A Love Affair with St Fillans

Interviews, News

BY SUSAN YOUNG

As I drove to St Fillans on the way to meet Susan Stuart the owner of The Four Seasons Hotel in the village situated on the banks of Loch Earn I wondered what enticed a successful London businesswoman to buy a hotel in Scotland? It may have been the hotel that The Beatles made famous when they stayed there in 1964 but it is as far away from the bright lights of the city of London as you can get. However, I am sure they were as impressed with the view from the hotel as I was. Even though I have been there before I couldn’t help but stop and gawp when I arrived because it really is spectacular – looking towards Ben Vorlich.

The view is part of the reason that Susan fell in love with the hotel. She told me, “I drove up in November (2016) in the dark and stayed over. When I woke up and opened the curtains – that was it.You just know when it is right for you. I had looked at other hotels all over Scotland and in England too, so I acted on it right away. It was a case of finding the right property and then all the bits of the jigsaw fell into place at the right time. It was always about the location and about trying to find something viable and appealing.”

Today, two and a half years on, she greets me at reception, with a huge smile on her face. And as we retire to the newly decorated restaurant – which now denotes the four seasons… spring, winter, autumn and summer
– part of the hotel’s rebrand, she pours me a coffee, with freshly baked shortbread and brownies, and fills me in on life to date.

Buying her own hotel had always been part of her life plan. She was born in Dundee and started off working in hotels at the age of 17, saying even then “I want to own my own hotel one day.”To this end she studied hospitality at Caledonian University before joining Edinburgh Sheraton’s opening team in 1984, working for Tom Hegarty. She then moved to London in 1989 to work for InterContinental Hotels in Sales. She tells me, “It was great. I got to travel the world and I learned so much.”

In the early 90s, when the recession kicked in, she, unfortunately, was made redundant. But when one door closes another one opens. She decided to put her commercial and operational skills to good use by moving into special events as a consultant.A move which was to prove very successful. Susan says,“I had nothing to lose and I was hungry for the work. My timing was good because there were a lot of organisations out there that needed my type of expertise, one being the MoD.”

She explains,“I worked for the MoD as a freelance – selling and organising events in their venues and earned from commission only. That was relatively unheard of then. If I didn’t get sales in I didn’t get paid and that
was a real incentive. I was able to turn the business around. I brought in new clients – and increased events six-fold using their spaces.

I was committed to giving great customer service and I would be there whether it was an exhibition or a wedding.We had some great green eld sites which allowed a variety of great events from the British Antique Dealers Association (BADA) exhibition to some top drawer weddings. It was really good for my development and luckily health and safety was
a little lower on the radar at the time. I also got to meet some great caterers who at the time were just starting out – like Mark Hix and event caterers Table Talk.”

London’s recession was short-lived and Susan found that clients were willing to pay for a lot for special events. She says, “Money wasn’t an object. Event production costs were sometimes as much as £500 per head. I was also very flexible and this worked to my benefit and of course, I worked hard. I was incredibly lucky and organised some really special events over the years and I met lots of interesting people.”

One of the highlights of her career was the two years spent working with London’s Roundhouse. She, as Head of Events, successfully re-launched and positioned the Roundhouse as the leading bespoke niche market venue of choice in London. She tells me, “I did ten events back to back when it opened. From the Vodafone Live Music Awards to the Elle Style Awards, live broadcasts and so on. It was full-on but awesome.”

But her favourite event was the premiere party for Despicable Two in aid of cancer research UK (CRUK) Says Susan,“It was the best event I ever did.We took over the Odeon in Leicester Square and hosted a gala party for the Little Star Awards – 20 families came with children with terminal cancer.We had lots of celebs there, and the cast. It was a really special event for the families.”

Roll on a few years and despite loving her time in London she made the decision to buy her own hotel and fulfil her early dream. The Four Seasons came on the market just as she was looking. The hotel had been owned by Andrew Low for 20 years and he had gained a AA three-star rating and 2 AA Rosettes for dining during his tenure. Says Susan,“It was just what I was looking for and it felt right. Everything fell into place and I didn’t hesitate once I saw it. I acted fairly swiftly. When you know it’s the right thing to do – you do it.”

Susan moved to Scotland and got the keys to the hotel, which had 12 bedrooms, a restaurant, bar and lounge, six detached chalet lodges, a at for Susan, extensive staff accommodation and was set in 2 acres, on the 3rd July 2017.

She tells me, “It was the first day of the school holidays. It was certainly a challenging day so much so it is ingrained in my memory. I thought I would have spent the day folding napkins, but there is an old railway line beyond the hotel which was being converted into a cycle path just behind the hotel with access onto the hotel premises and the contractors cut the electric cables to the hotel on that very day!”

Certainly, it was a baptism of fire. It has also not been all smooth sailing since. However, having said that, Susan looks good on it. In fact, she tells me her friends say she has never looked better. But they have also said she should write a book about her experiences.

The electricity failure was followed by a water drama – for nearly two months, the following Spring, the hotel’s water supply was all but a trickle due to a new meter being installed and debris from the installation getting into the pipes. As usual with a large utility company like Business Stream it wasn’t easy getting a) to the route of the problem, and b) fixing it, and finally, compensation which was a paltry amount in the end and which no way recompensed for the losses she incurred.

“It was really awful,” says Susan. “It was just before Easter and the two May weekends and I literally had a dribble of water. If one person had a shower there was not enough water for the second person. I had to issue refunds and apologies and it was really soul-destroying and frustrating.At the very least when you take on something you don’t expect the basics to fail.” She continues, “On the plus side, and that is easy to say when it is all in the past, I could have been going full steam ahead with some of my original plans and the water issue reigned me back a bit. Now I am more immersed in the business I can see that some of my original ideas were not right. Our seasons are getting more intense, the lows are lower and the highs, higher and it’s not easy adapting, but we have to.”

She smiles wryly,“There is a massive difference between managing a hotel and it being your own. A friend of mine who went from working with The Marriott to managing a small hotel – came across similar challenges. Mainly when you work for a big company you have people around who do things.You say,‘that needs done’ and someone does it. Whereas sometimes here we only have one or two people on… and we all do a bit of everything. She adds,“Before I came here my plan was to spend some time flower arranging, networking, marketing and playing golf and that has just not happened. I can understand how in small hotels owners get bogged down in the operational side. My background is sales and marketing but I’m still tied to operations. If you have a customer wanting x, y and z, but you have a deadline for marketing, the customer wins every time. In a perfect world we would have plenty of staff doing a great job and then I would have the time to concentrate on sales and marketing!”

I was in St Fillans the same day the news broke about the new immigration rules which stop low-skilled European employees coming to work in the UK.

I asked Susan what she thought,“As an industry, we are going to have to become more creative regarding how we attract staff and will have to be far more sympathetic to individuals. In London, I would advertise a job and 200 would apply. Here if I get 20 I’m doing well. But one of the most frustrating things is when people apply and on follow up they don’t respond.When I sit with staff at interviews I don’t talk about the job instead I ask about their life priorities and ask how many hours they want to work? Some say ‘as many as’, but can’t physically. So I try and start staff part-time and then increase the hours to make sure they can cope with them. If people say they are a morning person that is where I try and slot them. If we end up with two part-time staff on a job share – that is also fine.

“I didn’t anticipate how dif cult it was to get staff here. I really had no idea. It is my biggest challenge. Another challenge in a small hotel
is that everyone has to be a general assistant. They must be able to go from one role to another and that is not what everyone wants. Some people want to work behind the bar or in reception about here you help out where

it is needed. For example, I made the re this morning and if our biomass boiler gets blocked I have to x it. Staff don’t seem to understand the complexity of the challenges and the necessity to adapt to the circumstances.”

Before Susan got the keys she had lots of ideas about developing the business – but she is only now getting around to them. As she has already mentioned some were the wrong ideas.

The restaurant is now called Seasons View and the décor reflects the branding – with different areas having a different seasonal feel. She says, “I worked for Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBGK) at one point and I got in my head the idea of bringing the outside in – which is so relevant here and what I want to do here.We are developing the hotel around the seasons – including our seasonal menu and in time we will have seasonal bedrooms which all ties in with the hotel’s name.”

The hotel closes in January for six weeks, and between now and Easter
it closes after lunch on a Tuesday and re-opens in time for lunch on a Thursday. Thereafter it is open seven days. Says she,“ It is about tweaking and fine-tuning and being exible.We can be agile and adapt to the market needs which is what we have done.” Next on the agenda is giving the hotel’s ‘Wee Bar’ a facelift and going forward and she has plans to change her conference room into a farm shop.

She has been working tirelessly – in fact, she has only had one weekend completely off since taking over and that was a couple of weeks
ago. However, she keeps sane by walking her labrador Finn and the hotel is definitely dog- friendly. She wants to foster the relaxed feel that people have when they walk into their own homes.

Susan concludes,“Not long after I took over a family came to celebrate their fathers 80th birthday and the daughter told me that he was still working six days a week. I asked him ‘how come you are still working?’ He replied, “It’s not work, I love it.” In this business you have to love it and then it is doesn’t feel like work and you thrive.”

Susan is definitely thriving and I look forward to reading that book!

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Hotel Magazine Scotland News Team

Hotel Scotland is a new publication (2017) from the publishers of DRAM – Scotland’s leading on-trade magazine. Hotel Scotland is a newsy magazine which covers all aspects of the industry in Scotland. From who’s who, to industry issues and refurbishments.
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