By Susan Young
Tom Younger has been the boss at Archerfield near North Berwick for the past 16 years, yet he still shies away from calling himself a hotelier. He cites the likes of Peter Lederer and Nick Holmes as true hoteliers, both of whom he has worked with in the past. Instead he believes he is in the entertainment field.
Tom got into hospitality through his first love – golf. In fact he was a professional golfer. He has managed to take his passion for the sport and turn it into a career rooted in hospitality, but not only that, he now presides over one of the most successful privately owned hospitality and golf properties in the country.
He has, of course, excuse the pun, achieved great things at Archerfield. But he is quick to point out that it is a great team that delivers the experience and that it was the vision that owner, Kevin Doyle, had, that has now evolved into the entity that is Archerfield.
I caught up with Tom at Archerfield House, the venue for the first HIT Health and Wellness Summit on 4th December, and that was probably the only reason I was able to tie him down for an interview.
He explains, “I don’t really do interviews. I get a wee bit uncomfortable talking about myself, after all I have just worked for Kevin for 16 years. There’s nothing to talk about really. I am more interested in what our people are doing and I see my job as making them look and feel like stars.”
That may be the case but you can’t deny the success that Archerfield has enjoyed under Tom’s stewardship.
This year Archerfield House Hotel was the only Scottish property to make the coveted Sunday Times Travel Magazine 56 best hotels in the world list, and Tom tells me that the business is doing very well, albeit with challenges.
But let’s recap, for those of you not familiar with the estate and the venue.
The Archerfield estate once belonged to the Duke of Hamilton. There has been a small golf course on the land for centuries. But in 1910, the then owner of the Scotsman created a 18-hole course on the estate. During World War Two the land was taken over by the Ministry of Defence, and subsequently for the next 50 years the estate languished until Kevin Doyle, arguably Scotland’s most successful licensed trade and property entrepreneur, bought it in 1999 under the banner of his business Caledonian Heritable. His vision was to turn Archerfield into a world class golfing facility which included restoring Archerfield House and creating a private hotel, as well as the building a private membership base.
At the time myself and many others thought he was taking a massive risk, after all there was no shortage of very good golf courses in the vicinity. The new courses would be between the famous Muirfield and North Berwick courses, in fact there were no less than 20 golf courses in East Lothian. And as for creating a private house – the general viewpoint of the soothsayers was that “how often would that be rented out in a year – 20/30 times?”
We should have had faith. Today Archerfield boasts two world-class courses The Fidra and The Dirleton and its private hotel, Archerfield House does not have many available weekends for the entirety of 2020. The resort also features three waterside properties, various lodges, a 200-capacity event space, 12 Pavilion rooms, a fabulous Spa, which is in the top 6 spas in Europe, and one of the best Golf Performance Centres in Europe. The plots at Kings Cairn are also selling well.
Tom has been there for the whole journey joining some 16 years ago just about the time course opened. He joined Kevin with impeccable credentials having not only been professional golfer (until he injured his back) but with extensive experience at Gleneagles and at Cameron House under his belt. He explains, “ I joined Gleneagles as the Assistant Manager at the Country Club after my professional golf career ended. The role allowed me to continue my passion for golf and I was lucky in that I was able to develop a career doing something I loved. I also worked with some great people – Peter Lederer at Gleneagles and Nick Holmes at Cameron House. I joined Cameron House at Loch Lomond, as Leisure Director, as part of the opening team. I had always wanted to do an opening and it was great opportunity.”
But it was at Gleneagles that Tom really found his niche. Gleneagles was focussing on its Golf Development side of the business and Tom travelled the World consulting for the it. Says Tom, “That was a fabulous nine years. There was a lot of travel but I was also involved in some great golfing events there – including numerous Bells Scottish Opens, and the first Johnnie Walker PGA, and my favourite the McDonald’s Charity Pro-Am. 2,000 volunteers came to help us with it – and we raised a huge amount for the Ronald McDonald charity. We also built the new club house and the golfing academy. It was a very successful tenure.”
With this pedigree it is hardly surprising that Kevin Doyle and Tom work well together and help drive this project forward, and Tom has not looked back since. He tells me, “It has been one of these projects that has been a privilege to work on and I wouldn’t work anywhere else. Kevin is incredible – his honesty and desire to get it right resonates throughout the business, and it is great that you can have a quick dialogue. This means if there is something you need to fix you can do it quickly. We are only a small part of his bigger business which has interests all over the world. He is constantly surprising me with the businesses he is involved in.”
You get the feeling that Archerfield has been a labour of love for Kevin – it is Caledonian Heritable’s flagship property. It may have evolved over the years but the ethos of the business remains the same throughout the estate.
Tom explains, “Our ethos and strap line is ‘We play a different game.’ We’ve had it from the very start. Back then we were the new kids on the block. Initially it was £15,000 for a debenture, so we wanted and needed to offer something fresh. I think we all knew what we wanted to try and achieve and it has grown over the years. For instance, most other golf courses at the time insisted on jackets and ties, and no mobile phones or laptops. We were happy for members to use their mobile phones. We also have a more casual approach to the dress code ”
The house too is informal. He explains, “We knew from the word go we wanted to be different and offer a service standard much looser than a formal property. People are definitely interested in less formality but they still want good service and that’s what we are good at.
“When people join from other hospitality organisations I have to tell them that we have a more informal approach and not to be surprised if they see me giving an arriving guest a big hug on arrival! As for what they wear there are no suits on staff here unless it is a formal event. After all, how many people now wear suits to work? The team that we have certainly doesn’t.”
He continues, “I always say we are in the entertainment business rather than hospitality, or perhaps the hospitality business is in the entertainment business. It is the Disney cliché ‘we are on a stage’. “Our team can come across as being as quiet as a mouse because that’s what the client wants, or they can be the life and soul. Being familiar but not being too familiar is the real skill. You must know when to back away. We try to adapt to our clients’ needs and we are incredibly customer focussed. For example if you book an event here you get your own event planner who is with you your entire journey. If you are used to going to a hotel you may not know, for example, that you can help yourself to drinks in Archerfield House. We take the customer through everything so that they know what to expect. They can do lots of things here from business meetings, to a wedding, parties, or a birthday. If they want to play croquet on the lawn or put up a marquee we will try and accommodate their every need.
“I do believe that if our people are motivated and happy they will give our customers a better experience. People come for a nice and relaxing break and they don’t want to see unhappy faces which often leads to poor service. Our business is all about the people. If you can’t smile at somebody when they walk in the door you are in the wrong business.”
Tom believes he is, in fact, Archerfield’s most critical customer. He puts himself in the customers shoes so that he can see what can be improved. He says, “In our business it pays to be obsessive compulsive. If you don’t you could struggle. My job is to be the most critical customer you could have. I look at the business through a customers eyes and it’s amazing how many times you see things that staff don’t. It’s not always about doing something fancy, it’s about doing the simple things just right.
“We get things wrong but the important thing is when we get it wrong, we put it right. I do think this is where our industry makes a fundamental mistake. Getting it wrong is a gift because you actually have an opportunity to put it right. Often the person you got it wrong for becomes your biggest advocate…because you have solved their problem.
“I don’t think people genuinely want to complain but when they do you can’t sweep it under the carpet – if you do then good luck. If you face up to it and say we have to fix it , that is a much better approach. Next time we will get it right.”
He puts some of the success the business enjoys down to recruiting well. His senior team are good, he suggests, at identifying the right people for Archerfield, but once they are on board it comes down to education. He is a great believer in encouraging staff to have pride in what they do. Tom says, “If you have pride in what you do, you do a good job.”
He adds, “It is also important to look after the health and wellbeing of staff, and that is a focus here. We do that by educating them about stress and even things like posture within the Spa team. If you educate people it means they can prolong their career by doing just simple exercises. You have to think about how it will be in ten years and you don’t want a bad back for example. We also like to nurture our team.”
He gives a small example, “Our marketing manager started here working in the bar. He had a degree in business, but he stayed with us, became a trainee manager, and has now developed into a marketing role. Another member of staff started as a shop assistant and now runs our events team.” But he admits it is difficult attracting young people into hospitality as a long-term career. “Our difficulty is keeping up with rates of pay. There are young people out there who can earn far more earlier than staff in hospitality. They may be earning £14 an hour and in hospitality its £10… and the hours too prove to be a deterrent. I say trust me you will catch up and will earn even more than they will. But getting young people to believe that is difficult.
“Hospitality is certainly a bit of a vocation, but I think there are so many opportunities which no other business can give you. Not many hotels have the luxury of having too many people, people often have to do a bit more of just their own job, to marry it all together. That is where the opportunities lie.
“I like it when my managers challenge things. I don’t want people who will always do the same. I like fresh ideas and fresh eyes. It is a cliche but to stand still is going backwards. We need to keep refreshing what we are doing and every event we do we try and make it better the next time.”
Certainly Archerfield has gained a great reputation for special events. It has hosted various key golfing events such as the Ladies Scottish Open on five consecutive occasions, between 2010 and 2014, and the Scottish Senior Open in 2016 as well as one European tour. it also has played host to private pro-ams for the likes of Gary Player, Ian Woosnan and Sir Ian Botham. Says Tom, “We did the tournaments to help put us on the map. But now we rather do private events that make a lot of money for charity and lend themselves to us better. We allow privacy. It’s a discrete property where people can let their hair down and relax.”
Archerfield also hosts its own events such as its Ladies Day – which includes golf and a fashion show. It is probably the best golfing day for ladies in the country. It is already sold out for next year. It’s Hogmanay Ball is also sold out. It hosted a family Fireworks Display for members and friends which attracted 400 people just last month.
I asked him what trends if any he had seen over the last year or so and what his predictions were. He told me, “Families are now coming with their children who may have been coming since they were babies. So we are adapting our offering to keep them entertained too. We’ve now created a pitch and putt facility at Archerfield and next year we are putting in a cinema. We have also seen a lot more ladies breaks – not hen parties, but girls’ weekends who use the spa. I have also seen more men and women playing golf together. It used to be very much the boys played themselves and girls did too, and never the twain will meet. Now they all play in the same competitions. I’ve also noticed that What’s App groups are now the norm. If someone is free for a game of golf they don’t have to phone around, they are part of a What’s App group chat and usually they can muster a four-ball.
He concludes, “We will be continuing to invest in our golfing facilities. People are travelling more and compare our courses and facilities to what is on offer elsewhere, so we need to keep improving them. We are also doing wine tastings at the golf club and various other events too. It’s more about lifestyle now.”
For someone who doesn’t like interviews I could write another 1,000 words – but I have run out space. The last word goes to Tom. He tells me that he has a regular who once, a long time ago, asked Tom how he was, and he replied, “I’m strong.” Now when he visits he always asks “Are you strong Tom.” We know the answer to that.