Cameron House at Loch Lomond finally opened for business last month, after four tumultuous years following the devasting fire which destroyed much of the hotel in December 2017. Susan Young visited the hotel and caught up with Resort Director Andy Roger to see its transformation and find out more about the man who has led the whole process.
Andy Roger, Resort Director at Cameron House, may have the air of a man who is very calm but there is no doubt his feet have been paddling like mad.
As we talked over a cup of tea in the newly created library reception room of the hotel it was evident that he is both relieved and happy to have the hotel finally receiving guests. He did admit a wee regret that it didn’t quite feel like a grand re-opening because there had been no champagne corks (and no that is not because of supply issues) and no opening party.
The hotel had been open for business for less than a week when I visited, and despite the facade remaining the same once you come through the front doors of the hotel the entire footprint of the hotel has been transformed, and not just the 20% destroyed in the fire of 2017.
The change is quite dramatic, but no more so than the morning and the days following the fire.
It has certainly been a long and difficult journey, complicated by Covid, but he is mindful that although they are looking to the future, they are not forgetting the past.
He says, “We are trying to create a new story in the most sensitive way we can.”
Andy’s own story started after leaving school. His first job was at Malmaison in Glasgow, but it was only a stop-gap before heading off to New Zealand for a gap year before attending Edinburgh University.
But a combination of having Andrew Hepburn as his boss in Glasgow, and an opportunity to spend time working for Robert Cook helping at the opening of the Malmaison in Newcastle, gave him a great introduction to the buzz and the personalities that hospitality attracts.
Andy came back to Scotland and while at University took a bar job at Espionage, a popular bar and nightclub, and after graduating he considered, and in fact nearly took, a graduate job with UDV/Guinness. At the last minute he took up former boss Andrew Hepburn’s suggestion that he did his graduate placement with Malmaison instead and help open London, which then became Birmingham.
Explains Andy, “The salary and benefits on offer from Guinness were better but by that time I realised I was craving the buzz of hospitality.”
He spent a year bedding-in Birmingham with his focus initially on Food and Beverage. He then moved to the Malmaison in Glasgow as Restaurant Manager before graduating to the role of Deputy GM.
This in turn led to his first GM role at the age of 27 at the Hotel du Vin in Tunbridge Wells. A small 34-bedroomed hotel. “I loved it and knew if I performed there I would have the opportunity to open the Malmaison in Aberdeen”, then revealing, “I was really lucky.
“When I went to Aberdeen it was 2008 and the start of the financial crisis. The world was falling apart but in Aberdeen, we were completely insulated. Our room rates were good and food and beverage boomed. I had a brilliant three years there – and I found it a very welcoming city.”
However in 2011, the central belt proved too much of a draw and when Garry Sanderson left One Devonshire Gardens he took the opportunity to move back West and took over Garry’s role as General Manager – a role he held until 2013 when he moved on to Cameron House.
Says Andy, “It was a great company to work for and it was very good to me. It gave me good opportunities and allowed me plenty of personal development and of course, I got to work with some great people. It was also quite a dynamic business.
“But I hankered after a resort role and Cameron presented that.”
“I joined when Stephen Carter was still Managing Director and I had known him at that point for three or four years. He was a hospitality legend and not just in Scotland.
“I came in as Operations Director for the first nine months which was basically the General Manager’s role. It was the same role that I call GM here and Stephen was great – he just let me get on with the job and was a huge support and inspiration to me as I learnt the Resort side of the business.”
But it was a turbulent few years. De Vere sold the resort to Q Hotels and in April 2015 following the sale Stephen Carter stepped away and just a year later Q Hotels sold to current owners KSL Capital Partners.
Andy comments, “It was a bit crazy. In three years I went through three owners and seven CEO’s. It was a bit of a whirlwind.” He continues, “However KSL have been phenomenal. They have high expectations for where they want the Resort to get to and have invested significantly in this.
“This has been refreshing considering the former owners, latterly, had not been investing. Subsequently, a lot of our plans have come to fruition and KSL have been a fantastic backer and custodians of the resort none more so than in the last four years.”
Today a new team is bedding in, although Andy is quick to point out that he has still retained a ‘fair number’, from pre-Covid, pre-fire days.
Although he admits the months after the fire were very difficult. He recalls, “It was a great shock and it was a tragedy. We worked through it on a day to day basis. There had been a tragic outcome in the loss of the two lives, but my team was incredible. They rolled up their sleeves and did what they had to do.”
“But by the end of January, I had to make 75% of them redundant – 320 people. Usually, there is anger at such large numbers of redundancies but instead, there was just sadness. everyone knew things had just come to a sudden stop with the business.
“Some team members had 20 years of service – and although we managed to retain a few – we did manage to get almost everyone else into a role, that wanted a role, in other places. Most of them found employment very quickly which I suppose was a single positive in the circumstances.
“A lot of them still thought it would only be for a few months and they would be back. I thought maybe a year. But then it became all about trying to focus on the team that was left”.
He continues, “We kept as much of the resort open as we could – including the lodges, and then it was all about planning, rebuilding and construction and dealing with all the stuff you don’t learn at hotel school such as the insurance and the investigation.”
“It was a long process. By the end of two years, just as we were making real progress and moving towards re-opening, along came Covid.
“It certainly had less of an impact on us than our peers. Although we did put the team on furlough – we didn’t have to make anyone redundant.
“I also felt for people who had to make so many people redundant. I knew how I felt making the same decision, although under very different circumstances.
“Over three weeks it felt like our businesses were being run by the 5pm news bulletin. Business owners were watching it at the same time as their staff as there was no information coming out, and it was hard for people to even have time to think.
“I certainly think communications could have been better, and the government should have been more collaborative.”
However today there is no doubt that Cameron House is getting into its stride again. Andy reveals, “ The investment in the resort has been fantastic. KSL didn’t blink when Covid came along. They could see the long-term benefit of investing.”
They have certainly done that. Andy comments, “We have tried to be true to the original house and the features it had. We also wanted to restore its reputation for some of the great things it was known for.
“It had a great affinity amongst people from the West of Scotland and central belt – in fact, the vast majority of our visitors are from Scotland”.
The hotel is also continuing its sporting links – in the 90’s it was famously known for its footballing connections (until that famous night), today the hotel is involved with Scottish Rugby and has a Business Club at home internationals.
Says Andy, “I am a rugby fan but it’s a nice fit for the Hotel and many of our guests are followers too. A lot of players will come and stay here during their downtime or did so previously. We also take clients to rugby events.
“Our demographic has changed over the last 10/15 years. Now we are trying to be more of a leisure destination and appeal to multi-generational family groups.”
To this end, there has been a substantial investment and overhaul of its leisure club and its outdoor experiences which now includes everything from jet skis to paddleboarding and a jet boat too.
Today the hotel’s facilities are spread over two sites. On the main footprint, there is a leisure club, three restaurants, two bars and function spaces, as well as the bedrooms.
The fire decimated 17 bedrooms and the rebuild has put 21 back. There are also 85 lodges, a boathouse, marina and a nine-hole golf course and there are plans afoot for a 30-seater cinema.
The second site, the Cameron Club, was formerly called The Carrick, and has 25 lodges, an 18-hole golf course, and a Spa complete with thermal experiences and a rooftop pool, and clubhouse restaurant.
By the beginning of 2022 a further extension at Cameron House will be open which adds another 68 bedrooms, and of course, the ballroom, which has a magnificent terrace.
Andy says, “The wedding room used to face the back garden – now the ballroom faces the loch and the terrace faces the loch. It increases the scope of how we can operate the resort and is a brand new space.”
The bedrooms in the extension also all have private balconies – 44 have front-facing balconies while the others have Juliette balconies. Andy explains, “We are now making the most of our lochside location. We might not have focussed on this in the past. This is also why we have added terraces, which normally we wouldn’t have been able to do with a listed building. But as we had to rebuild we worked closely with the National Park and Historic agencies, to come up with plans that they would agree to.”
The hotel has had ceilings and wood panelling restored, repaired or replicated. Chandeliers swing in the lobby, which now feels huge and airy.
Says Andy, “The whole front lobby area was something we always wanted to create. Before it was dark and tight and when we were busy it felt operationally quite a challenge. Now when you walk through the door you can see space on the right, it is more open, which we did intentionally to improve the circulation and you can also access the lobby bar.
“It is all about welcoming guests back to familiarity but people will be surprised with how much has been done and not just to the hotel.”
No doubt businesses in the area will be breathing a sigh of relief too. When Cameron House closed it had 60,000 guests a year plus weddings and lodges guests. That is a significant amount of visitors to the area.
However, at the moment, it is operating at a reduced capacity and they still have roles to fill. Similarly to everyone else in the business. He explains, “We started recruitment in April thinking we would be open in July and we started 400 new staff.
“For a busy summer, we would probably have brought in a further 250, as not all of our team are full-time. However, if I had started recruiting in May and June for September I think it would have been much more difficult. Instead, we started just ahead of the curve.
“We now have 475 hotel staff and 120 in the lodge side of the business. We are running about 10% short which is a big number but we also have lower than normal in occupancy terms.”
He adds, “Chef recruitment has been a challenge for years. Particularly in terms of bringing in new talent. Even pre Covid we found the grass roots intake for chefs very difficult – there was a real gap here and even up to Chef de Partie level.
“In some cases there wasn’t practical cooking still happening in Colleges and Universities and I think this is so important.
“We have launched a Chef Apprenticeship programme here at Cameron House focussing on those wishing to join the industry in the kitchens taking them from entry level and trying to develop their skills early. As part of my own graduate scheme, I did six months in the kitchen. I know it is not easy whether you are at a commis level or the very top.
“Over the last ten years recruitment has changed. In days gone by when you committed to a company, you grew with them, and we always used to say ‘don’t be jumping about too much it doesn’t look good on your CV’.
“But now people are happy to jump even if they have only been there six months. As a result now when I look at a CV I check whether they have been in the right places, and at the interview, I would ask the questions, and perhaps then I would take a calculated gamble.
“I take the view if they do a good job, and only stay two years, but make an impact, it is worth it.”
He has also taken a more softly softly approach with suppliers. “Everyone has been shouting from the rooftops about big hotels and the impact Covid has had, and in my view suppliers have not been heard.
“In a normal year, we would take £7/8 million just in food and drink revenues and 30% of that would be spent with suppliers. They have suffered too obviously because hospitality has been shut, and we need to have relationships with them.
“Five years ago I would have been hugely frustrated and impatient if a supplier had had problems, but now it is about working with them. Everyone is finding it hard.
“It may have been hard but there have been lessons learned”. Says Andy, “there has been a huge number of learnings. I always thought I would be quite resilient but this was really tested.
“Having to focus on the team and keep them motivated when we were all frustrated with the delays, and managing the project side, was a huge challenge. Covid was almost irrelevant when it came to managing it to completion.
“I just feel a sense of achievement because it has been my laser focus since about six months in to get the hotel re-opened”.
The opening of the door and the popping of the champagne moment has not quite landed for Andy and his team yet. But when it does, perhaps after the extension opens, no doubt it will be very sweet indeed.