When it comes to having one of Scotland’s most beautiful hotels, it seems like Bill Costley the man behind hotel group, Costley & Costley, is blessed. I popped down to catch up with him on a sunny April day at Lochgreen House Hotel. It looked amazing in the morning sunshine, and inside it was immaculate too. Nonetheless, this hasn’t stopped Bill embarking on an ambitious programme which will see a new Spa opening at the Troon hotel, and by this time next year, there will be a swimming pool as well. He is also planning a new banqueting suite which will be separated from the main restaurant and bedrooms are being overhauled too.
This is part of his continued investment in his entire portfolio which has included a refurbishment at Brig o’Doon, The Cochrane Inn and Highgrove which has benefitted from a new glass terrace extension with a restaurant.
Bill tells me, “It’s ongoing. You start off doing what you think is a small job – for instance replacing three windows… 70 windows later!”
He is justifiably proud of the 33-bedroomed Lochgreen, which he took from being a private house to a luxury hotel, and on the morning I visited I was in time to hear a bride, who had obviously got married at the weekend, tell Bill how truly wonderful her day had been. She told him, “Since I was a wee girl I had always dreamed of getting married at Lochgreen, and there is absolutely nothing I would have changed about my day. Everything was perfect. It was a dream.”
Perhaps this is not surprising since Lochgreen House Hotel has won the AA Scottish Hotel of the Year award three times. It also has four red stars and three red rosettes for food as well as five-star status with Visit Scotland.
Bill tells me he loved Lochgreen from the first moment he saw it perched overlooking the Royal Troon Championship Course and the Ayrshire coastline. Although Highgrove House was his first hotel (bought nearly 30 years ago), Lochgreen, which he bought in 1989, is his largest. Says Bill, “I’ve known Lochgreen since I was a boy. I used to deliver rolls here and I couldn’t believe that people actually lived in a house like this. I remember standing in the woods in the winter looking at it.” He had not long bought Highgrove when it came up for sale. Says Bill, “I was just amazed that I could afford it.”
But afford it he could, and it became the second hotel in the Costley & Costley portfolio. Today the family own eight venues, but just eight years ago they had 26! Says Bill, “Looking back and taking profits into account, I probably was more successful when I only had two businesses and a narrower set of staff. Twenty-six properties were really too many. It was probably more than a bit to do with ego. At the end of the day, you can waste a lot of time by spreading yourself too thinly. If I had to do it again I would concentrate on a few, and do them really, really well.
He continues, “Sometimes when you grow you come away from the business, or perhaps the business grows away from you? A lot of people think success is volume, that’s why they grow with multiple venues, but the bottom line has to be “is it profitable?”
Over the last few years, the company has sold various properties to concentrate on the principal venues. He also sold his own house, which for a time he ran as a private hotel, to local lottery winners who bought it lock stock and barrel for around £3.5m two years ago. This has led to Bill and wife Cath moving back to within the grounds of Lochgreen.
So on the financial front, it has all been good news over the last few years with company accounts showing the business made a substantial profit.
He says, “We are investing in our hotels, and so are our peers. Finally, it appears that banks are lending again. During the recession, banks had a very negative perception of the industry and it was difficult to get loans from them. But they seem to have changed their views now. Although they are perhaps still more comfortable lending to established businesses.”
Most people would look at Lochgreen right now and feel that there was no need to change anything. From the gleaming chandeliers to the luxury soft furnishings, exquisite rugs and artwork, it has the feel of a very well kept luxury country house hotel. In fact, in the hotel’s main lounge area he has amassed a collection of artists that wouldn’t look out of place in an art gallery!
But he now feels it is time. Says Bill, “I looked at Gleneagles and Turnberry who have modernised, and I have realised that’s what we have to do too, hence the development of the Spa.”
The new Spa will go where the companies offices formerly were on the top floor. Says Bill, “When we re-built the property I put concrete floors in with a view to being able to use the space in the future. The Spa sits above the wing that has 25 bedrooms, and guests will use a lift to get there. It will have eight treatment rooms all with showers, a shop and a chill-out room complete with champagne bar, as well as changing rooms for men and women. It will be staffed by a team of eleven and it will be open in May.”
Says Bill, “We hope to attract new customers who perhaps have not come to Lochgreen in the past. When we put the pool in, the front entrance will change, and guests will come in past the pool to the function suite.”
The changes continue downstairs with the function suite moving slightly, a new champagne bar being installed and two restaurants merged.
However, one area that he is not ready to change is the fact that the food served in his hotels is not bought in. He admits from a price point it may not be wise. But he is not willing to compromise on quality. Says Bill, “When it comes to food I still like to make our own dishes. We don’t buy in prepared food, unlike many other places, we even make our own chocolates and have our own patisserie. We don’t make a lot of money by doing this, but I don’t really want to change the way we do things.”
Surprisingly he does feel that fine dining has had its day, despite the fact many of his places have a reputation for fine dining. “Too much so,” says Bill. “Personally I think that the days of fine dining are over. It has got too pretentious, and I don’t believe in gimmicks. I like to have protein, a nicely cooked sauce and appropriate garnish.”
He continues, “In my early career, we had to spend five or six years cutting our teeth in every different kitchen department. We learned to make sauces, we experienced pastry and so on. Now I don’t think people know how to cook. Chefs are not being trained the right way. And I believe they are missing out. The skills are drifting away, although there are some excellent colleges with great facilities and I’m keen to encourage this and take an active part in developments at the Ayrshire Colleges. I think the historical reputation of the hospitality industry has got something to do with it. But really our industry has changed beyond all recognition. A career in Hospitality can be so diverse nowadays, encompassing marketing, accounts, events etc”
He explains, “When I was an apprentice I didn’t see daylight, in my first year I worked from 8am to 11pm, six days a week. Today a lot of places do a four day week. But I also think that chefs are pricing themselves out of the market before they are ready for the job.”
He also believes that chefs perhaps have a skewed idea of what success is. He comments, “Chefs don’t regard success in the same way as most businessmen. They think a Michelin Star is more important than profit. Without profit we cant reinvest”
Certainly, Costley & Costley is the most successful independent hotel group in Ayrshire, and it is held in high regard throughout the rest of Scotland. But Bill feels one of the issues that Ayrshire has is that it underprices its offering. “We are one of the cheapest Red Star hotels in the UK. But one of the issues is customers don’t really know what the rating system means. They don’t realise that Red Star is the top rating. But we have to remain competitive in our own market.”
Lochgreen is a member of Connoisseur Scotland – a collection of 29 luxury hotels. He says, “When you are an owner you have a different view on things perhaps because you are more cash conscious. But we discuss the market, sales, how to improve our product, marketing… it’s very interesting.”
Bill too is interesting. He has a view on just about everything. He firmly believes that the UK offering is now up there with the best countries in the world. He tells me, “The UK has more to offer than many other countries including, for instance, France. The cosmopolitan nature of the hotel and restaurant business here is far superior to what you would get there. I do believe we have more to offer.”
Mind you he takes that back when it comes to the weather. “When we host The Open it is not nearly as impressive as The Masters – and when I compare the two tournaments much of the difference is down to the fact that when you look at the TV coverage it always seems to be raining here.” He also does not believe that Ayrshire does as well out of golf tournaments as it used to. He comments, “This may change now that we have a new body in Ayrshire ‘Destination Ayrshire’, but although we have three Open Championship Golf Courses and four Open Qualifier Golf Courses on our doorstep, it’s not like it used to be when Americans would come over and bring their sons for a golf pilgrimage. We don’t get as many tourists as I think we should get. We need a proper tourism strategy.”
He also believes that the Scottish Government should do more to support football. As a past Chairman of Kilmarnock Football Club, he is passionate about the sport. He tells me, “Football is a great motivator and when our teams are doing well it creates optimism in the country. It has real value and I think the government has a responsibility to support it.”
His other passion is art. Looking around Lochgreen that is evident. The hotel boasts nearly 70 works of art from artists such as E. A. Hornel – one of the ‘Glasgow boys’ and contemporary artists such as Marion Drummond, Gerard Burns, Denise Findlay, and has its own small gallery which features mainly Ayrshire and Glasgow-based artists, but Bill’s own work is evident too. He says, “I like to paint. In fact, I would have loved to have been an artist full-time. His paintings are visible in all his properties and he also sells them. Although he admits he hasn’t done much painting since moving back to Lochgreen. He also admits to a passion for buying art… telling me that some of the artwork in the main lounge of Lochgreen is rather valuable… “It’s like my home and I enjoy guests having the pleasure of the various works of art too”
As to the future, Bill and his family are concentrating on getting Lochgreen’s refurbishment completed and then… who knows? Retirement? Says Bill, “I can’t imagine bowing out. It’s a family business, my son Andrew is Executive Head Chef and he has got some good ideas and other family members are involved too. I believe we’ve still got a job to do. But I think it is now time we shouted more about our great hotels. A lot of people don’t realise what we have to offer.”
Once again the motto on the gates of Lochgreen House comes to mind ‘Ad Virtutem Nitens’, which translates as ‘the pursuit of excellence’… I can’t imagine Bill Costley ever giving that up!