Scots hotels group ‘turning up the dial’

Quality and authenticity remain cornerstones of revamped Crerar Hotels

Crerar Hotels’ Oban Bay Hotel gained four-star status from the AA last week

AS starts to a new job go it wasn’t the most conventional.

Just as Chris Wayne-Wills was poised to take the reins at Crerar Hotels as its newly-appointed chief executive he had to close down the group’s seven hotels, which span the north east, Highlands and west coast, as the UK went into lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It was, he said, a challenging start to his new role.

But Chris, who has run hotels for some of the largest groups in the UK, including as chief executive of the Macdonald Aviemore resort and heading up Marriott Hotels in Scotland, is no stranger to a challenge. And he drew on his operational experience to ensure the seven hotels – the Deeside Inn in Ballater, Thainstone House in Inverurie, Golf View Hotel & Spa in Nairn, the Glencoe Inn in Glencoe, Oban Bay Hotel in Oban, the Isle of Mull Hotel & Spa in Craignure on the Isle of Mull, and Loch Fyne Hotel & Spa in Inveraray – in the Crerar portfolio could “hit the ground running” when they were able to reopen in July.

“It was an unusual start – I basically had to shut the company down,” said Chris when SLTN caught up with him at the group’s Loch Fyne Hotel & Spa in Inveraray in mid-September.

“But, to use the phrase ‘never waste a crisis’, we did a lot of work during lockdown.

“The biggest challenge when we were closed was not knowing when we would reopen; a lot of what we did during that time was so we could hit the ground running.”

COVID safety protocols and procedures were obviously a top priority.

Crerar Hotels unveiled its ‘Crerar Cleanliness Commitment’ back in May in a bid to provide early reassurance to the teams and guests that the highest cleanliness and safety standards were being implemented. Robust staff training was backed by a £100,000 investment in additional measures, such as antibacterial fogging systems, PPE, bespoke Crerar Hotels safety and social distancing signage, and wood-framed perspex screens – moveable for between tables and fitted with overhead glassware racks for the bar – which are designed to be as discreet and unobtrusive as possible.

Photo credit: Robert Perry. Chris Wayne-Wills was appointed chief executive of the group earlier this year.

COVID safety protocols were just one of the priorities during lockdown, however.

Chris’s appointment had come amid a time of change for Crerar Hotels.

The company, set up in 2005 with Paddy Crerar as chief executive – who has now taken the role of chairman, had been ‘right-sized’ with the disposal of a number of properties after the group’s proposed sale in 2017 was aborted; and the remaining seven-strong portfolio is the focus of a £10 million investment programme to position the hotels in the upper four star bracket, of which £7m had been ploughed into the Golf View, Loch Fyne, Oban Bay, which gained four-star status from the AA last week, and Isle of Mull hotels before lockdown.

That investment in bricks and mortar has been backed by bolstering the company’s online presence, with a new website and increased social media and video content.

The food and beverage offer has also been enhanced.

Hotel kitchens were kitted out with Josper grills and pizza ovens; and Chris and the team curated a core menu which allowed for regional variations to reflect each hotel’s location and individual personality.

Majoring in authentic, locally-sourced produce, the food offer includes venison and beef reared on Paddy’s farm; pizzas have a distinctly Scottish flavour, with toppings including venison and Scottish mozzarella.

Breakfast service has seen changes too, with items such as cereal, fruit and charcuterie now all offered plated; hot breakfasts are still cooked to order, with the menu featuring items like venison sausages (a recipe developed by Paddy during lockdown) and oysters.

“I think we’re reflecting what people want; it’s about making everything more of an experience,” said Chris.

“It was also a response to having to social distance in kitchens; we talked a lot about how many touches dishes had.

“We now have a core approach to great grills and seafood and pizzas with lots of different sides and regional variations; if you’re having dinner here tonight you should know you are on Loch Fyne.”

All of the changes are, he said, “working very well”.

Crerar Hotels ran some promotions in July for reopening.

And Chris said it has enjoyed a strong restart.

“Reopening we thought would be like going up through the gears but it’s been busy from the start,” said Chris.

“August exceeded our expectations – not last year’s levels obviously but the upper end of what we thought.

“And that continued into September. The week before last was a record week for web bookings.

“The booking window is very late now so people are making decisions much later.

“But a high percentage of our guests who were booked in what ended up being lockdown rebooked for autumn or spring so that’s given us a good base of business.”

Chris and the team are now looking ahead to winter.

“Christmas is the next big question,” he said. “But we will continue to play to our strengths.

“We’re fortunate in our locations. And we’re not focusing on what we can’t do but on what we can.

“You have to have confidence in your product and what you do, and we have.

“Paddy and I have a shared vision: to be the leading quality Scottish-based hotel company delivering the authentic Spiorad na h-Alba – spirit of Scotland – through our hospitality, our settings, our food and drink.

“What we weren’t going to do re-emerging was change the nature of the company, which is about authenticity, quality and consistency.

“We’ve not reinvented what Crerar does, we’ve just turned up the dial a bit.”