WHEN The Brander Lodge in Bridge of Awe near Oban underwent a major refurbishment, owner David Keat took a hands-on role in the project.
The New Zealander, who once harboured ambitions of becoming an architect, not only designed the new-look hotel, he took on the jobs of contractor, project manager and general labourer, working alongside local tradespeople during the ten-month build to transform the 21-bedroom hotel.
The project was especially significant for David, who has been in the hospitality industry for more than 40 years – including spells in his native New Zealand and managing pubs for Tennent’s during the 1980s, as it represented the realisation of a long-held ambition to put his own stamp on his own business.
“I wanted to be an architect when I left school but I ended up going in to hospitality and I’ve been in this industry ever since; I’m passionate about it,” said David.
“I’d worked for other people and I wanted to do something for myself so I started looking for somewhere.
“The criteria was a minimum of 20 bedrooms, scope to do weddings, grounds for a marquee and somewhere on a main arterial route, so we narrowed it down to the west coast or the Borders.
“My wife and I went for a drive and looked at six places. Then one day she was online and this popped up.
“Within two days we were here to look at it. I thought ‘this is it’, my wife didn’t; but I talked her round and she’s been my brick.”
I thought ‘this is it’, my wife didn’t; but I managed to talk her round.
The Keats bought The Brander Lodge in 2010 and, aside from some minor refurbishments, ran the business as was to get to know the market while David refined his designs for the new-look hotel and secured planning permission for the refurbishment.
Then, in January 2016, they closed the doors and work on the build got underway.
The project, which was privately funded, involved extending the property to the rear to create a flexible eating and events space with bi-fold glass doors opening onto the gardens; the space can be split into up to three smaller areas (each with its own sound, heating and air conditioning systems) or sit up to 160 all-in – up from the 40 covers the hotel could previously accommodate. The bar area, meanwhile, was reconfigured, incorporating part of the former reception area to take its capacity from 20 to 60 and create space for disabled toilets.
When it came to the fit-out, operations had a major influence.
In the new extension, for example, a ‘pop-up’ functions bar was created with a bespoke bar which can be rolled out from where it is concealed in the wall, beer taps inside a cupboard and a fridge which is located behind a sliding mirror; while, in the bar area, the back-bar fridge has been designed to reduce the amount of heat behind the bar – the motorless fridge is an open-backed unit cooled by the purpose-built cellar behind it.
A “contemporary yet traditional” design has been applied throughout the venue, tying the original 19th century building to the modern extension.
David said there “really was no stone unturned” during the project.
“We took it right back to the shell,” he said.
“It was replumbed and rewired completely, new insulation, new double glazing – we literally did everything.
“That’s the beauty of doing it yourself – I hired local tradespeople and I worked with them all as a labourer.”
There were points in the build when I thought ‘what am I doing?’
To complement the physical changes to the hotel, a new food and drink offer was introduced. The new oak bar and gantry is home to more than 150 whiskies and over 30 gins – sourced from Tennent’s and Matthew Clark – as well as a range of Tennent’s and Drygate beers; and the menu majors in fresh, local produce.
David said it’s an offer that has been well-received by both locals and tourists since the revamped Brander Lodge opened in October 2016.
The hotel is attracting a broad clientele – from overseas tourists and conference business to workers from the nearby Cruachan Power Station and locals from the likes of Taynuilt, Oban and Connel.
And, despite the challenges during the build, David is not quite finished with The Brander Lodge yet.
There are plans to create three helipads in the grounds in the near future, and there’s scope to increase the accommodation further with phase two of the project – a 14-bedroom extension.
For now, the focus is on building the business.
“It’s going well – the weddings business is growing and we’re getting really good support from the locals,” said David.
“It really was a labour of love.
“There were points in the build when I thought ‘what am I doing?’
“It was daunting. I had six full-time staff employed during the build and no income but I was confident in what we were doing.
“I think it’s great, I’m delighted with it.
“I have absolutely no regrets.”