Wednesday, July 17, 2024
Wednesday, July 17, 2024
HomeFeaturesInterview: Future Proofing The Cairndale

Interview: Future Proofing The Cairndale

By Susan young

The Cairndale is a family-owned Dumfries hotel which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. It is currently in the midst of a multi-million-pound refurbishment which will see the creation of a new spa facility, restaurant and bar. I caught up with Matthew Wallace Senior and his son, also Matthew, to find out more about the family business and their latest developments.

When I arrived at The Cairndale Hotel I was asked who I was here to see – Matthew Junior or Matthew Senior, which rather threw me, both I replied. And that’s how I came to be interviewing father and son team the Wallaces.

Matthew Snr has been a partner in the business for the past 40 years, having persuaded his father, a successful butcher, and his three brothers to buy the building, but it was only in March 2020 that he became sole proprietor after buying his brothers out. But he wasn’t running the business solo for long, because Covid brought his son back into the fold.

Matthew Jnr., now 27, although starting out his hospitality career with the family business, had headed for the bright lights of London and then New York. But he was following in his father’s footsteps. Matthew Sr. originally studied Maths and Chemistry at St Andrews, but he didn’t take to it, and instead dropped out and went to hotel school at Ross Hall instead.

His first placements included the Cally Palace in Gatehouse and the Kenmore Hotel in Kenmore before joining Swallow Hotels at the Royal County Hotel in Durham on his graduation. He then moved to Rookery Hall. But he obviously had some of his father’s entrepreneurial spirit because while there he started to take an interest in hotels for sale and in the early 80s, he took his father to look at the Cairndale Hotel in his hometown of Dumfries.

He explains, “My father wouldn’t have come to look around it if he hadn’t been interested. He was the sort of guy that didn’t see the point of going to a BMW showroom if you were not going to buy one! We then talked to the bank, and because my father had a very good business, we were able to get the loan.”

Matthew Snr. was only 23 at the time, and unfortunately his father died only five months later. His death left Matthew Snr. and his three brothers running the family businesses, which as well as the hotel, also included the butchers and a filling station.

Matthew Jnr. followed in his father’s footsteps. He always wanted to work in hospitality, and while still at school he took it upon himself to get some five-star experience in London. He tells me, “I went to work in the kitchen at five-star hotels such as Claridge’s and The Goring. It gave me the appetite to do an International Hospitality Management degree at Oxford Brookes. While there I also spent time working at The Dorchester and 45 Park Lane before gaining a position in guest relations at Belmond’s Le Manoir in Oxfordshire.”

After graduating he headed across the pond to New York and The Peninsula Hotel where he joined the front office team. Then along came the pandemic.

The hotel was part of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels group and initially the group moved some Chinese staff over to New York before Covid started to cause lockdowns. So, Matthew Jr. and his colleagues were aware of Covid probably before many others. However, it took the news that flights out of New York were to be stopped, that galvanised him into action.

He tells me, “I literally packed a bag, left my apartment, and I never went back. I think I was on the last flight out.”

It’s hardly surprising he feels like he has ‘unfinished business’ there.

Back in Dumfries he certainly had plenty to get his teeth into. Over the years the family had extended the hotel. In 1983 all of the 48 rooms in the hotel were upgraded to ensuite rooms.

They then refurbished the empty property adjacent to the hotel, Burnock House, which was part of the original purcase, and put a link bridge to join it with the main hotel and create 12 more rooms.

Seven years later in 1990 the family invested £1m with the help of a £250K grant from the Scottish Tourist Board and opened the Barracude Club to provide locals with ‘wet weather’ facilities. At the same time, they opened a new café bar, as well as a further 16 new bedrooms on the flat roof above the leisure facilities -bringing the total number of bedrooms to 76.

The family also bought the neighbouring council property at Park House to create a new ballroom and built 15 additional bedrooms – bringing the total number of bedrooms to 91. Another million pound plus investment.

In 2020 Matthew Snr. bought his brothers out, although his timing was a bit unfortunate, because immediately after taking outright ownership Covid hit. He says, “The two years of Covid was pretty challenging. We had to apply for grants and furlough and spent a lot of time watching the news. But luckily when the full shutdown came, Matthew Jnr came home and with his encouragement we decided to invest in our outdoor space.

Matthew Jnr continues, “I had always wanted to redevelop our outdoor area and Covid gave us the opportunity to really make it work. We opened an outdoor cocktail bar – The Secret Garden. We then introduced three outside Domes for the Winter Garden. Obviously, we had to jump through all the hoops in order to serve food and drinks outside. We were able to use staff from the other parts of hotel. We trained them up and when Covid eased, and fewer people used the outdoor spaces, our staff resumed their normal jobs.”

One positive that came out of the pandemic was Matthew Senior’s realisation that they were missing out on an important market. He says, “We perhaps over the years overlooked the customers on our doorstep marketing the hotel to corporate guests and tour companies. But Covid quite clearly showed us there was a local market we hadn’t tapped into.”

Last year saw the hotel celebrate its 40th anniversary and the anniversary coincided with a revamp of the hotel’s public areas including the reception and bar. They used local interior designers, tradesmen and craftsmen.

And talking of locals – now the Wallace’s are creating a Spa for their guests and the people of Dumfries. It’s the first Spa for the town. The £2m development is being supported by South Scotland Enterprise who have put £400,000 into the project.

Explains Matthew Snr., “I was aware of South Scotland Enterprise, and I knew what they could provide because I saw other businesses being supported. So, I put our plan forward for the new Spa and we got the funding. We couldn’t have done it otherwise.

“The Spa will bring people to the area, and we will be creating jobs and tourism. It will appeal to groups, our leisure business, and corporate guests too. People who were looking for a spa break were not coming to Dumfries. Hopefully they will now.”

The Spa, spa cafe and lounge area are being designed by Curveline Design and Spa consultant Claire Caddick, who also created TRIBE517 spa and skincare brand, which the Spa will use.

The new Spa will include six treatment rooms, relaxation rooms, the hotel’s swimming pool is being upgraded, and there will also be a gym. On the F&B side there is a new restaurant which will offer all day dining – which the Wallace’s hope will be a real hub for the local community to eat and drink in. It is being designed by 3 Design.

Says Matthew Snr., “We are investing in the hotel because we want to future-proof it. Perhaps we could have been just as successful not investing in the hotel, dropping our rates and trying to appeal to international group business. But we want the hotel to be as good as it can be. We are accredited Real Living Wage employers, and we get involved with Hospitality action. We’ve signed the Hoteliers Charter. We wanted to pay our employees the Real Living Wage to reward them for standing by us during Covid – they have had a hard time too.

“I’m glad to say staffing is not as much of an issue than it has been. It is still hard getting quality and experience, and it is not easy persuading people to come to Dumfries, but we had three Kenyan chefs who came on sponsored visas. Since they have joined, we have had no problems in the kitchen. They have a different work ethic, and their experience is phenomenal. It is really no different than when Scots went to America to earn a living.

“We also have a few Ukrainian members of staff. But certainly, the new salary rules around immigration mean that we would not be able to afford that now.”

I asked the two how they split their roles within the business. Matthew Jnr. smiles, “I do the nice fluffy stuff. I make things look nice. I am all about the guest experience and the detail. While dad is ‘macro’. He is all about the big picture investment and he is fantastic at seeing how a building can work as a functioning hospitality venue. I struggle to do that.”

Says Matthew Snr., “This is a new journey for me, going forward with my own son, rather than my brothers. It has given me a new lease of life. Now that Matthew Jnr. is on board he wants to move things forward and he takes the pressure off me.”

He concludes, “I have always feared failure, but now I realise that the more successful you are, the further you are from failure, and that is a good feeling.”

It certainly is!


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