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A Hospitality Legend – James Thomson

By Susan Young

Prestonfield House is one of Edinburgh’s most iconic hotels and its owner James Thomson OBE is one of the country’s best known hoteliers. He also owns The Witchery at the top of the Royal Mile. Susan Young caught up to discuss the past year.

Prestonfield was looking magnificent when I visited. The sun was shining, its lawn was perfectly manicured and fluttering in the breeze were a multitude of bright red parasols and a peacock was majestically strolling around. It was a sight to lift your spirits. I was there to catch up with James Thomson the fabled hotelier and restaurateur who is a Scottish legend.

The protocols were all in place from the meet and greet, to the hand sanitiser and temperature control – but the hotel itself was as familiar with its baroque-style glamour and just as immaculate.

James greeted me on the outdoor terrace which overlooks the hotel’s ground, a perfect place to have a relaxing chat.

It’s certainly been a dramatic year for us all, James is no exception. He tells me, “I’ve been very busy. I’ve probably worked harder in the past year than I have in the last 40 because I’ve only had a really small team around me. It’s also the first time in 40 years we have been closed.”

James, who received his OBE for services to hospitality and Scottish Tourism, was only 20 when as Scotland’s youngest licensee he opened his first restaurant, The Witchery. Then came The Secret Garden, followed by The Tower in 1998 and of course Prestonfield which he acquired in 2003. His industry accolades include a Catey for Independent Restaurateur of the year and a Silver Thistle Award too. He is a founding member, and past Chairman of the Edinburgh Restaurateur’s Assocation and is on countless other boards related to tourism and the arts. His vast experience has certainly stood him in good stead during the last year.

“When we were told we had to close it was devastating,” says James. “My staff were all looking to me for answers, and I didn’t know them. I kept saying we will just have to wait and see. I knew we could pay the salaries for a month or a couple of months, but that was all. Fellow restaurateurs were also calling, none of us knew what to do.

“I remember listening to the news when Rishi Sunak announced the furlough scheme which covered 80% of the salaries. I was actually in tears watching it. I could hardly believe it. I think we all thought that the furlough might be 50% or 60%, but 80% was just incredible. It was such a relief and I will forever be grateful to him for that. I think the whole industry feels the same way.”

He continues, “The first lockdown was pretty grim. It was slightly surreal because I live in a really picturesque little village and the weather was lovely which made it hard to believe that there was a virus ravaging the world.

“One of the first decisions I had to make was about whether to keep or close The Tower Restaurant. I had to make the decision on my own without consulting any of my team members as they were furloughed. Our lease was up and I only had a short window to decide if I was going to terminate it or not. I made the hard decision to close it.

“It’s really tough when you’re a rooftop restaurant and you’re relying on a small lift which only accommodates four people. At the time I wasn’t sure whether customers would be keen to get into lifts and the answer was probably not. This of course was a year ago and we didn’t know how long the lockdown would last. I don’t think anybody ever thought that we would be locked down for so long and then we’d open and then go back in another long lockdown. So it was the right decision to make but it was still very hard. I knew that it would result in 50 redundancies and that was the toughest thing because a lot of the team had been there since we opened 22 years ago.

“The redundancies were horrible. They were one-to-one interviews and all were done by Zoom but all the staff were so lovely about it because they realised it wasn’t my fault. I almost wanted them to be angry with me because it actually made it harder because they all were so nice. Luckily because we made the decision early, when hospitality did reopen in the summer, they all managed to get jobs. It was the right decision as history has shown.”

Talking of history takes us back to James’ early career and indeed the first time he saw Prestonfield which was as a child of five.

He explains, “My father worked for a savings bank and he used to entertain here and occasionally I came with him. I remember walking up the driveway and seeing the house. I know I was five because I was very proudly wearing my first school uniform.”

The house and the peacocks made quite an impression on the five year old and perhaps it was then that James developed a quiet resolve to own it one day.

However his father may have doubted James’ ambition when he got report cards from George Heriot’s, that described his son as a “dreamer”. James smiles, “I would explain to my father that one in four dreams do come true. I did have a dream, I always dreamt of owning Prestonfield.”

His father may also have been surprised when James decided to go into hospitality because at school he had also been shy. But he always loved drama and theatre design and he brought his flair and his love of theatre to all his venues which are unique, flamboyant and opulent.

“ I do consider myself lucky because I’ve lived a life that has been full and I’ve managed to create spaces that I would enjoy myself. I worked seven days a week for the best part of 20 years – and when you do that you want to enjoy the space you work in.

In 2003, James’ dream of buying Prestonfield came true. The house, which was buit in 1678, by the King’s architect Sir William Bruce, was converted into a hotel in the 1960’s but it had never been previously on the open market. Owner Charles Stevenson knew James because the two were associates when they joined with 18 other Edinburgh businessmen to establish the Edinburgh Restaurateurs Association, for the opening of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre.

“Charles realised that I could perhaps help him with dressing events in particular the Politician of the Year, which was a huge event, hosted at Prestonfield. He had seen my work for the BHA. “When I came for meetings I was always dreaming about what I would do with it if I owned it. I loved the architecture and the location. I always thought that it would be my idea of living in the country because it was only minutes from town, and it was surrounded by 650 acres of park, three lochs and an extinct volcano.

“About a year after the Politician of the year Charles got in touch to ask if I’d be interested in buying the hotel. I was. I was fortunate to buy it off market with Charles remaining involved until he retired when I purchased his shares.

Despite owning the 23-bedroomed hotel James still considers himself a restaurateur. “I’m very much a restaurateur that happens to have rooms.

“With Prestonfield everything just fell into place, I was really lucky. The same happened with The Tower. I used to drive past it, and I could see the rooftop restaurant developing. Then a caterer who was tendering for the job invited me to go in with them on a joint pitch. We were both successful. It was a difficult birth but a beautiful baby, which grew into a much loved character over twenty two wonderful years’’

The Tower became one of Edinburgh’s iconic restaurants, but despite its closure James firmly believes that there are better times ahead.

Says James, “In years to come people will tell their grandchildren that they lived through the pandemic. They may find it hard to understand that we couldn’t go out to a pub, or have a drink, that we couldn’t eat out, or go inside people’s homes – its been like prohibition for our generation.

“However I have also lived through the miner’s strike, which was a 3-day working week and we didn’t have any financial support back then. When the electricity went off so did the freezers and the lights and we didn’t have technology to help us. You had to buy the local paper to find out when your electricity was going to go off and it was off for a few hours a day. I started my business in that environment!

“There have always been highs and lows. Some of my best years in business were the eighties when the economy was booming. Then we had the Gulf War , the Falklands War and Banking crisis in the early 90’s, when lots of people lost their jobs. That was a terrible time.’’

The good news is that hospitality has proved to be resilient, and certainly the pandemic has brought out the best when it comes to the industry collaborating.

“One of the great positives about this time has been that this industry has united like never before. I have met a lot of new people on Zoom meetings and have made new friends, which is great. We had a lot to talk about as we were all in the same boat. It is unfortunate that many of our pleas have fallen on deaf ears at government level but I think the important thing is that the public have been listening to what we say and public support has never been higher for our industry.

“I have often been really moved by some of the cards and notes I’ve received from people. Because public opinion and support is very much behind us I do think that good times will follow from that.”

He wouldn’t be drawn on the political front but did say, “The virus was changing all the time so I can understand both Westminster and the Scottish Parliament making mistakes. They have both made some good decisions and some dreadful decisions or at least poor decisions, but I suppose you have to take it all in context.

“Sometimes we have to say, well, what could we do better? And what should we have done? But in this instance, hospitality has done just about everything it could have. This has been one of the times where people have had to speak up publicly and say,’ We can’t go on like this.’ At the very least we need to see the science behind the decisions. What is the reasoning? I think it was really terrible that the industry was blamed for the spread of the virus, when bringing universities back was clearly a wrong decision.

“Hospitality did everything that it was asked to do and more, yet it continued to be shut down and shut down, and more and more restrictions put upon the sector.”

“For instance it does seem ridiculous when its cold and wet outside that you have to sit outside rather than sit in a well ventilated room with the windows open to have a glass of wine.

“I think it’s been so difficult for staff as well. Although we have the rules, the goal posts are changing all the time. I’ve noticed with staff coming back, a lot of people are suffering quite badly because they’ve been in lockdown. It has put quite a strain on relationships and if you’ve got kids plus homeschooling, homeworking it all takes its toll.

“People have been finding it very hard even people whom I thought would cope. Because we can’t do the simple things in life that we’re used to doing it has just aggravated the situation. I think the hospitality industry is very social, we are social animals and when that’s taken away from us it can lead to deep depression.

However there are also positives. “One of those is that it’s made us all realise how special some of the things we took for granted are – meeting a friend for coffee or a beer or glass of wine, or a casual plate of pasta with a friend after work or celebrating special occasions.

“Before the pandemic, I’d be out at least three nights a week attending different events. Sometimes you think, Oh God, another event tonight. But now I’m actually quite looking forward to starting to socialise again.

“I think it’s also made people, appreciate hospitality and the staff. I found that after the the first lockdown people were really, really nice to the staff and we hardly got anybody complaining about anything, which is nice. You know, people were so appreciative that the staff were there and looking after them in a safe enviroment.”

At Prestonfield they have now adapted The Stables, in the hope that they can get major events back as soon as possible. The business has invested in several new measures such as a camera that can take the temperature of 40 people a minute, high touch areas have been minimised and automatic doors introduced.

The business benefitted from a £2.5m CBIL loan from the Royal Bank of Scotland. James commented, “I think this time round, the banks have generally been really supportive according to the people I’ve spoken to. The CBIL loan was a godsend. We have still got around 190 staff and we had to pay holidays, NI and pension costs. We haven’t had an event in The Stable since march 2020, in fact 60% of my business is still closed. We needed the loan to survive.

“I think one thing our industry, particularly the independents have done, is stand by their staff. They are our biggest asset. Most of us have tried to cling on to as many staff as we possibly could.

This time has certainly been challenging without a doubt but the virus is something we’re going to have to live with because we can’t just hibernate every winter from now on. We can’t just say, well, summer’s here, we’re going to party. And then every winter we’re going to hibernate. I don’t think so.

“We also have to get the economy back on its feet because there’s no way we can actually survive if we don’t. How are we going to provide care for the elderly, social benefits and such like if we don’t have people paying taxes. So we have to find a way of allowing businesses to operate so we can rebuild the country and the economy again and support those weakest in society.

“This pandemic has certainly made me take stock of my life and what is important to me. It has made me realise that I’m not immortal. We’re here for a good time, not a long time. So we’ve really got to enjoy every day we have, and we must have hope for the future.

“I believe the best is yet to come. I mean, after the first world war the twenties were the ‘Roaring Twenties’. And I do think that once we learn to live with this virus, we are going to have good times again. The economy will do well and people will enjoy their lifes.

And talking of enjoying life James has certainly done that over the years. He says, “

“ I remember my early days at The Witchery and one of my first celebrity guests was Stanley Baxter who he was doing panto in Edinburgh. At the time the Stanley Baxter Show on a Saturday night was huge. I couldn’t believe he was one of my guests. Over the years I have met people that are household names that you just would never, ever imagine meeting. I’ve had wines that I’ve never ever imagined I could ever afford and have eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world, because of the friends in the industry and friendships I’ve made. I feel very lucky.

“I’m looking forward to seeing everybody coming back and having lunch and seeing people I haven’t seen for 14 months. I sincerely hope the friendships we have all made over the last year will last a lifetime.”

INBRIEF

Vaccine passports – If it allowed me to go to a concert, a wedding, a rugby match or football match, then yes I would. I don’t think we should require it to go shopping. I think it’s going to come and if it helps open up the economy, I think people would support it.

Shutting the borders – I think that personally, we should probably shut the borders for this year. I know it’s tough for people who are desperate to go abroad on holiday, but there are so many wonderful places to visit in the UK.

Recruitment – We are going to miss our international staff. I think it is going to be tough. Employers are going to have to adapt to that. Employees also now want a better life work balance and we for instance our chefs now work, three days on, three days off and that helps to attract and retain good staff. Any kind of crisis tends to accelerate change. Change which is coming down the line anyway.

Retirement – Exactly the opposite. I know I wouldn’t like to retire. Lockdown has given me a taste of what retirement looks like and its not for me .I think I’ll just drop one day.

Nature – I don’t like to kill anything, I always put spiders out and I love bees and planted out my garden to attract them. I absolutely adore animals and wildlife and have rescued several highland cattle and peacocks I get any field mice in my cottage, I catch them and let them go. But we Raven the cat,who has a life of riley at the hotel. Hence why, I have cat treats in my pocket.

Economy – I do think we need to have a strategic plan for getting out of this and boosting the economy and I would like to see businesses consulted properly and our views taken onboard by politicians.

The tourism tax – “The tourism tax is ridiculous even thinking about a tax at this time. Hotel Occupancy is currenting running at less than 20% in Edinburgh and the cost of collecting the tax would create yet another burden on our industry and would send out a very negative message to visitors.

Prince Philip – “I think we all know people that have tragically died during the pandemic and we haven’t all had time to grieve. I think the Duke’s death actually gave the nation time to grieve. It actually helped me deal with the emotion that had been building up inside me.

People he admires – Peter Lederer, Stephen Carter, Gordon Campbell-Gray… and many,many more…

Advice – There are certain things you can’t control – there’s no point in spending energy and wasting time on these things and worrying about them. Spend time working on the things you can

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