SLTN Entrepreneur of the Year 2022 looks to the future of Highland hospitality

David Whiteford stands outside the royal marine hotel

DAVID Whiteford, ebullient chairman of Highland Coast Hotels, is heading into peak hospitality season with a mixture of long term optimism – and short term frustration.

More than anyone else, David has been responsible, in his previous role as chair of the North Highland Initiative, for shepherding the concept of the North Coast 500 – a tourist route right around Scotland’s ‘top half’ – into the public consciousness, having originally been inspired by the hospitality ecosystem and economic growth that evolved along North America’s Route 66.

He is supremely confident in the strength of the North Highland offer in terms of its scenery, the local food and drink on offer, and the growing stock of quality hotels and tourist activities and attractions along the 500 mile drive from Inverness, north to John O’Groats, west to Durness, and south to Applecross.

However, he is the first to concede that the touristic firepower of this vast Highlands loop is not yet matched by high calibre infrastructure, not least in that most basic of needs – affordable accommodation for hospitality staff.

“Having enough accommodation for enough staff to be able to serve our guests properly is a major challenge,” said David.

“We want to create all-year-round careers for people, so they can add value to these communities, become a part of them, send their kids to school here, help underpin the future of local services and business start ups.

“But getting planning up there for long-term, affordable housing is tough. We could really do with some help with that. To be honest, we could also do with some official help with temporary accommodation too – no-one is happy with that, but at this point we need it to get us through this season.”

There is potentially a lot of investment heading into the Highlands, what with its vast wind resource for renewable power, the recently approved Inverness and Cromarty Firth Green Freeport, the continuing growth of the whisky industry, and even the exciting prospect of a satellite rocket launching pad on the north-west coast.

“We badly need all that investment!” declared David. “If we’re serious about halting our population decline, we need to backfill our infrastructure in every sense of the word – roads, bridges, motor home facilities, public toilets and broadband.   

“We don’t live in some Soviet system where central government plan and prebuild that infrastructure before the industry and people are there, so we must go through these birthing pains. As tourist numbers rise, it puts a strain on single track roads, toilet provision etc and we have to wait until the need becomes pressing enough for public money to be devoted to it.”

The newly refurbished Plockton Inn

In the meantime, Highland Coast Hotels has been putting its money where its mouth is, with major upgrades at both the Tongue Hotel and the Plockton Inn, alongside the creation of a spectacular new outdoor dining area at the Kylesku Hotel, where guests can enjoy ultra-local seafood while overlooking Loch Glendhu where it was freshly caught. And, crucially, do so in an environment with state-of-the art midge control.

With six hotels in its current ‘boutique, four-star’ portfolio, David’s business vision is to increase that to 10 hotels in total, well spread out.

Alongside this, he’d like to see more direct flights into Inverness, avoiding hubs if possible, and an enlarged Caledonian Sleeper service, both feeding well-rested travellers into the start of the NC500. The return of motorail should also be considered.

But he stresses: “Hospitality is not just for visitors – we want to create a good local environment for the community, somewhere to eat and somewhere to meet. It’s been great to see a significant uptake of our Community Card which offers locals a 30% discount on F&B.”

And just as he wants to encourage a hospitality workforce that will stay and become Highlanders themselves, David notes that the line between tourist and local can also easily become blurred: “You’d be surprised at the number of people who come here for a holiday and then decide that they want to live and work here once they see what’s on offer.”