Sandy Fraser owns The Oak Tree Inn, Balmaha, a bar and restaurant with 36 rooms. Jason Caddy chatted with him at a safe distance to find out how the business has adapted to Covid-19, and what he thinks the future holds for a hospitality business that was hugely dependent on foreign tourism.
Sandy and Lucy Fraser are at the top of the tree that is the family-run Oak Tree Inn at Balmaha, on the beautiful east side of Loch Lomond. Son Stuart is a partner and their other children are also involved in a business that employs 100 people across the Oak Tree, its accommodation, village shop, coffee shop in Aberfoyle, plus a newly opened food and coffee drive-thru pop-up in what used to be The Carbeth Inn. Sandy also runs an electrical business.
A 36–room total offering is made up of nine rooms in The Oak Tree, six holiday cottages, and two purpose-built holiday pods – self-contained rooms with their own en suite facilities. Customers tend mainly to buy individual rooms within the cottages but they are able to block book an entire cottage. They range from four, five, and six bedrooms and some have balconies and they are all within close proximity to the Oak Tree Inn hub and its dining facilities.
Sandy reopened a very different business on July of 15th after lockdown forced the business to close down on the 24th of March resulting in all 100 staff being furloughed – apart from Sandy and Stuart.
He explained, “Since we reopened, 99 per cent of our business is now coming from the Scottish central belt, London, the English midlands and north. We have lost virtually all of our foreign tourist trade, and International as well as domestic tourists made up a lot of our accommodation business, both of which have declined.
“Our business as a whole is down 40 to 50% I’d say, and although we are very grateful and aware of all the support that we have had, we are heading into another very dark winter.
“It’s very hard to say what is going to happen immediately once the English school holidays are over and tourists start to thin out in September. We are being very proactive and targeted with our online marketing for our accommodation to try and mitigate any more losses.”
Walkers along the West Highland Way used to make up a huge part of their overnight custom, again, until Covid-19 tore into this business too.
Explained Sandy, “On a normal year, 100,000 people walk the West Highland Way which runs past here and that itself is ready-made business for us.
“But they are no longer coming out in anywhere near this number because there simply isn’t enough accommodation on offer at the moment.”
Time was, dozens of daily coach trips would likewise pull up right outside The Oak Tree, but the road to Balmaha is far quieter now. Explained Sandy, “We used to enjoy 10 to 20 coaches a day coming mainly from Edinburgh, but we also got them from Glasgow and Perth, and they were full of international tourists.
“This business has completely disappeared. It’s fair to say that they brought day-trippers who weren’t necessarily using our accommodation but what they did do was supplement our quiet times during the day as well as showcase what we offered accommodation-wise should they wish to return in the future. “
The Oak Tree’s business was also hit hard by Forest Holiday’s caravan and camping club at Cashel – also on the east side of the Loch – being shut for the entire season. This would normally have fed business into their hotel, restaurant and village shop.
Sandy was keen to point out how much the financial lifelines thrown by the government have helped – but he wants them to go further. He said, “The decision to give businesses a year’s holiday on business rates has been hugely important because if there’s no business there’s no way you can pay business rates. But the most important contribution to the possible survival of our business is the VAT drop to 5% until January 2021.
“However, from a rural hotel perspective, this is only benefitting us off-season. To give us the best chance of survival this needs to be extended, ideally, and like our European counterparts, permanently – or certainly for a full year. This is absolutely crucial.
“A review of business rates is also now long overdue. Our revaluation and the amount of money we have to pay in business rates are not sustainable. “
How has Sandy and family adapted the accommodation side business in light of Covid-19? “Naturally, we have been extremely stringent when it comes to cleaning. We use specialist equipment for fogging and we have rolled out additional training with all of our housekeepers and our menus are all QR codes.
“We also changed breakfast from buffet-style to a personal table service, which I happen to think is a nicer way of doing business. This is more labour intensive too of course, and so there is an added cost.
“The holiday cottages are designed as such that there is no communal area in which people can congregate yet we weren’t sure if we could book all of the rooms out at once but I have taken advice on this and we can book the rooms out adequately and, as far as I’m aware, comply with all the necessary Covid-19 regulations. We have hand sanitiser in all areas.”
Sandy also voluntarily closed the village shop during lockdown for the sake of the greater good. He explained, “We didn’t have to shut the village shop by law, which is adjacent to the accommodation, but The Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park was told to shut by Nicola Sturgeon and we thought that it was the right thing to do because it’s a shop for tourists and visitors and people were not abiding by the rules and using our shop as the excuse to visit. So we were in a very big dilemma, plus we didn’t want to fall out with our neighbours that have no great interest in tourists. “
The uniqueness of the accommodation at The Oak Tree is what a lot of customers feedback to him on. He said, “I think there has been a move away from the traditional hotel room toward something a little more quirky and we will be looking to increase the amount of pods that we’ve got as part of our future offering.”
After so many years in business and with such a deep understanding of his market, how does he see the future panning out? “I don’t have a crystal ball to consult in order to tell you if things will improve as soon as next season, and I don’t know whether our European or international guests are going to feel safe enough to fly in great numbers by then. I fear that people will be happier to stay at home until there’s a vaccine.
“What I am finding, speaking to people that run guest houses and B&Bs in this area, is that this situation is too much for them. They don’t want to go on and although I wouldn’t like to put a number to this, it is not an insignificant amount. They simply no longer have the appetite to reopen, which is very sad.”
Nevertheless, he remains upbeat about the future accommodation side of his own business. “We must all stay positive and reinvent ourselves. We are very lucky given our proximity to the central belt, while the National Park remains extremely popular for tourism.
“We also need to increase the length of stay. It’s a well-known fact in the National Park and on the east side of the loch the average stay is two to three nights and I would like to see us stretch this to seven, even 14 nights. There are plenty of things to do and we will try harder to accomplish this.
“I would like to think that we could attract more domestic visitors and convince then that they can come here and enjoy a safe holiday, or as safe as they can be. We are embracing all the guidelines and we certainly don’t want a situation that happened in Aberdeen coming here. We are very fearful of that.”
He wants to see a greater long-term commitment from the government in support of business or there will be more going to the wall. “These challenges are here for a considerable amount of time which is why the support from central and local government needs to continue. There won’t be any hotels left to welcome visitors nationally and internationally -if they don’t we’ll all be bankrupt. “
Sandy dearly hopes to leave a legacy for his children and this is a big part of what continues to fuel his drive. He said, “I have to be optimistic because I’ve got my kids involved in the business and I have to make sure that there’s a future in hospitality and that future can only be there if we don’t get hammered with business rates and constant ways of eroding our ability to make a profit. Because if we don’t make a profit, we can’t reinvest in the businesses and this disincentives the kids to want to stay in hospitality.”