By Susan Young
It’s great to meet up with old friends and this was certainly the case when I headed to Forres to catch up with Gavin Ellis of Knockomie Inn. He and I go back a long way in fact, and I think we first met 20 years ago when we were both on the board of the Benevolent Society.
He hadn’t had Knockomie for long, and at the time he was running it as a country house hotel. Today, the business has evolved into a country Inn and Gavin and wife Penny also run the family Spar business on Mull.
Gavin tells me, “We are more of a pub now than we are a hotel. Times have changed and we have evolved too. When I first bought the hotel in 1987 it was very definitely a country house hotel and quite a smart one at that. Today it is much more casual. When I changed it people said, ‘Gavin what are you up to?’ But I wasn’t staying at country house hotels when I was travelling down to the Lake District or Norfolk. Instead, I was staying in some smart, and really quite innovative places. I realised that was also what our customers were looking for. Basically, I wanted to run a really, really good inn where everyone is welcome wherever they come from, whatever their background without the formality.
As he said that, a group of Norwegian golfers were milling about getting organised for a day’s golf nearby. Says Gavin, “They are a case in point. They can relax here.”
Gavin and wife Penny are steeped in hospitality. Gavin comes from a distinguished hospitality background, and not only did his mother run a restaurant on Mull, but his grandmother owned Creag Dhu in Onich and his great grandmother ran the Ballachulish Hotel at Ballachulish.
The couple met at college and Penny joined him in the business when they got married in 1993. In fact, Gavin credits much of the success of their business to Penny.
Although Gavin hails from Mull, he went away to school first of to Crieff and then to Shropshire. He explains, “My mum realised I was dyslexic and wanted to ensure I wasn’t held back. It was a real awakening for me after Mull, but the experience educated me in more ways than one. I gained self-confidence and learned social skills too, as well as the vital art of starting a conversation.”
But it was at college that he really came into his own. Having discovered an ability to cook while helping his mum in her restaurant at college honed his skills, and in 1983 he headed to Zurich to the Hauptabnhof Buffet to put them into practice. From all accounts it was a baptism by fire. The Hauptbahnhof Buffet at Zurich Train station had around 10 kitchens and there were around 37 nationalities working in them, including Gavin. He tells me, “You certainly learned tolerance working in a kitchen that size.” He also made some very good friends and had a very good social life too. Says Gavin, “Today the friendships forged there are still very much in evidence. Quite a few have also gone on to have very successful careers.”
In fact, he took his son Hamish there recently. Says Gavin, “We had a boys road trip and he just had to see the Hauptbahnhof having heard so much about it.”
But family circumstances brought him back to Scotland and Mull in 1985. Says he, “My mother had a heart attack so I came home and helped her run the restaurant for the season.”
He then applied for jobs and, indeed, got his first job refusal. Despite being turned down by The Sheraton ahead of its opening, Gavin wouldn’t take no for an answer and ended up knocking on the door of a portacabin at the hotel and pleaded for a job. Says he, “That was my first meeting with Thomas Hegarty, the legendary GM. I said to him, ‘you need me’.”
His bravado paid off, with Hegarty giving his the role of Station Waiter. He worked at The Sheraton for 18 months and by the time he left he was Night Manager. Although he admits it was a great experience, he also thinks his promotions were a bit too speedy.
He left and joined the Dragonara, the Edinburgh ‘it’ hotel of its day. His line boss there was Tony Storey and guests included the likes of Sean Connery and the Bay City Rollers.
Says Gavin, “Tony Storey was a great guy to work for. I really enjoyed working for him. I was Bars Manager there and it was a great cocktail bar. But when Tony left, I left.”
In the Spring of 1987, Gavin travelled around Scotland looking for a place to call his own. He ruled out the West Coast because it was too close to his parents and instead plumped for Forres in Moray.
He says “I thought Moray had the most potential for tourism of all the places I saw. I had some money behind me, and the banks were also generous, which allowed me to buy the Knockomie Hotel which, at the time, had seven rooms.”
He continues, “At the time, country house hotels were in vogue, and we made good money for quite a few years and in 1993 we put an extension on which took the property to 15 bedrooms. It was also the year I married Penny and it was the year I got an amazing deal.
“One day a young man wearing a tee-shirt came into the hotel with his girlfriend and enquired about lunch for 20 in June and we sat down and had a good discussion about it. Then, as he was leaving, he said could you do that lunch for 20 every day for 30 days? The next day we got a visit from another older person who said, ‘I hear good things about you.’ They booked lunch for 30 days for the launch of the Ford Galaxy which was taking place at Skibo, the only stipulation was that I had to be there every day.
“That deal was worth then £60K but not only that it brought a lot of household names into the hotel. It was a godsend and it taught me a valuable lesson – never pre-judge a customer. It also came at a very good time because we had spent a lot of the extension and were quite strapped for cash.”
It was just as well they had a good year because the next few years business became much tougher as the recession of the 90s hit. Says Gavin, “Penny was a godsend, and the two of us just knuckled down and worked very hard to keep the hotel open. The good news was that between us we could do most of the jobs in the hotel.”
The very fact that it is now 2019 and the hotel has been reinvested in and re-purposed as an Inn shows how Gavin and Penny are prepared to move with the times, and the fact that they have been able to adapt to the changing market conditions is testament to their dedication to their business and Scottish tourism. They have also seen off two recessions. One of his bleakest periods was when the closure of RAF Kinloss was announced in 2010. Says Gavin, “I was sitting watching Sky when the news came through. Within 10 minutes my phone was ringing with cancellations and within 24-hours a month’s turnover was cancelled. It was horrendous. But Penny and I knuckled down and ran the business ourselves with only a little help.
Gavin has not just been in hospitality all his working life, he has also represented the industry at the highest level. He was the youngest recipient of VisitScotland’s Silver Thistle award in 2009, for his unwavering commitment to Scottish tourism and recognising the effort he made while Chair of the Scottish committee of the British Hospitality Association (now UK Hospitality). He also chaired the Scotland and Tourism Framework for Change, working with the likes of Jim Mather MSP. Gavin enjoyed working with him. He was Tourism Minister at the time and had a real passion for Scotland. He wanted to try and do the right thing. They got on well.
During his tenure ( 2004-2008) Scotland suffered one of the most difficult periods in Scottish tourism, the fallout from the outbreak of foot and mouth, which hit rural areas particularly hard. This saw him appear in the media putting forward the views of the hospitality industry as well as liaising with tourism bodies and politicians. He says, “When I took on the role at the BHA, I didn’t realise how much time it would take up. But I enjoyed the challenge and speaking to the media. At the time we had to speak up and upset some people and it was a different style of leadership. But guiding me through the whole process was Peter Taylor and Peter Lederer, both of whom I admire immensely. Peter Taylor has total belief in the world and always believes that good will come, while Peter Lederer steered me through the political jungle.
Today Gavin is just as passionate about tourism as he ever was and also has got a view on everything from Brexit (there’s a surprise) to green tourism. He believes that Scotland is up against it at the moment when it comes to tourism.
He tells me, “Our German visitors and French visitors are down and I think part of it goes back to the day we voted for Brexit. I was on Mull and I came back here and my team told me people came downstairs at the hotel and started to offer their passports, saying ‘Do I have to register with my passport now?’
“Ian Fleming at Lake of Menteith Hotel has been quoted in the Herald reporting that business is down and that is not an isolated case. There are pockets doing very well, such as Skye, but Aberdeen is struggling. The Shire is struggling in patches. Because we are small when we realised in April business wasn’t going as well as we expected, for instance, bookings were not looking quite right, we increased our local bookings and made a few phone calls and twisted things around a bit and found a way out. We also did local marketing. I consider Edinburgh, Glasgow local, too. We have 15 bedrooms so we don’t have to do much. But not everyone has the same circumstances. If you have a huge number of rooms that is a huge tanker and you know how long it takes to turn a tanker.
He continues, “Scotland is very much open for business but we have to tell people we are open for business. But that takes a marketing plan bigger than anything we did for foot and mouth and it takes a passion. It also takes leadership and publicity and telling our stories better and obviously. We are not doing it well enough.
When Gavin first opened the Knockomie he thought there was a lot of potential for tourism businesses in Moray. He tells me, “I thought there were a lot of opportunities. But 30 years’ later there is still a lack of understanding of the market here and there is a lack of focus. I believe you have to sell to the market as a whole. It’s not just about the hotel, it is the sum of the whole offering. Just one hotel or inn does not make a destination. We have to work together and promote Moray as a destination and we can’t work in splendid isolation.”
He also believes that education has a massive role to play in the success of Scottish hospitality. He says, “Other countries like Germany and Switzerland have robust training systems in their further education colleges which all governments with their obsession with sending people to university have neglected to fund. I can now speak with real authority on this subject as one of my sons went to college. It was a shambles. Of the 20 people that started his course only half were left six months later! I don’t think this is an isolated case.”
He continues “We all know that we are experiencing staff shortages, in particular chefs. In Spain and Portugal a lot of restaurants don’t have chefs. They are run by families, generation to generation cooking tapas and family dishes. People do find that acceptable -but they don’t find that acceptable here. We also have VAT and rates which are absolutely crippling the industry. How can there be countries in Europe like Switzerland which are wealthier than us paying 3% on accommodation and we believe we can charge 20%? Governments don’t have a scooby and pay lip service to those that try to explain it to them.
“We have to invest in our people and invest in our product and if we can’t do that we can’t stay competitive. The whole balloon of tax is too much and it is the complete tax table that needs looking at. We, by definition, are a high employment industry and we can’t automate the making of beds! We need to employ people.”
In fact, on the day that I interviewed Gavin, wife Penny was interviewing. They are very much a team although Penny has also managed to combine a love for whisky with her duties. She has regularly contributed whisky columns to various publications, was a Director of the Speyside Whisky Festival and has written a book called Distinguished Distilleries.
Says Gavin, “Penny is a real powerhouse and we do make a great team.”
Today, Gavin is also running the family Spar shop on Mull. Says he, ‘There is a future in convenience stores that perhaps you have to be a hotelier to recognise! He has a few other business interests too, but now he is taking more time for himself and his family. He and Penny have been doing some travelling and he has been enjoying time with his sons. One major road trip has just been completed, and he is planning another one for son number two.
He concludes, “For a while, I had my head down and just concentrated on our business, and I perhaps haven’t been as vocal about the industry as I was. But I am now back in full flow.”