Nicola Taylor was literally born into the hotel industry. She came straight from the Queen Mother’s hospital to a flat on the top of Glasgow’s Lorne Hotel, which her father Maurice Taylor was running at the time. So it is not really surprising that today she is at the helm of the family company.
Her journey to the top included working for Hilton International, Richard Branson’s Virgin Hotels and the UK’s top newspaper and radio companies and she has brought that experience to the role she now has as Chief Executive of Chardon Trading.
Nicola believes that she absorbed a lot as a child. She explains, “When I was born my Dad (Maurice Taylor) was the General Manager of the Lorne Hotel which at the time was the biggest and newest hotel in Glasgow. In those days the GM of the hotel lived on site. It was a massive benefit because you had someone there 24/7. The hotel had opened in 1967 and didn’t even have en suite bathrooms. In fact, my dad tells a story of a GM conference when the Operations Manager actually stood up and said “private bathrooms would never take off”. How wrong was he!”
She continues, “When my parents started on their own in 1973 they renovated an old townhouse in Edinburgh’s Albany Street and opened The Albany Hotel. It had only 10 bedrooms, the original boutique hotel! We lived in the basement, and my mum ran the hotel; servicing the rooms, making the breakfasts and taking reservations. I really don’t know how she did it with two small children! There is no doubt over the years we absorbed things about the hotel and restaurant industry just because that’s what was discussed at home and for years we lived in hotels.”
Maurice went on to lease a couple of hotels in the Trossachs before purchasing and re-launching the Beacons Hotel in Glasgow’s Park Circus area. This hotel had 40 bedrooms, five restaurants including La Bonne Auberge, which is still a Glasgow institution now based in West Nile Street. Says Nicola, “It went like a fair, it was a great business. But it was not the type of business anyone could run.
Not sure I would’ve fancied it?. But it was a different time then, and customer’s choice and expectations were different. My parents then bought the Lorne in Sauchiehall Street in 1981 – and renamed it the Kelvin Park Lorne, and at the same time he bought The Garfield Hotel in Stepps.
Then the fun started and interest rates went to 18% plus the bank margin. He says they worked for two years to pay the Bank interest and capital. And of course, as children, we realised what was going on. It was a difficult time and not one I’d like to repeat. My Mum then reminded him he could always sell one of the hotels to make life a bit easier. Sadly The Beacons, his baby, was the first to sell.
By this time Nicola was a teenager and had decided that despite working in the hotels during her school holidays, evenings and weekends doing everything from servicing rooms to working in reception she wanted a career in beauty. Says Nicola, “So despite everything I had learned, I decided after I left school, to do a beauty therapy course and went down to College at Champneys in Tring. It cost my dad a fortune, and then I realised it wasn’t for me. However, he insisted I finish the year at work otherwise I wouldn’t have got my CIDESCO international diploma. Even today I am qualified and insured to do beauty therapy, although I’m not sure anyone would want to let me loose on them?!”
Nicola’s next move was back into the hotel industry. She worked briefly for Queens Moat House before heading to London at the ripe old age of 19 to work for Hilton International in sales. Nicola tells me, “I loved it.” Then she was approached by Virgin, owned at that time, by a relatively young entrepreneur Richard Branson.
Nicola explains, “Richard Branson at that time owned three hotels one being Norton House Hotel, in Edinburgh. He also owned the Kensington Roof Gardens, now Babylon, and two river boats on the Thames which were used for private functions – one was a Dutch barge, the other a Mississippi style riverboat. It was an amazing time.
Richard had just started Virgin Airlines, I shared an office with Virgin Records, it was a great place to work (as you can imagine). One of the things I remember most about Richard was that he has an amazing memory for people’s names, something I wish I could master.”
But a couple of years later her brother David, with whom she lived in London, decided he wanted to come back to Glasgow. My parents were developing Parklands Country Club on the South side of Glasgow and they wanted us to help launch the business. We came back up to Parklands which was built in 1989 and opened in 1990. I did the sales and marketing and stayed there until we sold it in 1993.
I dabbled in publishing working for Mainstream in Edinburgh before I went back to London and this time went into media where I stayed for ten years working for the Glasgow Herald, Capital Radio and Mail on Sunday Newspapers. She says, “I loved the commercial side of newspapers. It was at a time when we had big expense budgets, and it was hard work but a lot of fun too.” In fact Nicola met her former husband at the Mail on Sunday, which was one of the reasons they came back to Scotland. She says, “It really didn’t work with both of us working for the same industry and company. So he got a job in Glasgow and I came back a few months later in 2003 and re-joined the family company Chardon Management as a Director and shareholder. It was a real culture shock. I went from a phenomenal office in Kensington with unlimited expenses, where no one ever once queried what I spent, to a family business where every penny counts and my Father certainly didn’t like to splash out on fancy offices.”
At the time Chardon Management operated just four hotels in Scotland, two owned by her parents. Says Nicola, “When I first came back we had a company called Chardon Management. It was a hotel management company. There are a lot more of them now, but at the time it was a new concept copied from USA. A hotel run under management is usually branded (not always thou’). We were operating Hiltons, Holiday Inns, Holiday Inn Expresses and a few independent hotels. One of the reasons that you split the management and the brand is that if you were a GM of a Hilton or Holiday Inn you would be unlikely to pick up the phone to your Sales or Marketing Director if you were not getting enough sales from the brand you are licensing. If you operate with independent management they should be in a position to push the global brands more. People used to ask me why have you put a brand on your hotel?” The days of operating without a brand in a city centre is much harder if you aren’t a small boutique hotel. Your access to global corporates and programmes is much more limited.
So I ask Nicola; ‘what is different today than 20 years ago?’ It would have to be technology. Love it or loathe it is has revolutionised how hoteliers price and sell themselves. Although I’m not sure how I feel about robots giving a warm Scottish welcome at reception or in the bar?
We are an industry that employs a lot of people yet often we feel this is a disadvantage when costs are increasing constantly in payroll, pension contributions, paternity pay & most recently the Apprenticeship Levy. And as for Brexit and EU workers, I have no idea? Already we have seen our EU team members decrease by 25%, they are mainly in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
I am encouraged millennials are looking for a life full of ‘experiences’ and are keen to travel around the world as a career in hospitality would be perfect. Skills learned whilst being paid and transferable to any country in the world. UK people think it is low paid industry, but it is only low paid when you start and you don’t leave further education with student debt you are paid whilst you learn. If you are a head of Department or General Manager you can achieve a good salary, bonuses, cheap hotel rooms around the world and there is a lot of other benefits too.’’
Whilst we are hearing only this week how successful Scottish hotels are performing an increase of 5% in sales, I understand most of this growth to be in Edinburgh. Aberdeen is a disaster and until we sort out our infrastructure with roads, affordable staff accommodation, transport links I don’t know who is going to risk putting large hotels in more rural locations – these are badly needed to really grow tourism across the whole of Scotland. Hotel investors will need incentives to move away from the populated cities.
Visitors should come through the cities on their way to discovering rural Scotland and see our amazing country, meet our warm and friendly locals, taste our world class fresh produce and drink our many national drinks including whisky and irn bru! We also need to sort out broadband issues and mobile phone signals. What cheaper way to promote this beautiful country than for visitors to take a picture and put it on social media for all their friends at home to see. We have to attract the growing middle class from China and India.’
One hotel that her dad considered buying recently was Turnberry Hotel. Nicola explains, “My dad started out in hospitality working as a junior night porter at Turnberry… but realistically we couldn’t have afforded to do what Trump has done and getting the volume of staff in these out of town hotels is very difficult. In fact we really need to lobby government, particularly post Brexit, so that we can pull staff from places like the Philippines. Right now there is not enough people of working age in the UK that consider hospitality a career, despite the fact that tourism is one of the country’s biggest employers. It’s a different story in Switzerland, Italy and France where people have a wonderful long and fulfilling career in hospitality.
As an accountant once reminded me; ‘we don’t bank sales we bank profit!’ Costs are what is hindering hotel operators and will stop investment in underperforming assets. Some examples of increases over the past 5 years; property rates + 35%, minimum wage + over 20% and pensions +521%, albeit from a low base.
Whilst we have appreciated the Scottish Government phasing in the latest property rates increases, 12.5% per annum is way more than even the sustained 53 months of sales growth we have seen. We know retail, restaurants and bars are struggling and high streets are disappearing as retailers opt to just sell online. I really think at Westminster and the Scottish Government need to re-look at this archaic property tax. Why do we pay these taxes now when so much retail is on the internet and not contributing? I’m not sure other industries are taxed on their sales like the hospitality industries? Should we be looking at a tax which every business contributes and not just target buildings.
We employ large amounts of people and should be encouraged not discouraged to employ more, especially with new technology affecting jobs and careers. Without them what do people do for work? I am old enough to remember Margaret Thatcher closing the shipyards in Glasgow. Seeing hard working men losing their ability to earn money to look after their families. We all need a purpose in life’
And how does Nicola see tomorrow….
Robots? Automation? The guest doing more for themselves?
‘I was delayed in Newark for 10 hours a couple of weeks ago, hours of my life I’ll never get back! At every eating place from McDonalds and KFC to an upmarket Italian every setting had an iPad to order and a credit card to pay before delivery, they even added service even though the diner did the work! Is this ‘hospitality of the future?’
We’ve lost the alarm clock on the TV, I’m not sure how long it will before we lose the TV? Everyone wanders around with their own iPad watching their own choice from Netflix. I’m not sure we’ll have telephones in bedrooms as no one uses them except to order room service. I imagine that will be done thru your app. Although I better be careful what I say as I don’t want to be remembered like the man who thought these en-suite bathrooms wouldn’t take on!
Interest rate rises, perhaps inevitable although this will impact the capital owners spend on refurbishing their hotels and improving the guest experience, not helpful when trying to compete in a global market.
She still oversees her family’s owned hotels and restaurant in an Asset Management role, although they are managed by Interstate UK (the company that acquired Charon Management Limited in 2013), and she currently sits on IHG’s Global Owners board, the board of The British Hospitality Association now called UK Hospitality. Says Nicola, “IHG Owners Association is a really powerful global organisation who really engage with their owners at the coal face. They franchise over 5,000 hotels around the world. Like a lot of these committees, my peers 15 years ago were all men, now I’m delighted to see many young and dynamic women much more involved.
You do learn a lot from your peers and the wonderful thing about the hotel owners is that most of the people I know are not operating in the same market. I can ask someone in London or New York for advice – because our hotels are in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Perth and Dunfermline so we are not competing with each other. You also learn a lot from big hedge funds as well as from the family that has one hotel. People look at their businesses in different ways. For me it is about constantly moving the business on and constantly making improvements as the guests demand change.
WiFi is the new ‘en suite bathroom’ It’s not just technology that is moving fast, Nicola believes that there is too much competition coming into the Scottish cities. She explains, “There is a lot of foreign investors coming into the market because of the low exchange rate. I think there will be a lot of milk spilt. The local council has been encouraging the big brands into Glasgow and certainly, it is good to have big ambitions and big plans but you don’t just build a hotel and the guests arrive! However, being a Glaswegian, she is delighted that Glasgow has made the New York Times list of top 10 destinations in the world.
Although that doesn’t mean to say she doesn’t have any further ambitions. Going forward Nicola is keen to grow the family’s portfolio from six to eight in the next couple of years, and she still enjoys working with her father, although she admits, “It has its moments.” She tells me, “We are alike – which is quite annoying because as I get older I am finding that his annoying habits are my own.”
Certainly, this hotel babe’s love of hospitality is one habit that she did inherit from her Dad.