Struan and Louise Lothian own and run the Knockendarroch Hotel in Pitlochry, which recently was awarded a César by the Good Hotel Guide taking the title of Scottish Hotel Of The Year for 2019. This award is for hoteliers that have demonstrated excellence in their field. SUSAN YOUNG caught up with Struan at the hotel to find out more.
Sitting perched on a hill overlooking Pitlochry the Knockendarroch Hotel is a four-star luxury hotel with wonderful views and a real country house feel. A roaring fire, lovely artwork and contemporary and classy décor add to the ambience. The hotel, which now has 14 rooms, has been owned by Struan and Louise Lothian for the past four years, and during that time they have added two suites and largely refurbished the hotel. And their endeavours are very much appreciated by their guests. A recent reviewer said, “This place is perfect down to the last detail.” While the gurus behind the Good Hotel Guide said, “Providing warm and welcoming service is a top priority for Struan and Louise Lothian at their friendly hotel in Perthshire…”
It’s a far cry from marine biology which Struan studied at St Andrew’s, and his subsequent job in private equity in London – wife Louise was also in finance and they met working for Price Waterhouse in Edinburgh, before moving to London. But fourteen years ago the couple decided to give up London life and buy a hotel. Struan explains, “I am not sure to this day why we wanted to do it. One day out of the blue I suggested to Louise we bought a hotel and she agreed. We then spent six months looking for a hotel in Scotland. I must have seen 60 or 70. Our financial backgrounds definitely helped identify the good ones. We didn’t have a huge budget so we wanted an affordable hotel and we ended up buying Kylesku in Sutherland. It was part hotel, part restaurant and part pub. We did a lot of food – up to 150 covers a day. It was an amazing place, and quite wild – from our window, we could see nine miles down the loch and there was just nothing but mountains and water! We had a boat, fished our own lobster creels and started our family there. It was exciting. We were also only open seven months a year, so we had fantastic holidays. It was a great experience.”
He continues, “But we realised that as the kids grew up our life would become more restricted, particularly when they started school. So we sold Kylesku to Tanja Lister and Sonia Virechauveix and we bought a guest house in Pitlochry, Torrdarach House, which we fully refurbished and ran for three years. When we moved to Pitlochry we probably didn’t realise at first what a great place it is to have a hotel, so despite loving Torrdarach House, we were soon on the search for a full service hotel again.”
Says Struan, “We bought Knockendarroch off-market. Over the years we had got to know the owners and although they weren’t ready to sell when I first broached the subject, we eventually managed to persuade them and we took over 18 months later. For us, Knockendarroch was the only hotel we really wanted.”
Since taking over four years ago Struan and Louise have transformed the hotel. Says Struan, “This was already a lovely hotel, but it’s been push, push, push… We have delivered new bedrooms, bathrooms and public spaces and two new suites. One of the reasons we were attracted to the hotel originally was because it had a three bedroomed house which was separate to the hotel. This is the holy grail for any small hotelier with a young family. However, with expansion in mind, we quickly concocted a plan to build a house in the grounds and converted the original house into two suites, linked to the hotel via a new corridor. It may not seem much increasing from 12 to 14 rooms but that is a near 17% increase, it’s made a big difference.”
He adds, “We didn’t particularly have a vision when we took over Kylesku, but Knockendarroch was our third business and we definitely had an idea of what we wanted to do. It was already a well-loved hotel, but we wanted to take it to the next level and I like to think we have at least in part achieved this.”
Certainly, he is very happy with the improved rooms and new suites although he credits Louise with their contemporary new look. He tells me, “We use the word contemporary. I don’t think they will date quite as quickly as more fashionable designs might. We have done here what was needed to create a great experience, but we also needed to ensure enough profit to make a reasonable living and enough to allow us to continue to invest in our product.”
He continues, “I believe much of our success comes from beating expectations – and that is important no matter what level you operate at. We are not the best or most luxurious hotel in Scotland but I believe our recent award comes back to the fact that we beat guest expectations most of the time – whatever standards our guests expect, we try to exceed them, and our success is rooted in this concept. Our phenomenal team is key to delivering this vision and their skill and tireless hard work must be recognised. All the components, from the food we offer, to the front of house experience and the quality of the rooms all play a part. I so admire people who run 5-star venues and still beat expectations. That’s a real art. Hotels like Claridges nail it.”
Struan also brings his financial background into play when it comes to reinvesting. “Unless you are making money you can’t re-invest. It really is a chicken and egg situation. You do have to put the profits back in, and if you are not making enough profit you end up underinvested. You may be a great host, but your product and the fabric of the building and grounds must be well looked after.”
He adds, “There are countless small hotels in what should be impressive buildings that are struggling. The owners don’t have enough profit to reinvest and it becomes a vicious circle. But being a hotelier is not rocket
science. It is in large part just common sense and a lot of hard work. And you need to get your product right and know your numbers – inside out and back to front. Our financial background must have helped. We have always understood the impact of small or incremental cost changes. I remember back at the beginning we added a sprinkle of parmesan to our pasta dishes – it was the right thing to do but that small change cost £900 a year. That was a significant amount of money.”
He continues, “Our biggest cost is our staff and rightly so. We run this hotel as efficiently as we can, and I think we are pretty good at that. If you are overstaffed that can lead to inefficiencies and poor standards and staff hanging about, and we are at our most vulnerable when we are quiet, that’s when mistakes happen.
“We have a low ratio of staff cost to turnover compared to the industry norm, but we are not compromising on the guest experience as our award shows. None of our staff does more than 50 hours a week, and generally holding on to staff is fine. If you treat staff well you have a good chance of holding on to them. Inevitably staff do move on and replacing them can be difficult. Unless they are local you have to offer accommodation and that is an expensive business.”
On the subject of Brexit, Struan is hoping for a solution to the employment issue. He comments, “I’m particularly interested in the stopping of free movement which will affect people coming to Scotland to work in tourism. Who on earth is going to do these jobs? British people don’t apply. Of the last 100 or so people who have applied here only a handful were British. If Brits aren’t applying now I wonder why they would suddenly start applying after Brexit. We are working on the premise that a mechanism will be found to alleviate the problem.”
Struan and Louise now open eleven months of the year – they close for Christmas and re-open at the beginning of February. Part of the reason they have such a long season is because Pitlochry is flourishing.
Struan filled me in. “Pitlochry is booming. Highland Perthshire is stunning and there is so much to see and do. There are also some great annual events in Pitlochry. The Enchanted Forest, which was started by the Forestry Commission many years ago is now run by a wonderful community organisation and brings 70,000 people to Pitlochry in October! This means we are as busy then as we are in the summer. The Pitlochry Festival Theatre also attracts around 100,000 people a year, and of course, we have an affinity because it started in a tent in the garden of Knockendarroch in 1951. We have carried on the tradition of doing a pre-theatre menu and transporting guests to the theatre by coach.
“Pitlochry in Bloom has also been a tremendous success.”
One of the drivers of the Pitlochry boom is a website which is funded by the members of the Pitlochry Partnership which Struan is a member of. He explains, “There are 124 businesses in the partnership and we pay a membership fee which, alongside being used to invest in worthwhile local projects, largely goes towards the costs of running the pitlochry.org website. The website is huge and is the definitive source of information on
Pitlochry and it is now one of the most successful destination websites in Scotland. Each member has a wee ad on the site which links directly to their own website. This link is one of the main drivers of referred links to our Knockendarroch website. We take time and spend good money ensuring the Pitlochry.org site stays current and we have certainly created momentum with it. It’s a real success.” Certainly, it seems like hotels and businesses are flourishing in the town. Struan tells me they have all ‘sharpened their pencils’ and have ‘improved their offering.’ But also attributes this to the phenomena that is Tripadvisor.
“Tripadvisor hadn’t taken off when we started out. There has been an amazing change in the past 14 years. This industry is quite a different place now. Guest experience across the industry has been improved as has value for money and
quality of product. As an owner/manager it is an arguably more stressful place to be – every decision or interaction you make must be considered – at the back of your mind is always the thought this could go on Tripadvisor. We all make mistakes, but it is how you handle these mistakes that matters, whether it is a service error or a dodgy shower! We are pretty good at correcting things when they go inevitably wrong. Few
product markets are as unforgiving as the hotel and restaurant sector, and it is all about how you win the guest back when
things go wrong. That’s a real skill. If something goes wrong with your new car you
will patiently wait a long time to get it fixed, but in hospitality, the average guest is less patient and with the spectre of Tripadvisor hanging over us we need to stay focused.”
And that they do, that’s why Knockendarroch is award-winning. The Good Hotel Guide award is an accolade that the couple treasure. Says Struan, “For us this is the ultimate award from the definitive independent hotel guide. We do not pay and you have no control over whether you will be included or not or what they will say. Winning the Cesar for Scottish Hotel of The Year is a real honour.”
One of the reasons the hotel is so successful is that it is very much a team effort. Struan smiles, “Louise and I work very well together
as long as we are not doing the same job at
the same time. Louise is more focused on
front of house, service, housekeeping, bookkeeping and accounting – she has a keen eye for detail. While I am more kitchen, marketing, maintenance and development orientated. A lot of my time is spent on development and we are always working on
new projects – just last week we upgraded all our hot water cylinders – I also know where every wire and pipe is in the hotel – for when the wee problems happen. For anything major, I would call in the professionals, but I am reasonably practical. I had to learn pretty fast in Kylesku as we were so remote. When we bought Kylesku the owners Patrick and Imelda had a protocol for everything, and they talked us through it. They were tremendously helpful and happily showed us how to do everything. Patrick was also at the end of the telephone whenever we needed him. We have always tried to sell on the same basis. We are all in this industry together and that is part of the value of the package we are selling. I like to think we did the same for Sonia and Tanja in Kylesku and Graeme and Susanna who bought Torrdarach. That said, when you buy a place you do spend the first two years moaning about all the things the last owners didn’t do! You get over it though. We had lunch yesterday with the lovely couple we bought Knockendarroch from – they tell us we got a bargain, we list all the things they should have spent more money on! Well seen we are good friends. Certainly, our most valuable mentors in this industry have been the people that we have purchased from. You should never underestimate the knowledge of the people selling. I would always advise buyers to try and purchase on good terms. That relationship could be your potential ticket out of trouble.”
As for the future, Struan tells me that he and Louise aren’t particularly entrepreneurial and are planning on consolidating for the next wee
while. And as he walked me out he showed me their new little shopping area in the hotel which has some mementoes for people to purchase – I can’t imagine that the couple will be resting on their laurels any time soon.