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Keeping sight of the bigger picture

Chris Wayne-Wills took on the role of CEO of Crerar Hotels the group behind the Loch Fyne Hotel & Spa, Golf View in Nairn, Oban Bay Hotel, the Deeside Inn, Isle of Mull Hotel & Spa, The Glencoe Inn and Thainstone House in Inverurie, just as the pandemic struck. Susan Young finds out more about the new boss and the year he has just had, as well as the group’s plans for the future.

Chris Wayne-Wills has certainly had a baptism by fire when it comes to his first year at Crerar Hotels. When the owner of the independent hotel group, Paddy Crerar, approached him to take on the position of CEO, to allow him to take on the role of Chairman, the likelihood of a pandemic had probably never crossed his mind.

Chris believes the timing was actually fortuitous as the pandemic has meant the two have been able to short circuit a way to build trust and Chris has been able to develop and implement his own strategy for the group. He says, “Before the pandemic hit Crerar Hotels was a debt-free wholly-owned company – with a small board of directors, which meant decisions could be made quickly and there were things I wanted to achieve with this company irrespective of Covid. I thought I can do this, we can do this, so let’s just get on with it. The approach I have taken is to run the business as if it was my own. I believed if I did what I thought was right the chances are I would do the right thing. I do believe when you are faced with adversity you don’t develop business character, you unveil it.

But first Chris has to reassure himself that Paddy would let him get on with the job. “I said to Paddy if I am CEO and you’re now the chairman, where do the decision-making boundaries lie. We worked out that three things were sacrosanct which couldn’t be touched. One was baked beans. They are banned from Paddy’s hotels. Dogs, on the other hand, are very welcome everywhere and red socks are to be worn by the team – but not by the dogs!

During his first few weeks in the job, Chris would have usually been able to get to know the group’s hotels and people in a gradual manner. But lockdown on 23rd March meant that he had to talk to people he had never met, about hotels he had never seen, in the process of putting the business into lockdown. That included not charging teams for living in. He says, “We accepted we had to look after our people. I had to manage my way through the process – for once I couldn’t rely on a more senior team to make decisions. I felt the way that our conduct, and that of all companies, would be remembered. So we were very specific about what we would do straight away.”

Chris has spent more than 25-year career in hotel management and his experience has certainly stood him in very good stead. He has worked for Ramada Jarvis, Macdonald Hotels Q Hotels and latterly Marriot International. His next career step at Marriott would likely have been an international role. But the call from Paddy changed that. Chris explains, “Paddy and I originally met on a Scottish Enterprise Disney Scholarship to Florida to study World Class Customer Service in 2002 and there only 12 of us on the programme. His call came at the right time for me. One of the benefits of working for a company like Marriott is that you can travel the world. I had been discussing multiple roles with Marriott to consider internationally, . But it was not the right time. I have a young son and it wasn’t what I wanted to do.

“Paddy was wanting to step away and become Chairman and suggested that I looked at my role as if I had actually bought the hotels and he was the bank. He didn’t want to know the day to day details but did want involved in the overall strategic positioning. The analogy was that it was his train set but I got to play with it and Paddy has been true to his word and has left me to get on with it, which I have really appreciated”

Paddy’s vision was to own Scotland’s leading quality focussed independent hotel group with a focus on authenticity. He had already been through the process of right-sizing the company leaving seven hotels which could be reinvested in and repositioned as upper four-star establishments and that has been my primary focus.”

Certainly in the last 14 months, Chris and his team have changed completely many aspects of Crerar’s operation from marketing, its digital offering and the outsourcing of its Central Reservations. His plan also included a £12 million spend on refurbishment. The company has have re-invested in all their hotels – with two the Isle of Mull and the Glencoe Inn receiving major refurbishments. Chris interjects, “All our hotels are now four-star plus. We now offer low-key luxury without the formality. I like to think that the spirit of Scotland is brought to life through our authentic hospitality experience – through the quality of the product and the warmth of our welcome.”

He continues, “Fortunately many of the GM’s had known the previous places that I had worked, such as The Midland in Manchester, which brought some credibility to my role. They know that I could understand them as GM’s because I still think like one. However when you go from running a single unit to being in charge of multiple properties who have to be able to prioritise. You have to know what big rocks you have to crack before you can do the job properly. But if you get involved with the granular detail you can lose sight of the bigger picture.

“I compare my job to that of a conductor of an orchestra – they stand with a baton to get a section to play a bit quicker. As much as you would like to be a soloist if you did that you lose sight of everything else, particularly with refurbishments. It is the same on a ship – the Captain has a 180-degree view, but they don’t go down to the engine room and shovel coal. You have to know what is going on but remain focused. I am responsible for the direction of the company and I have to direction sense check so that I know if something is contributing to where we are going, and what we want to be. We are quality focussed and our quality measure is based on what our guests tell us.”

However, let’s roll back 25 years where did it all begin? It is obvious that Chris lives and breathes hospitality – his passion shines through – it is in his blood. His great grandfather opened the first milk bar in Cardiff in 1936 and he reminds me that it was milk bars that made the Forte family famous. The business developed over the years into a restaurant and subsequently, the family diversified the business developing a contract catering business.

Says Chris, “I have memories of being in the kitchen washing dishes with both my grandparents cooking and my uncle doing front of house while my mum also worked for contract catering company Eurest. We looked after the catering contract for Cardiff Castle and the Arms Park (now the Millennium Stadium) and I have memories of washing dishes, and sitting on cans of beans reading a comic, and being told not to get into trouble.”

Although nearly opting for an acting career Chris realised that hospitality was actually like “being on stage.”

By the age of seventeen, he had enrolled in a catering college and although planning to go to Uni, after getting a job at a 70 bedroomed hotel The Belgrave in Torquay, he decided to carry on up the ladder and by 19 he was an Assistant Manager.

He says, “It was a bit crazy, but it showed me that if you had the right attitude and enthusiasm your age didn’t matter.”

A stint on a cruise ship followed and then he joined TGI Friday’s. Chris smiles, “I did a couple of new openings. I didn’t wear the braces or the stripes but I can still make a mean Woo Woo. I was kind of moving around a bit on their trainee programme. Then my old GM from The Belgrave contacted me, he had gone to Jarvis hotels and was working in a hotel close to my parents, I subsequently joined them as a sales and spend manager which incorporated proactive sales, reactive sales, marketing and revenue management – it was all about business generation.”

In 1995 at the age of 21, Jarvis moved him to Scotland and he joined the Caledonian Hotel in Ayr in a similar role. He didn’t know a soul in Scotland but threw himself into the job and went onto win the accolade Sales and Spend Manager of the Year in 1997 and was then shortlisted for a Thistle Award. Chris reveals “Marco Truffelli beat me.”

That same he moved to the Marine Hotel in Troon. Says Chris, “Up to that point I had only worked in three-star hotels, and they were looking for a Deputy Manager so I sent them my CV and really blagged my way in. As Richard Branson would say “fake it until you make it. That introduced him to major events including the Open Golf Champtionship.

A move to the Carlton Edinburgh followed and then Chris rejoined Jarvis Hotels after they offered him his first General Manager role at Ellersly House in Edinburgh where he spent just over a year. a year. He says, “It felt that they put me in charge of what felt like turnaround hotels. He then went to Livingston to what had formerly been the Hilton before being going as GM to the Piccadilly in Manchester still with Jarvis – the biggest hotel in the group – he was just 27.

“I used to wonder sometimes as I stood there with an earpiece in with a banquet for a 1,000 “How did I get here!” Chris explains, “It was quite a rapid transition.” But it was also a challenging time in the hotel’s investment cycle. By this time Jarvis had done a deal with Ramada and were rebranding as Ramada and had announced a huge refurbishment of the Piccadilly Hotel a £28m project.

” It was a big 1960’s building so you can imagine the challenges. They started farming out events that had booked and making redundancies. It had been due to close at Christmas 2001, and they decided on the 10th December they decided they couldn’t close the biggest hotel in Manchester right before the Commonwealth Games were coming the following year and investors were asking why we were closing. The problem was it had been so good at the PR telling everyone it was closing it was difficult to get the hotel back up and taking bookings. When the GM there had had enough the group decided they needed someone young and enthusiastic so back down the M6 I went.”

He says, “I used to joke that half the world thinks we are closed, and the other half say we should be. It was very challenging. I did it for three years. But we were getting nowhere with the refurbishment, we were starved of capital. So when a recruitment company approached me about working for Macdonald Hotels and I went and met them. I had a young daughter and it seemed the right time to come back to Scotland. It was a good move because I stayed for 12 years.

His lengthy stint at Macdonald Hotels saw him start at Crutherland House in East Kilbride, then also run Houstoun House just outside Edinburgh, before heading to the Roxburgh in Edinburgh where he oversaw a big refurbishment. A regional job followed, which saw him cover from Edinburgh to Northwest of England and other parts of Scotland too. Says Chris, “I was all over the place.” He continued in a Regional MD role and became CEO of Aviemore. He explains, “ It was a very different type of role in the group because it had its own board of directors because of its history. But I also looked after two hotels in Aberdeen, and hotels in Inverness, Loch Rannoch as well as Forrest Hills.”

He lived at the resort in Aviemore. It was the location for one of his life lessons. He explains, “I believe you learn from what did you not get right and when running Aviemore we planned a Santa Weekend. Unfortunately, when the time came it was very mild and the families had been expecting Lapland and snow. We had bought the snow, but then because it was mild it melted! I found myself driving around the Cairngorms in a truck with a shovel looking for snow. I learned not to promise a white Christmas!” That aside he spent four years there but decided after 18 months overseeing a massive investment in the resort which saw 350 bedrooms revamped, four new restaurants and a cinema created that it was time for a change.

He smiles, “I was not quite ready for the Macdonald Hotels Tattoo. I had never seen myself as a one company guy but was getting close to it with Macdonald. It also coincided with a change in my circumstances, so I gave Rhuaridh Macdonald around a year’s notice and started planning my next move”

His next chapter saw him joining Q Hotels. Chris reveals, “I got chatting to Vivien Sirotkin and Michael Purtill and they were fortunately keen to get me into their company. I started at Slaley Hall in Northumberland and also had a regional role which saw me looking after Westerwood in Cumbernauld and The Midland in Manchester.  However Q by then was owned by Venture Capitalists who he believes had the usual 3 years and a day plan, which meant the business went up for sale, although it was described as refinancing”. Says Chris, “It was obvious it was up for sale. For instance, I had to show prospective refinancers around – and recognising people from companies like Hilton. I remember saying as we walked across the lobby ‘This would be a lovely Waldorf!”

As chance would have it Chris received a call from Marriott at this point to head up Scotland. Despite all his experience, this was his first chance to work for an international brand and he was brought in to head up their cluster teams in Scotland and the North of England, which included the brand’s Marriotts, Courtyards and Residence Inns. He was there for three years and received a ‘Special Recognition Award’ for his contribution to the company. It was as he puts it “a very positive career trajectory.”

Then his call from Paddy came and it was welcome. Says Chris, “I am tied to Scotland, not just because I love it, but my three daughters still live in Linlithgow, and my fiancée Gemma MacDougall is Marketing Director at Cameron House.”

However, he and Paddy couldn’t have known how much was to change over the next 12 months due to the pandemic. But for Chris, it may have had a silver lining. He says “Paddy says, ‘Never waste a crisis.’

Chris certainly didn’t. There wasn’t a part of the business that didn’t get his attention. He says, “I have gone through the process seeking forgiveness, not permission. We have repositioned Crerar Hotels – everyone talks of a new world, for us it is a new brand world. We have a different food and beverage offering, and we are now going in a different direction.

He continues, “When we reopened last year we invested in everything required to make our hotels Covid-safe. We spent over £100K and perhaps, as a result, the hotels traded really well in August, September and October. Our style of hotels suited the locations and we increased our digital marketing efforts, and advertising.”

Crerar Hotels also have the Crerar Trust. It has pledged 50% of its dispersible profits in any given year to charities that lie near their hotels. Over the last 10 years, more than £8m has been donated over. From a minibus for Inverary to sponsoring a pipe band in Oban or a local cancer charity, and this year despite the pandemic in October it gave out £220K despite incurring predictable losses.

Chris tells me, “We decided very quickly that we wanted to do something for the NHS and key workers. We called it ‘Scottish Hospitality for Heroes’. We asked people to nominate people and over 4,000 nominees received more than 382-weekend breaks – which equates to more than 2,000 rooms. For one weekend last August, everyone got complimentary DB&B, we gave away the whole company for a summer weekend”

“The hardest thing was picking people, so we gave a lot more than we originally planned. Over the weekend our hotel in Oban was full and Paddy even took people out on his RIB boat. We also gave gift vouchers for over £25,000 to local pharmacists who had stayed open, to bin men and postmen – people in the community who had gone above and beyond.

He adds, “It would have been quite easy to give a weekend in winter – but we gave a weekend in August. We had people staying who had lost multiple members of the family- we had a lot of gratitude.

“Our teams got completely behind it and I think they felt good about working for a company that was giving something back.”

He believes, as many do in hospitality, that it is more important than ever to position themselves as an employer of choice and with this in mind there are plans afoot to create The Crerar Academy. An overarching umbrella that will embrace SVQ’s , apprenticeships and qualifications for everyone and professional and personal development while they work at Crerar.

The company also encouraged employees to take up the online scholarships offered by HIT during the pandemic. Thirty staff, more than 10% of their workforce did that. Says Chris, “We hope that at Crerar Hotels we offer more than a career. Our team can see that we are a force for good. My non-negotiable rules include be kind, work hard, have humility and put the team first.

They have also revised all the companies benefits, in consultation with their teams. Now, staff can, for example, have an extra day holiday on their birthdays, can take the morning off to take their children to their first day at school and get help towards the cost of driving lessons as well as employee discounts.”

The company has close ties with HIT, Springboard, Skills Development Scotland, Glasgow Caledonian University with Chris believing that education goes with practical experience. He says, “If you do nothing but study it doesn’t prepare you, and if you do nothing but practical work it too is not enough.

“I believe it is not just about working hard, but working hard on your craft whether a bartender or a chef. My craft is leadership – it is about communication and lifelong learning.”

They are also trying to appeal to people who may not have considered hospitality as a career. Chris explains, “Right now we are talking to charities about retiring forces personnel, ex-offenders, and over 50’s – who may want part-time work. We can be very flexible.

It’s certainly been a busy 14 months for Chris and the team – despite the lockdown they have put the time to good use. Not least when it comes to the repositioning and refurbishment of their premises.

Glencoe Inn now offers a boutique highland escape, with a new food and beverage offering, a new hidden garden spa and 15 renovated rooms with luxury bathrooms and refreshed public areas house at the property has also been converted into a five-bedroomed holiday house.

While the Isle of Mull Hotel is almost unrecognisable. Says Chris, “It is the realisation of a lot of what we have dreamed of. It now has a balcony coming off the new restaurant, a new sea deck, a wilderness hidden spa concept and 75 new bedrooms and a new boardwalk – we have created a resort on Mull which offers lots of different experiences.”

Certainly, Chris too has had a lot of different experiences but he still has various projects to finish over the next six months. Not least his wedding. He is getting married in the summer at Cameron House but a the moment his focus is on the business. He says, “We have built the foundation now it has to come to the reality. It isn’t just about a strapline on a poster. It has to come to life.

“Paddy & Nigel our Group FD have supported me through these challenging times, but I think with energy and positivity we can deliver our shared vision and our strategy.”  

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