Growth and diversification of Cobbs Group continues after win in first ever SLTN Awards
‘WHERE is the Loch Ness Monster?’, a tourist asks Willie Cameron when SLTN meets him outside the Loch Ness Clansman Hotel on the banks of the loch.
It’s certainly not the first time the co-founder of Drumnadrochit-based hospitality, retail and bakery business Cobbs Group has been asked the whereabouts of the illusive Nessie.
And, while Scotland’s visitor demographic is quite different this year with restrictions on international travel as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the allure of the Loch Ness monster remains as strong as ever.
It’s music to the ears of Willie, who, together with business partner Fraser Campbell and Fraser’s late wife Jackie, has built much of the business around the draw of the illusive creature.
Willie, who is known as ‘Mr Loch Ness’, is something of an authority on the area and its most famous resident; his police officer father, along with nine others, had what’s said to have been one of the longest sightings of something unexplained in the loch on 15th June 1965.
And the loch – and its mysterious inhabitant – continue to influence much of the business today, even though that business has changed considerably down the years.
It was 1991 when its foundations were laid.
Hoteliers Fraser and Jackie had contacted Willie, who worked in financial services, as they wanted to buy a guest house in the area – an area he knew well.
The Drumnadrochit Hotel was available for lease so they took it on; and, with Willie helping out at weekends, the trio got to work.
Three years later, Loch Ness Marketing was established – providing locations and accommodation for TV and film productions, as well as marketing the area as a tourist destination.
And, in 1996, Willie and Fraser were awarded the SLTN Tourism Initiative of the Year award at the inaugural SLTN Awards.
Willie said winning that first SLTN Award brought “PR we could not afford and a confidence that we were operating in the right direction”.
“There was no social media then; the local press ran the story that we had won and it went from there,” he told SLTN.
“It was very much an accolade – to be recognised by your own industry.
“I am convinced that if we hadn’t won that award I don’t think we’d be where we are today.”
The business has certainly expanded and diversified down the years.
After leasing the Drumnadrochit Hotel for 12 years (it went on to win the SLTN Marketing Initiative of the Year at the 1997 SLTN Awards and the Marketing Initiative and Training Initiative of the Year accolades at the 1998 SLTN Awards), they took five or six years out of the property before returning to lease it again in 2008, ultimately buying the hotel two years ago.
They also added to the company’s hotels portfolio with the Loch Ness Clansman Hotel, on the banks of the loch between Inverness and Drumnadrochit, which they began leasing in 2004 and bought five years ago; the Loch Ness Country House Hotel, which they acquired the lease for in 2010 and went on to buy in 2015; and Loch Ness Lodge, next to the Clansman, which they bought three years ago.
It’s not only the hospitality side of the business that has grown and diversified down the years.
They acquired a farmhouse bakery in Drumnadrochit in 2002.
Initially supplying the group’s own outlets with cakes and baked goods, the bakery division quickly grew to supply other coffee shops and visitor attractions, with Cobbs cakes now available to hospitality businesses across the UK and Ireland via wholesalers Fife Creamery, Bidfood and Lynas Foodservice.
The company has built up an estate of 18 coffee shops.
And Willie’s nephew Rory, director of Cobbs Bakery, has just taken Cobbs Bakery to Australia under the brand, The Scottish Baker.
Retail forms another key strand of the Cobbs business, with the group now operating eight sites, including outlets in Aviemore, Pitlochry, Invergordon and a large retail space at the Clansman Hotel which has just been overhauled following a flood in December 2020.
The retail outlets have diversified too, with Fraser’s daughter Mollie, director of retail, adapting the range for this year’s domestic visitor demographic.
And, in line with their bakery philosophy of producing products they use, Fraser’s son Daniel, founder of the Red Box tea and coffee blending business, spent lockdown developing a distillery.
Featuring a still named Jacqueline after his late mother, the Great Glen Distillery is located in Jackie’s former shop next to the hotel in Drumnadrochit and will produce gin which will be served in the group’s hotels and sold in its shops.
The COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, brought challenges for each element of the business – impacting everything from accommodation and retail with no overseas tourists and cruise ship visitors, to weddings and the food and beverage business.
But Willie and Fraser have continued to adapt and diversify the business where they could, including turning the function room at the Loch Ness Country House Hotel into a distribution hub, offering collection and delivered groceries to locals during lockdown.
And, despite ongoing challenges facing the industry in the wake of the pandemic, the pair have an optimistic outlook.
“Like everyone, we’ve got challenges but at the end of the day you’ve got to go forward,” said Willie.
“Furlough was good but the industry is now in a position where people who maybe worked late hours have had another lifestyle for 18 months, and their partner has said ‘you’re not going back to working at night’ so there is a recruitment challenge for the whole industry.
“It also goes back to investment in training by the government. Six or seven years ago Fraser and I put a proposal to University of Highlands and Islands about developing an international hotel school here.
“And Brexit has been horrendous for the industry – I don’t think we’ve seen the full effects yet.
“In terms of bookings, there is still a bit of indecision, there is still some anxiety out there but we’re confident of a good summer; and we’ll just keep adapting.
“Onwards and upwards.”