Young people are the ‘lifeblood’ of hospitality, says new SLTA president

Caithness hotelier Murray Lamont, who recently took over as president of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, is on a mission to see more young people enter the licensed trade and forge successful careers.

“Young people are the lifeblood of our industry and those of us who have been in business for many years, and been successful, have a duty and moral responsibility to do what we can to nurture talent and help people develop new skills,” said Mr Lamont.

“Of course, that’s not to say that older people aren’t valuable to us – they are – and I always say that no-one is ever too old to learn something new.”

Murray owns and runs the well-known Mackays Hotel in Wick in Caithness, in the far north of Scotland, often described as an ‘iconic’ business as it has the distinction of sitting on the world’s shortest street, with Ebenezer Place measuring only six feet, nine inches long.

This means that people actively seek it out, with visitors arriving from all over the world – pre-pandemic, the hotel was receiving numbers reaching 50,000. Being on the North Coast 500 route has also been beneficial.

Business, said Murray, is building all the time, with the post-pandemic staycation trend helping, alongside the fact that Mackays Hotel is very much part of the local community. During the pandemic, it looked after key workers and ensured that local veterans and pensioners were provided with meals.

The Mackays story started back in 1955 when Murray’s maternal grandmother bought the hotel. Murray and his wife, Ellie, took over its management in 1983 before purchasing it from the rest of the family in the 1990s.  The business has evolved considerably ever since.

“The bar was a hub for the community and we did a roaring trade, particularly on market days when all the country folk and farmers were in town,” recalled Murray. “We still enjoy a busy bar trade but over the years we’ve branched out into weddings and functions, developed our accommodation offer and put huge emphasis on food – our No. 1 Bistro has one AA Rosette.”

Murray also moved into the retail trade 25 years ago, opening Bin Ends, The Fine Wine Shop in Wick, followed by a Thurso branch two years later. He then opened Whisky Cellar & more in Inverness Airport in 2016.

Murray – and Ellie’s – passion for the industry saw them named joint tourism ambassadors at the Highland & Islands Tourism Awards in 2022. “It’s such a unique part of the country up here – we have so much to offer.”

The team at Mackays Hotel

Speaking about his new role up the SLTA, he described it as a ‘big responsibility that needs a mixture of time, commitment and passion’, but one he is relishing after just a couple of months as president.

“It’s no longer all about wearing the president’s chain of office and attending functions,” he said. “Obviously there are times when that is what is required and we’re a very social industry – it’s the people, relationships and friendships that make us want to be part of it – but we’re operating in an era now that throws up so many challenges that can be all-consuming.

“The SLTA has been fantastic in recent years in advising businesses and guiding the industry through Covid and the post-pandemic period and I want to keep going with the good work started by our managing director Colin Wilkinson and predecessor as president, Graham Blaikie.

“None of us ever thought something like Covid would hit us but sadly it did and the entire industry – licensed trade and tourism sector – continues to suffer, notwithstanding all the other challenges and barriers that hold us back and make trading successfully very, very difficult,” said Murray.

For Murray, journeys to more populated parts of the country – and further afield – will become more frequent in his role as SLTA president as he works with colleagues on the trade association’s board and regional council to represent the needs of members, promote training opportunities, work with industry partners and sponsors, and encourage uptake in membership.

“I genuinely believe that the SLTA is a superb organisation because everything we do is for the benefit of our members and we have a responsibility to do our best for them,” he added. “Whether it’s representing them in high-level government discussions about the deposit return scheme, VAT, rates, tourism levies … these are issues that affect the whole industry and we need to make sure our voice is heard loud and clear.

“I know it won’t always be plain sailing but if I can make even a small difference, I’ll have done my job properly.”