Tanja Lister and Sonia Virechauveix have owned the Kylesku Hotel in Sutherland for the last 12 years having relocated from London and sold all their belongs to start their Scottish hospitality journey.
Tanja was familiar with the area because she had spent holidays in the Highlands with her father although she is quick to point out that it is surprising she fell in love with it. She tells me, “I often came here as a teenager to camp with my dad in a two-man tent and I fell in love with Scotland despite my dad’s snoring and the midges!”
Today Kylesku Hotel is an award-winning hotel, and its owners are very much part of the fabric of Sutherland and the Highlands combining their roles as hoteliers with an ambassadorial role for hospitality and their specific geographic area.
Therefore I wasn’t surprised to see Tanja spearheading an initiative a few weeks ago to get the First Minister to set an indicative date for the reopening of hospitality. Her move came shortly after the First Minister’s update on the Strategic Framework on the 23rd February, which left the industry in limbo. Within a few days, Tanja had 80 of her industry colleagues on board, including Edinburgh’s Prestonfield House Hotel, Mackays Hotel in Caithness, east Lothian’s Duck Inn, Knockendarroch Hotel in Perthshire, Chester Hotel in Aberdeen, Kinloch Lodge on the Isle of Skye, Cromlix in Perthshire and the Auchrannie Resort on Arran, and more than 3,000 people signed a petition over three days.
Tanja says, “Although there has certainly been a change in the mood music since then we still do not have an indicative date. I am of the firm belief that not setting an indicative date is less helpful than setting one. I understand that the First Minister believes that by not setting a date for re-opening she is not giving false promises and that the preference is to give a fixed date when she can. It is more important for us to have it the other way around. We need an indicative date, which we know could be changed because we need to communicate with our team and our customers.
“It could be a misjudgement on her part, although I do think she has been doing her utmost to balance the complexity of the pandemic. I wouldn’t want to be the person who has to makes decisions about swathes of society that I don’t have personal experience of.
“An indicative date is not just important for people, morale and hope but it is also important for us to communicate with staff, suppliers and guests. Take recruitment – if you were looking for a job in hospitality for the season, and you don’t know when Scotland is going to reopen, you will take what is offered elsewhere. It is the same story with guests – if England opens first people will go there and this will leave us with all sorts of problems. We need to know what restrictions will look like and what travel arrangements will be allowed. A friend of mine came up with a nice sporting analogy- it’s like being sent on the field to face the bowler with your captain breaking your bat just before you take to the field!”
She adds, “Certainly there has been a lot of noise about the plight of our industry, but the decision to keep hospitality shut has been a trade off to allow other parts of society to function. Whilst I think these priorities have been right, the conversation has often been overly simplistic. Billing it as ‘lives vs livelihoods’ is not a fair or just continuum. It is a multi-dimensional problem. Because of the immediacy of the need to deal with the health crisis and the awful human cost, it has at times felt as though we haven’t had permission to talk about our concerns for our teams, our businesses and livelihoods. If we do, we risk being branded as greedy or money orientated and that is completely missing the point. There are real long term implications of these decisions too- many of them also health related.
While Tanja and Sonia are itching to get back to business, Tanja believes the last 12 months will have a lasting impact on the two of them for many reasons.
She tells me, “I had a feeling back in January 2020 that this was serious. At the time people were talking about it on TV, but it didn’t feel like a big deal initially, however it got worse and worse. The run-up to the closure on the 23rd March was very stressful. In some ways when we got shut down it was a relief as more and more people were cancelling their bookings, and we were getting last-minute bookings too. The amount of churn was incredible. Suddenly everyone started to panic and there was a lot of fear in the community and a lot of pressure to shut. I remember trying to get hold of our MSPs to ask whether we should be shutting or staying open?
“When we did shut and the financial support was there we were able to breathe again. We knew it would see us through and allow us to keep our team. We furloughed all but five, who joined too late. We thought it would take a couple of months and then it would all be over. We appreciated it was a health emergency and it was serious, but you can’t help worrying would we lose our business? Would we survive it from a health point of view? This was compounded by fears for our parents who were in the vulnerable group – and who were scattered across Europe and all living on their own, except for my dad who lives here.”
The first lockdown, although a shock at first, allowed the two to appreciate their surroundings even more. It was just as well because when Kylesku reopened it was full on.
Tanja comments, “When we reopened in July, we thought it had been pretty stressful but that it could have been a lot worse.”
She smiles, “Reopening was crazy. I have never seen anything like it. People had been cooped up in towns and cities and they wanted fresh air. We realised that the hotel would be busy because of the bookings, but with only 11 rooms, that didn’t give us an indication of how busy the restaurant would be. And because we didn’t know that it was difficult to gauge how many staff we needed to recruit so we decided to open as if it was late May… we were almost spot on. It was a good guess. But then every week the business racked up a bit more.
“Last time round it was the most wonderful thing during the first few weeks of re-opening to see our regular guests and to be able to welcome them back before it got so busy. That first week there was a real sense of joy.
“However by August we were recruiting left, right and centre. The extra work with the cleaning and the protocols we had put in place, and answering the phone all put pressure on us. We actually had to do shifts when it came to answering the phone because it rang all the time. We had to have someone permanently on the door to manage people coming in.
“In August we are usually busy, but with Eat Out to Help Out people were queuing all the way down the road.
“The team were absolutely fantastic – I couldn’t think of a better team of people to work with. They hadn’t done much work for 4 months and they hit the ground running and excelled.
“When we closed in November we had a management team debrief mainly because we had been so busy none of us had been able to really do anything other than react to the situation we were in. It was only afterwards that we appreciated the enormity of what had been achieved.”
Tanja and Sonja are used to having a busy business, in fact, the last few years have been really good for Kylesku because of the success of the North Coast 500 route. It was just as well they had extended the hotel a couple of years earlier. The number of rooms increased from 8 to 11 and they rebuilt the restaurant to make the most of the hotel’s fabulous views. The restaurant went from 50 to 100 covers and they opened a great outdoor area too.
Says Tanja, “The success of the NC500 literally changed our business overnight. I think there has also been an increase in the popularity of areas like this which are wild and coastal. Assynt is one of the very rare places with an amazing vibe. You can clear your mind here and recharge. Within 15/20 minutes of guests arriving their stress falls away.
There had been plans to make the most of this and open the hotel all year round. But says Tanya, “Obviously we weren’t going to do that in 2020- hopefully this year!. It would allow us to sensibly extend the scope of our business.
She also believes that the Highlands are in a good position going forward. She believes tourism will keep growing in the area, although she believes there is a need for a conversation across their community about how to shape it proactively, rather than just allowing the demand for tourism to shape the agenda. She says“We need to find ways of doing that and we could make it quite groundbreaking especially around the green and sustainable agenda.
“It is easy to think there are too many tourists when it fact it was there was too many for the facilities. But now, for instance, Highland Council is investing in a £1.5M project to ensure better management of tourism and more provision of bins, toilets and camper van services.”
When hospitality shut down at end of the season in the Highlands it was nearly at zero Covid – but by early January the area had nearly one of the highest growth rates. Tanja puts this down, in part, to hospitality being closed. She says, “Suddenly there were no more safe environments for people to socialise and meet up in. There is, as we all know, very little evidence to suggest that hospitality is a real spreader of the virus. Any environment that has a bunch of people together presents itself as more of a risk but when you apply that to the real world what does that look like? We put time, effort and training in to get it right. I have to admit, I was scared when we first reopened. I thought if I am responsible for bringing the virus up here it would be terrible. So it was a real kick in the teeth to be permanently labelled as being a high-risk environment.
“Safe hospitality has a real part to play in helping mitigate the virus. If people can’t meet in a bar or hotel or cafe there is a higher chance that people will meet in each others homes and that is infinitely riskier. Did the government get it right? Only time and the benefit of hindsight will tell.”
When the hotel closed back in November they did think they would be back open in time for Easter. Says Tanja, “We thought maybe mid-March at the latest. We didn’t see the First Minister’s announcement coming. It was a real body blow.”
It was this announcement declaring there would be no definitive date for re-opening that led Tanja to write, with the support of 80 fellow hoteliers, to the First Minister.
She tells me, “It is just the sheer lack of clarity which causes the problems on all fronts, and not just for the immediate future, but for the whole season – particularly with England having some indicative dates. How can anyone have any confidence that they will be able to have a holiday here? They are not even able to hedge their bets. To my mind even having an unambitious date (end of May/June) would be preferable to having no date at all. If the date has to change we could pick off weeks at a time – the churn at that point would only affect people in these weeks, not the whole season. Here in the Highlands if we don’t have a good summer what will happen when we close at end of Autumn – many may not have the money to reopen next year!”
Although Tanja and Sonia are desperate for an opening date – and are worried that they will lose custom without this date – their guests are being very supportive. Some making multiple bookings.
Tanya smiles, “We have had the most encouraging emails – random and out of nowhere. People wrote to us saying “just thinking about you’ and some said they couldn’t bear it if Kylesku didn’t survive.
“I think one of the positives that has come out of all of this is that people now realise how important hospitality is and how good the kind of space and environment is for them and their mental health. This makes me think that the future for hospitality is good.
“Another good thing, and one of my biggest frustrations until now, has been that hospitality and tourism were not taken seriously as a career option. I can’t think of another industry where you are around people for so long and in such a fast-paced environment. The life skills you learn on the job are enormous. Without a doubt having hospitality experience on your CV is a real benefit.”
Here Tanja is speaking from her own experience – it was never suggested to her as a career option – instead, after graduating she joined Waitrose as a graduate trainee. Sonia on the other hand comes from France where hospitality is considered a good career, although she also worked in retail.
Tanja puts their purchase of Kylesku down to serendipity. The two, who loved Scotland, had been wondering how they could combine their love of the country with a livelihood, and had been travelling in Europe. Tanja takes up the story, “For some reason, I saw an advert for the hotel. Sonia had always wanted to go back into hospitality and I wanted a break from the corporate world.”
She continues, “We sold everything. It was just after the last financial crisis in 2009, and it was difficult to get a mortgage with banks requiring high deposits. Luckily my father joined us too – we literally sold everything and move here. Normally I am risk-averse, and I didn’t like putting all my eggs in one basket. I thought if we fail we are in real trouble – we could be living in a cardboard box under Kylesku Bridge.”
The two didn’t fail, in fact just the opposite. The business has thrived under their ownership. Tanja says she knew they were on the right track when they started getting repeat guests, “I think for me it has always been a real joy to see our guests coming back, especially repeat guests. That’s when you know you have it right. That feels amazing.”
Tanja is looking forward to seeing some of these guests as soon as possible. She is quietly confident that, vaccines allowing, summer could see things back to normal.
“I would hope by the middle of May we could see a reopening of the largest chunks of our industry and for those who have had it even toughe, like clubs and events, I hope they can get underway in the summer. By June we could have vaccinated all our adults, and that should make things a whole lot easier. If scientists are already adapting the vaccines, surely we can be gradually back to some kind of normal trading by late summer?”
She concludes, “We have all been through the mill, but we will get back on our feet and dust ourselves off – tourism is at the heart of what we do, and as a country, we do it so well. We can’t wait to get back to it.”
Here’s hoping that Nicola Sturgeon and her ministers now get it right, and put an indicative date down and allow Kylesku, and the rest of hospitality, to get back to it!