Front of House: Killiecrankie hotel
Killiecrankie is small country house hotel located in the highlands of Scotland. TOM DAVIS speaks with owner Henrietta Fergusson to learn more about the property.
Could you tell us about your background
I was brought up in the South West of Scotland, when I finished school I thought ‘what am I going to do?’ My father then actually advertised for a job for his daughter in the Scotsman – ‘Any old job, good with children, animals and people’, is what he said – and I ended up in a little hotel in the wilds of Scotland, in Glencoe. I just got bitten by the bug really. I never trained in hospitality, but what I’ve done is I’ve learnt along the way. I’ve worked for some fairly exacting bosses, but I’ve been very lucky in that I have had some fantastic jobs and my first from Glencoe, his son is one of my shareholders here at Killiecrankie, so we have stayed in contact all of our lives.
How did you come to own Killiecrankie Hotel?
I’ve always known Killiecrankie, and I used to visit the area as a child. Having worked for Peter de Savary for 10 years, I thought it was time that if I was going to do anything on my own then I was going to do it now, because at that stage I was 55 and thought that I better do something for myself before I died. So I spent a year working for Condé Nast Johansens as a hotel inspector, getting back into the hotel business as opposed to the private club business, which de Savary was in. I was looking around to see what was on the market and then I heard that Killiecrankie might be buyable and I had always known it, I had always loved it and I thought ‘well this is serendipity’. I came with a couple of friends and had lunch one day in March 2007, by the time that we had left we had started negotiations. I then moved in three months later.
It all happened very quickly then?
When you purchased the hotel did you make any changes?
Yes, everything. The atmosphere was lovely, but it was very tired. The previous owners hadn’t done too much to it in the previous five years. It was really in need of some help, it was dark and it just had an unloved feeling about it. It was easy for me because I wasn’t taking over somebody’s taste and something that had been recently done. It was easy to make very quick changes. We are still a work in progress, I said when I first came here that for 10 years I would put all of the profits back every year into the business, the hotel and the fabric of the building, just so that it would keep improving and it really needed that help. That’s what we’ve done, so the first year I did a couple of the bedrooms, and the next year I did two but then I got bored and did the rest all at once. I couldn’t stand that they all needed it. This winter we are starting again.
How important are the staff for the business?
The staff are all friends now, we have a nucleus of permanent staff, I have a manager who is fantastic and has been with us for about a year and a half now, and he is really good, really keen, and really knows the business having been in it for all his working life. He is early thirties now. I’ve got a head chef who is into his twentieth year and he is only 46, he’s got a few years to go yet and he knows the place backwards. We’ve got more than 65% returning customers so we really know our business.
How would you describe the design of the hotel?
It’s an old country house. It was part of a fairly large local estate and this was just one of the estate houses. It’s a pretty whitewashed building, I don’t get any help with the decorating and things I just pick the colours myself. I try and make it fit in with the area, so you won’t find harsh yellows and reds, but you will find rusts and greens and pretty country colours.
Was owning your own hotel something that you always wanted to do?
I always want to do it, but I didn’t have any money. It was always something that I thought I would never be able to do. I’m very hands-on so I have always treated every hotel that I’ve run as if it was my own anyway. This is no different, I’m the first up and the last one to bed. When I finally decided that I had to do my own thing I had the help of a great friend. He told me to find the property and said that he would find the money. I have a cast of 18 shareholders and it’s wonderful because some are involved in a big way, some are involved in a little way. I’m the major shareholder and I own half the company, I’m also the only one in the business, so I get no interference and it works really well. They can come and stay at any point during the year once as their dividend and hopefully they will get their comeuppance when I sell it.
So you don’t take a backseat now you are the owner?
No, I wouldn’t do that. Owning my hotel is so different to my previous roles. I remember the first time I cashed up after the sale went through, and I was thinking ‘god, there is quite a lot of money here and it’s all going into my bank account’. It was an extraordinary feeling, and it took me a good year if not more to not wake up in the morning and think ‘gosh this is mine, what a responsibility’. This may sound horribly conceited, but I know that this works because I am involved everyday. A lot of my guests are people that I’ve always known, or people that I have met along the road, and have come to support me. But however good my staff are, and they are they’re brilliant, I am the linchpin and this is my vision. If it doesn’t go the way that I want to go then I am doing something wrong.
How much of a draw for guests is your location?
Huge, we’re right in the middle of Scotland. Geographically the central point of Scotland is a mile away. We are an hour and a half away from Edinburgh and Inverness Airport, we’re just under two hours from Glasgow Airport. We find that more people are coming to base themselves here, particularly people that know Scotland quite well, and one day they will go north west and the next day they will go east and they will just go out for the day from here. Equally, if they’re going north, about 30 minutes south of us the motorway runs out and you’re hitting small roads from there on in, so it’s a great stopping-off place. We get a lot of guests who are here to go fishing.
Your hotel restaurant has a reputation for excellent food and fine wine. Tell us about that?
Yes, it’s a very big draw, we’ve had two rosettes from the AA for the past 20-odd years, Mark inherited two and he has managed to keep them both all the way through. We weren’t part of the AA when I came here, but I wasn’t interested in joining it unless we could get to the three-star level which we did within two years, and that’s exactly where I wanted to place the hotel on the market. It’s where we sit quite comfortably. We evolve, but when all is said and done, as I have said to inspectors in the past, I’m here to please my guests and their palates and if we were to start doing fancy food, it wouldn’t last long. It’s the guests that win out in the end, as opposed to the guides, and that works against us in some ways but for the most part the guides will respect that and realise that we do know our market.
Where do you see Killiecrankie in two years?
I’d like to think that we might be at the stage in a couple of years time when we might add on some more bedrooms at the back. Ten rooms, when only eight of them are double rooms, it can be quite restricting and we have a very nice old stable block at the back which at the moment is my accommodation and staff accommodation. You could make four very nice suites out there. That would probably be my next step, but I’ve got to finish of doing the rest of the house first. We take it slowly and just do what we can every year. For me the most important thing is that this isn’t some kind of slick hotel operation, it’s my home, my staff are my friends, and it’s a real joint effort to make it work and we do that as a team