repositioning. A Victorian glasshouse within the estate's walled garden was relaunched last year as Azalea. It currently operates as a private dining and afternoon tea space, with plans for it to eventually function as a restaurant. Azalea has five individual compartments, one of which is home to 100-year-old grapevines, and two have their own private lounge areas.
"Every year we had something new to tell, a new story, which I think helps, because we got out in the press a lot. We started winning awards as well, which helped. We started getting recognition," says Chalmers – this recognition included being shortlisted for the Hotel of the Year – Independent at the 2023 Cateys.
According to Chalmers, 2022 was one of the hotel's "best years ever", with annual occupancy of just under 80%. This has fallen slightly this year, offset by a £100 increase in average room rate year-on-year, and Chalmers hopes to further boost both metrics over the next 12 months. Average length of stay has increased by around 25%-35%. Although the staycation market is predictably not as strong as it was during the Covid pandemic, international customers started to return last year, particularly the key US market, which has come back with a vengeance.
Plans to keep building on the hotel's success include continued reinvestment into the property (the hotel closes for 10-14 days every January for a refresh and any required refurbishment work) and the team. Like many hospitality businesses across the UK, Glenapp is finding recruitment a challenge post-Brexit and post-pandemic.
"The biggest challenge for every hotel up and down the country is staffing. We're doing OK with that. You've just got to keep your foot on the accelerator; you've got to keep at it," Chalmers says.
"Before, you could put out an advert and we would get applications. [Now] you have to be a bit more proactive about it... We do as much as we can with the local market. We employ on attitude and train people with the skills."
Engaging an agency with links to South Africa has also helped with recruiting chefs. When it comes to initiatives to support existing staff, there are monthly team gatherings and staff meals which have increased from one to two a day. The need to invest into the team is more important than ever, particularly with the impact the pandemic has had on people's mental health, says Chalmers, who emphasises that while Glenapp pays its employees "above the industry norm", it's not just about the money.
"Because we're remote, a lot of them live in the area or in staff accommodation in the village. Making sure they're OK, that pastoral care side of things, which sometimes you can't put a price on, that is a key part of everything we do here as well," she says.
All this investment and development across the business has helped reposition Glenapp Castle within the industry and in the eyes of consumers, and ultimately led to it being featured on Amazing Hotels, joining previous UK stars the Lanesborough and Shangri-La at the Shard in London, Swinton Estate in Yorkshire, and the Torridon in Wester Ross.
Although a proud moment for the property, it certainly isn't the end point of Glenapp's ambition, with plans already in the pipeline for further expansion and development. The hotel has received planning permission to convert two cottages on the estate into guest accommodation, with hopes to convert five in total and reach around 33 keys throughout the estate. The investment is expected to be in the "millions" with the accommodation hoped to come online in the next two to three years, while more long-term plans include a spa.
Getting Glenapp on Amazing Hotels
"I've been a personal fan of Amazing Hotels over the years... since I joined Glenapp, it was always on my hitlist," recalls Glenapp Castle's managing director Jill Chalmers.
"Glenapp got to a stage where I thought, ‘we've really got a good chance with this'. Over a number of years, we spoke to the BBC off and on about it. I was grilled by various producers a few times. A lot of it was about what we do for our staff. The product itself had to be at a certain level. They asked a lot about the style of the hotel [and] we spoke about our Hebridean Sea Safari. They were looking for what makes this hotel stand out and what makes it an amazing hotel." She describes the production team as "wonderful to work with" and "amazingly respectful".
"The presenters were really lovely, really down to earth, so the team felt very much at ease. They were nervous about it… but they all said it was absolutely fab, Rob [Rinder] and Monica [Galetti] made them feel very comfortable, and they all enjoyed it," she continues.
It was important to communicate effectively to guests about what was happening and ensuring that if any guests did not want to be filmed, even in the background of a shot, they could easily communicate that to the hotel, and the team would in turn pass that onto the crew.
"The majority of guests were excited about it and dead happy to be seen walking in the background or captured on film. There was a great interest in it. Operationally it worked really well," says Chalmers.
Her advice to other hoteliers looking to welcome in the film crews is to first assess the cost. "You need to analyse the cost against the benefit, because it was quite a significant cost for us to host the BBC and do everything we did with them. But we're hopeful that the benefits will offset that. That's the first decision any hotel needs to make," she explains.
"And then just be generous and offer them true hospitality. Do what every five-star hotel does and be generous with your time and your hospitality. Work together as a team – they became colleagues. They would actually attend our 10:30 morning briefing meetings every day to keep us updated."
The process saw presenters Rinder and Galetti take part in a Hebridean Sea Safari as well as go behind the scenes working with the garden team, housekeeping and the in-house florist.
"It was a real variety of things. I don't know yet what's going to be featured," says Chalmers. "They did tell me they film a lot more than they actually use, so what's going to be on the cutting room floor? I don't know yet!"
It wasn't the first time Glenapp has welcomed in the television cameras – the hotel has also hosted Gordon Ramsay's Future Food Stars, a Burns Night segment of ITV's This Morning hosted by Gok Wan, and two of the hotel's pastry chefs were contestants on Channel 4's most recent series of Bake Off: The Professionals.
Chalmers says getting the hotel on television has also been part of her strategy to get the name out there, with every feature increasing the visibility of Glenapp and Ayrshire across the UK market. She hopes that Amazing Hotels' international reach once the programme is syndicated abroad will further increase visibility in overseas markets.
Following advice from other hotels that have been on the show, in preparation for an expected spike in web traffic when the episode is broadcast, the venue has upgraded its server and will have a technician on site the evening of the broadcast in case of any issues. Additional recruits have also been brought in to bolster its reservations team to deal with an anticipated increase in enquiries.
The episode of Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby featuring Glenapp Castle is expected to broadcast on BBC Two at 8pm on Sunday 24 September.
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