Stephen Carter OBE is one of the best known hoteliers in Scottish hospitality and one of the most charming.
I’ve known this month’s interviewee for nearly 30 years! Stephen Carter OBE is probably one of the best known, and best-loved hoteliers in Scotland. He is currently in situ at the five-star Old Course Hotel Resort & Spa in St Andrews where he is General Manager. I first met Stephen when he was General Manager of the Moat House International in Glasgow in 1990. I was looking after the public relations for the Great Scottish Run at that time and the Moat House was the designated race hotel. We enjoyed many a coffee back then, and we have enjoyed many occasions since, as he has worked his way round Scotland presiding over some of the country’s best hotels including The Caledonian in Edinburgh, St Andrews Bay in St Andrews (now The Fairmont) and Cameron House on Loch Lomond.
Stephen was recovering from an operation when we met up, but assured me he was well on the way to recovery. He certainly did look well and was as dapper as ever.
The Old Course hotel is also looking good although there is clearly a lot of building work going on. Stephen explains, “We are currently building a new spa which will have an extra swimming pool, and we have just put a new roof on which doesn’t sound very exciting but what is exciting is that we have used rubber tiles! When you look at it they look like normal slates but in actual fact they are made of rubber which has been re-processed from car tyres. It’s a great Canadian product.
“We were spending up to £2,000 a month on slates because the 17th hole is right outside our admin offices, and to get to it you have to drive right across the roof, so you can imagine the stray balls and subsequent damage. Now we have a new roof, and new windows right through the whole hotel from the first floor up. We have also refurbished 110 bedrooms. It has been a busy year from that perspective.”
It’s not the first refurbishment Stephen has presided over. When he was Managing Director at Cameron House on Loch Lomond he was responsible for its £50m refurbishment and was at the Caledonian in Edinburgh when it underwent a £15m re-design. He tells me, “It can be stressful. When you are refurbishing and you are still operating you really have to work with people. Here we are very fortunate. Our owner closed the hotel for nearly four months whilst we did the roof and windows. When I was at Cameron House we stayed open. It is challenging trying to meet guests expectations while you are refurbishing; particularly in a resort hotel where people are spending their own money. They are not getting exactly what they thought they were buying into originally. It means that your team has to work harder and in my opinion, they need management to be in and around all the time, backing everybody up and not being afraid to put themselves in front of the guests.
“I love the shop floor – that really is the best place for me. Sometimes people are reticent because guests can be quite formidable if they don’t get what they expect, but most people at the end of day are reasonable and part of the challenge is getting them to be reasonable. I talk people through it and generally, most people realise you are doing your best to try and help them. Renovation is part and parcel of what goes on and if customers want to enjoy high standards when they come back, they have to allow us time to do refurbishments.”
He continues, “Turning around situations is always exciting and fun. I do enjoy a bit of a challenge, particularly when it comes to turning staff around, especially when it is a culture change. It is always a challenge getting people singing out of same hymn book regarding service and culture, and the way they look at guests. Even after you have achieved it, you still have to keep revisiting it. You just need to get everyone on board.
“One of the best feelings is when you have a hotel team that knows what to do and who buy into the vision of where the hotel is going. This allows you to have fun. When the team are enthusiastic it provides us with a great tool particularly when it comes to looking after our guests. You can’t hide enthusiasm, and that is passed on to the guests. If the team have fun then that it makes it fun for guests as well.”
Says Stephen, “We are very fortunate here – we have quite a lot of staff from Europe and a lot of Scots too. They have provided us with superb service. But it would be nice if we could get more Scots into the industry. I also think the industry needs to appeal more to youngsters because hospitality offers great opportunities. For instance, you can rise through your career very rapidly and be at a senior position at a low age and this industry is one that is still growing and it will continue to grow. However, there is the pay issue – at entry level it is not the best, but if you work hard and gain experience and look for constant growth, then the pay is there. The other issue is the hours. People don’t like them, but we are getting more sensible with regard to that, and let’s face it, there are still long hours in many careers. We can offer opportunities for innovative and creative people.
“But perhaps it is something to do with management today. Do managers really provide the right situation for people to grow or for people to see themselves grow? After all, it takes two to tango. A lot of modern hospitality, or at least a growing amount of modern hospitality, has a more relaxed feel about it. (Soho Farm for instance!) So perhaps we will see people coming into the hospitality business through the pub end of the business as hotels become more homely and welcoming.
“There was a time where people wouldn’t go into a Five Star hotel because it was too stuffy – now people want to enjoy something but don’t necessarily want to put a suit on. I think we will see more of the blurring of these images in future years – and Gleneagles could be at the forefront of that change – particularly if they go ahead with their Soho Farm concept. Something like that would relax the boundaries.”
Certainly when Stephen first came to Glasgow and the Moat House, he changed the landscape of the hotel market in Glasgow. It had previously been dominated by The Albany, and The Moat House was the first new hotel to open in the city beside the Exhibition Centre. It actually opened during the Garden Festival atathe Forum Intercontinental but with limited success. Stephen comments, “The Moat House was a wonderful hotel. I was there for the transition from Forum to Moat House in 1990 and Glasgow was the City of Culture. For a while, it was a centre of activity in Glasgow. Everybody used it.” Including, he reminds me, my dad and his colleagues at the Sunday Mail.
He continues, “When we re-opened Glasgow I remember Reo Stakis coming up to me and saying “so you think you can make a success of this?” I said to him, ‘Mr Stakis I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think I could do that.’ When you arrive in a city you need to get to know it and its people. When you get to know them you give yourself an opportunity to really make it work because they will support you. It’s the only way to run a hotel.” He adds, “People remembered me from Aberdeen and were ringing the Moat House saying ‘are you the same Stephen Carter who worked in Aberdeen?’ They then said they would come and try the hotel, and if they enjoyed it, they would support it.
“I find this is a real Scottish dictum. If you try to help people they really try to help you too. This is why it is important that a hotel becomes part of the locale it is in because at the end of the day it’s the locale that makes the hotel. It gives you the staff, it supplies the food and booze and of course the best people to recommend a hotel are the people who live around about it. Inevitably people who are coming to visit your town are coming to visit someone so they will ask what is the best hotel to stay in?”
He adds, “Every place has offered different opportunities but at the end of the day if you are willing to reach out to those around you, you will always be welcome. I enjoy being with people and helping people. I think when you are running a hotel you have to reach out and have to get involved in other things outwith the hotel. For instance, when I was at Loch Lomond I was a Director of the RSNO and helped them raise money for its new home in Glasgow. It was fabulous. Here I am Chairman of Fife Coast and Countryside Trust and on the Board of The East Neuk Festival because as I’ve said it’s all about getting involved. I was also Chairman of HIT (the Hospitality Industry Trust) for just over 12 years but I’ve been involved with HIT for more than 20 years. In fact I’m still involved with it. HIT has the huge support of the industry – David Cochrane, the CEO, has made it grow and is constantly looking for innovation.”
Talking of innovation Stephen feels that hotels could be more innovative especially when it comes to their food offering. He tells me, “One of the issues is the quality of the food on offer. Even if you have a quality offering, people staying in a hotel will often eat with you one night, and then they want to get out and experience other things. For instance St Andrews has something like 130 eating establishments; there’s a whole myriad of offerings and we only have two restaurants at the hotel – The Road Hole on the top floor which is heading to a more formal style of eating and Sands Grill room downstairs. We know if we get people to eat with us one night, the next night they are likely to go into St Andrews to eat.
“We are lucky in that we have a great piece of leisure business and our customers are mainly aged 45 upwards. However we too are beginning to look at different things to attract customers. We do quite a lot of tribute nights in the winter – we’ve a Rod Stewart one soon. We also do a Faulty Towers experience – which is a skit on the old Fawlty Towers. Our customers want quality but they also want to be able to enjoy themselves.”
He continues, “The lodge business has really grown over the last few years, not buying them as timeshare but people wanting them for a week or two. I think time share lodges are a dead market in Scotland but the lodge business itself is very successful. Nowadays people like to go away and enjoy a posh restaurant one night; they may like to cook one night at home or even enjoy fish and chips. So instead of going away to a hotel with the same kind of hotel fare every night people opt for variety and that’s where lodges come in.”
I asked Stephen who he admired in the industry and who he had learned the most from. He told me, “John Furlong, who now lives next to Turnberry, was my boss at The Angus in Dundee and I also worked for him in at The Gosforth Park Hotel in Newcastle. He was a great mentor who taught me all about the business; how to get customers in and how to look after them. Peter Crawford, who I worked for at The Strathspey in Aviemore (and whose son is Guy Crawford who became CEO of Jumeirah Hotels) taught me about hospitality. Very early on one of them suggested that I ensured that I was contactable all the time. “At the time I was young and I thought ‘no way’ but soon realised if you have high availability people only use it when they are serious about something, and that’s when you want to hear about it. I am always contactable!
“As for people I admire, there are many, but Peter Lederer is an icon in our industry, not just in Scotland but in the whole of the UK for what he achieved with Gleneagles over the years. Then there’s Stewart Spence in Aberdeen – he is a great ambassador for his city; Stephen Leckie for his continued support of the industry and for what he has done with Crieff Hydro and I’ve also been watching with interest the growth of Manorview. It was a very small company and now it is not. Steve Graham is dynamic and I like what he is doing.”
Stephen promised his employer Herb Kohler that he would stay for two years at the Old Course Hotel and already 15 months have passed. Stephen won’t be drawn on how long he will be staying, but he did reveal that the new Spa was due to open in December and that they had just had planning permission to build football pitches at Craigtoun. He explains, “We have had some big football teams stay with us including Barcelona and Manchester United so we went for planning, however, we don’t have a start date. We also have plans to do a development at Craigtoun House so there is still plenty for me to do.”
That may be so, but hopefully his PA Jean will ensure that he doesn’t do too much! But I for one appreciate exactly why he earned his OBE in 2007 because his whole life has been about service to the hospitality industry, and that’s why I admire him!