The Man with the Golden Touch: Alan Cawley interview

Interviews, News

Alan Cawley is MD of independent family-owned business The Cawley Hotel Group and its flagship Duck Bay Hotel on the banks of Loch Lomond, plus restaurant and luxury retail businesses House of Darrach at Gartocharn, Coast at Langbank, Boardwalk, Falkirk, River House, Stirling, and The Loch House in Lochwinnoch with another one in the pipeline.

Alan runs the business with his sister Margo – also involved are her two sons Stuart and David King.

The business began in 1985 and now employs roughly 350 staff and owns all the freeholds, and on the back of the refurbishment of Duck Bay’s restaurant and lochside outdoor area that debuted at the start of this year, there are plans to next year upgrade the existing 23 rooms and suites plus self-catering cottages a stone’s throw from the hotel and add a further nine suites.

I got a very warm welcome from Alan on a cold December day and we chatted in his office adjacent to Duck Bay Hotel and however many times you visit, this spectacular setting never ceases to amaze.

Said Alan, “I took on the role of MD after my father passed away and at that point, we had Duck Bay and The Hungry Monk at Gartocharn, now the House of Darrach.  We also took on another hotel, The Kirkhouse Inn out at Strathblane for which we were made a great offer after three years that we decided to take because it would give us financial security for the rest of our lives.”

The hotel business in 2020 and 2021 was our next port of call as well as Alan’s plans for the redevelopment and expansion of Duck Bay’s accommodation offering in 2021.

He told me, “We were gearing up for 2020 to be our best year yet, and to be fair when we’ve been open it’s been good, and Eat Out to Help out was great.

“With the new vaccine, I’d say we could see recovery within nine months but next season will have limited numbers on it, so I think 2021 could be healthier for hospitality but only if the government steps in with more incentives like taking away business rates for another year, keep the VAT reduction in place for another year, or by introducing a discount scheme for hotels similar to Eat Out to Help Out to get things rolling.

“They are going to have to help or they’ll lose businesses from hospitality and we all know how important this industry is to Scotland and the level of employment that it creates. If they don’t step in there will be a lot more casualties than we have already seen.

“We seem to be in a better place than most. We are very fortunate that we are in the Loch Lomond National Park. We would normally see tourists from international markets and that just wasn’t here this year.

“But what helped us in the summer once we reopened was the staycation market. It was huge and we were fully booked. People might have realised what’s on their doorstep and explored their own country and I’d like to think that they’ll support our tourist industry by changing their habits, but I’m not sure.”

The levelling off in business visitors has also affected Duck Bay’s occupancy rates because its footprint stretches beyond the leisure market.

Alan explained, “The business market is also down with people being encouraged to work from home, and fewer people are travelling and the fact that a huge proportion of our business customers come from Faslane.”

What about his plans for improving and expanding their accommodation offering at Duck Bay?

Said Alan, “We need more bedrooms and the hotel is about to get a major overhaul and I think that there’s a huge future for hotels on the Loch Lomond National Park.  So the plan is we will develop more bedrooms within the space that we have and this gives us the potential to add on another nine, which is significant. The architects are already putting together the plans and then it will go to planning.”

Alan also took the decision this year to discontinue weddings at Duck Bay for several reasons.

He explained, “We used to do weddings at the hotel, we have done thousands of them but we decided to permanently focus on accommodation rather than functions.

“There’s also Brexit to consider and a lot of uncertainty and where there’s a healthy wedding market there has to be certainty. They’re booked well in advance and pre-planned.

“Cameron House is our neighbour and they have been closed three years on 18th December after the fire. They are reopening with another 90 bedrooms and a magnificent function suite next year and we have a wonderful working relationship with them. They are a great feed for us, for both the restaurant and the hotel.”

Alan is a very organised person and always to modernise the business to ensure it stays in the best possible shape for the future.

He said, “I am a stickler for being organised and it serves me well in business. New staff will often say that it’s all very organised and that there is a form for everything and a place for everything and I think that the staff respond to this type of structure and the sense of security that it gives them. I think that’s how we manage to keep good people, and if you are keen to further your career you will do well with us. Primarily it’s all about the customer experience.  That is the one constant in hospitality.”

All of the systems have been upgraded and Alan’s son Darrach has just joined the business fresh from a business degree, bringing with him a sharper IT Focus, but Alan is equally cautious about expanding the business too rapidly. He prefers a measured approach.

He explained, “I have seen too many businesses grow too quickly and they lose their rhythm, that personal aspect of the service, so we are doing it in bite-sized chunks and we are in negotiations for another outlet and I would like to think that we could keep adding the odd one.

“One of the things that makes it difficult for us to expand at a greater rate is that we have freeholds and this also makes it tougher of course because there are a lot more leaseholds out there than there are freeholds on decent sites.”

Alan’s father Bobby’s legacy still lives on in the business in the form of the Bobby’s licensed café brand at Duck Bay in the space that used to be the retail part of the business. But hospitality wasn’t always the Cawley family concern.

Explained Alan, “We as a family business were in the rag trade. We had seven menswear shops in the West of Scotland and my dad was a great friend of Sir Hugh Fraser and to this day my oldest friend is his daughter. Patricia. So Sir Hugh bought us out because at the time he had parted company from House of Fraser and did his own thing and my dad went in as his MD.

“My dad then saw a little bar-bistro that was for sale local to us at Alexandria and we bought that and this was our initiation into the hospitality industry.

“Then we found that Duck Bay was for sale and my dad moved heaven and earth to get it – sold his home, everything. It was a pretty rundown affair. There was no hotel at all. It was a restaurant and a motel I suppose and by the time we got here there was no roof on the building – it had been completely allowed to disintegrate into nothingness.

“And to be fair to Duck Bay, this was a turning point in our lives. It changed our lives dramatically in that it’s successful and always has been.  In fact, there will only ever be one Duck Bay – it’s iconic.”

There was so much more that Alan had to say that we, unfortunately, don’t have space for so perhaps we will speak with him again in 2021 once the Duck Bay Hotel expansion is complete and venue number seven is up and running.

 

 

 

 

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Hotel Magazine Scotland News Team

Hotel Scotland is a new publication (2017) from the publishers of DRAM – Scotland’s leading on-trade magazine. Hotel Scotland is a newsy magazine which covers all aspects of the industry in Scotland. From who’s who, to industry issues and refurbishments.
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