By Jack Walsh
AS locations go, the Atholl Arms Hotel in the Perthshire town of Dunkeld is surely up there.
Perched on the corner of Bridge Street and Tay Terrace, the hotel boasts scenic views of the River Tay.
But it is its al fresco space, which won the 2016 SLTN Best Outdoor Area award in association with Magners, that arguably occupies the most enviable position.
Located directly opposite the hotel, the outdoor area sits on the riverbank, offering uninterrupted views of the Tay and the five-arched Dunkeld Bridge, which was built by Scottish engineer Thomas Telford in the early 19th century.
Yet it wasn’t always this way.
Neil Sinclair, who has owned the hotel with wife Christine since 2011 and currently operates the business under management led by Gill Donaldson, said the external space was previously underused.
“Basically this was just grass and there was an old chalet-type building that really didn’t look good at all,” Neil told SLTN.
“It was blocking the view and everything.”
To fully capitalise on the location, Neil and Christine made the decision to invest in the hotel’s outdoor area two years ago.
Chief amongst the changes was the construction of a fully-functioning outdoor bar.
Housed within a new building on the terrace, it was designed by Robin Baker Architects of Dunkeld and constructed by Perth-based H&H Construction – a firm Neil and Christine have worked with on previous projects.
The outdoor area was kitted out with bench seating, with capacity for 80 covers, and new paving slabs.
And it wasn’t just in fixtures and fittings that the outdoor area was revamped.
The project included a tech upgrade, too.
Using the latest EPOS technology, the outdoor area’s bar is linked to the hotel’s ordering system via wi-fi; this means orders can be taken remotely, allowing customers to place food orders for anything on the menu at the outdoor bar, just as they would inside the hotel.
You can see and hear the river – it’s somewhere people want to have a relaxing drink.
Neil said the new-look outdoor area, which was revamped over a four-month period ahead of the relaunch last March, has been well-received by locals and tourists alike.
“I’d say 99% of people have said it’s great,” said Neil.
“It’s one of those things that once you see it, you go down to it.
“It’s appealing from the street and when you go down to it and hear the water – it’s somewhere you want to sit and have a relaxing drink.”
The numbers also suggest the area is in regular use.
Neil said takings were up £100,000 last year, and he reckons it’s likely that “quite a healthy percentage” of that is a direct result of the outdoor improvements.
On top of strong revenues, Neil said picking up the SLTN Award for Best Outdoor Area late last year was the icing on the cake.
“It [the SLTN Awards] felt like it was a true competition,” he said.
“The architect was happy and of course the builder was happy.”
As relative newcomers to the trade, Neil said they “took the risk to go through the process” of renovating the outdoor space.
However, his background in property offered some reassurance.
Neil trained as a quantity surveyor and went on to live in the US with wife Christine for 25 years.
During that time, Neil owned his own construction management firm, which he sold in 2001; and, for the ten years that followed, he worked as a property developer before moving back to the UK in 2011.
It’s also not the first refurbishment the couple have carried out at the Atholl Arms Hotel.
Inside, one of its two restaurants (The Riverview) was upgraded in 2012; they refurbished the bar in 2013; the hotel’s other restaurant (The Meeting Place) was refitted in 2015; and work on the hotel’s 17 bedrooms has been ongoing.
And while each refurbishment could be viewed as a risk, Neil said they are paying dividends.
“I think a lot of properties have potential and people just don’t go through with it because they might not know how to implement it,” he said.