Gordon Campbell Gray, founder of the Wee Hotel Company which includes the acclaimed Three Chimneys on Skye, says he feels ashamed by recent scenes discouraging visitors from over the borders and beyond.
A leading Scots hotelier has warned hotels could face “a tsunami” of cancellations if the language from Scottish Government and the actions of members of the public seeking to deter visitors is not “nipped in the bud”.
Gordon Campbell Gray who owns The Three Chimneys hotel on Skye, as well as the 12-bedroom Pierhouse Hotel and Seafood Restaurant in Port Appin, Argyll, says he is ashamed of those “making it look as though we’re not welcoming people back”.
Over the weekend protesters gathered at the England-Scotland border to send a message to visitors to stay away.
Mr Campbell Gray said: “I’m ashamed of the people who are making it look as though we’re not welcoming people back.
“The thing I’m going to campaign most for up to [hotels] opening is that I hope at senior government level and all the associations [they] make sure people know there’s a welcome on the mat because we have had some cancellations from English people – literally three in an hour – saying we’re not coming because they’re worried about the border.
He added: “They’re also worried about will they get a welcome. And we say, ‘Of course you will,’ but they say, ‘We’ve been locked up, we just don’t want to feel uncomfortable anywhere.’
“The campaign now that Scotland is open and welcoming is really important. It needs to be nipped in the bud very quickly because we are welcoming, nice people and that, as we know as we travel the world people say, ‘We love the Scots, you’re so friendly.’ Well we need to show it or a lot of people will go out of business.”
The stunt by protesters at the Scottish border was condemned by politicians on all sides of the political spectrum, including Nationalists. But, Mr Campbell Gray says there needs to be a change in the language from the Scottish Government around the possibility of English visitors facing a quarantine if they visit Scotland.
The first minister Nicola Sturgeon has said quarantine restrictions on visitors to Scotland could be considered if case numbers rise south of the border and elsewhere.
Mr Campbell Gray believes English tourists should be reassured they are welcome and that this kind of action would only be a last resort.
He said: “I think the [Scottish] government has to say the welcome is there, we have no intention of closing the border or quarantining people from any part of the world but particularly the United Kingdom unless something drastic happens.
“At the moment it’s the other way around, ‘We might do it but maybe we won’t’. I don’t think that’s funny any longer. We’ve all been battling to save our businesses.. everyone has a different scenario but nobody is coming out of this well, it’s costing us money.
“This new wave of ‘we might not let the English come, we might close the borders’. I hesitate to say it’s a stupid thing to say but I think it’s a bit irresponsible at this time. We’re just coming up for air, we’re just exhausted, it’s been stressful. You’ve got all these lives depending on you to keep their jobs. So when we’re seeing the last lap for opening… then I got those cancellations, that could turn into a tsunami.”
Last year Mr Campbell Gray returned to Scotland to set up his Wee Hotel Company which includes The Three Chimneys and The Pierhouse. Previously he headed the Campbell Gray Hotels group which he founded and has properties overseas along with The Machrie Hotel on the Isle of Islay.
Although hotels and restaurants in Scotland are permitted to reopen on July 15, The Three Chimneys will delay reopening until the the end of the month.
Mr Campbell Gray explained: “First of all I didn’t want to rush in on day one. I wanted to have as much time as we could and watch how it went. Although it’s a shame we’re running behind England, I have a lot of friends with hotels and restaurants in London and the countryside so they’re going to tell me how it went.
“I also want to be at the opening of both hotels so I thought we’ll open The Pierhouse first which is very near me, and then we’ll go to Skye and open The Three Chimneys and be there for the opening.
“In both cases it’s the original teams so we don’t have an enormous amount of training for service it’s just putting in all the systems and training for hygiene, health and safety. As we heard the other day [social distancing] can be one-metre so we’re just trying to work out what the conditions are for that.”
And when it comes to recovery, the hotelier feels well prepared to face the ups and downs of the hospitality business.
He said: “We’ve built the models on the worst-case scenario; two metres, it’s pouring with rain so people can’t sit outside, so we kind of thought [the worst-case scenario] is affordable, we can make it at that. With going to one metre it’s a wee bit of icing on the cake.
“I remember years ago when I had quite a big hotel in London and it was 9-11 and we thought we need to make savings here because we went from 100 to 5% occupancy. And we suddenly realised all the things [we’d been doing] Every time we sent a letter we seemed to send it by courier, you realised we lived in this decadent world and we thought, ‘Why are we doing that?’. We made savings in the most basic ways that affected nothing so I feel I’ve been through this before.”
It’s so-far, so-good at The Three Chimneys, which enjoys an international reputation thanks to its acclaimed restaurant, with the hotel nearly fully booked for the months ahead, despite a few recent cancellations from English customers.
“It’s been amazing. I had very minimal communication with our database during lockdown because I’ve got quite bored with too much coming in and some people have been sending things in that were a bit show-offy.
“I sent one message that said, ‘We have a light at the end of the tunnel and we’re reopening,’ and I gave the dates. Well, it went out at 12 on the Saturday and when they opened on the office on the Monday there were hundreds of emails and it was nearly all bookings.
“Room wise The Three Chimneys, it’s tiny, but we’re pretty well full to October.”
Mr Campbell Gray is philosophical when reflecting on the last few months of enforced closure due to the coronavirus, but says he has no intentions of changing his business model – or his pricing, and is hopeful that diners will be in celebratory mood when they return.
He said: “The one thing I was adamant about was we wouldn’t change the formula of what we did. A lot of people said, ‘We need to change..’ and maybe that’s right, but we weren’t going to start delivering fish and chips which some people have been doing and it’s phenomenal. I’m in a Zoom call on a Friday with some restaurants in Edinburgh and it’s heroic what they’ve been doing. What we did decide collectively is that we’d probably reduce the menus a bit but keep our local suppliers, the langoustines, the lobsters, the beautiful game pie, all these things would stay, just offer a little less. I thought it was a good model and that a guest would appreciate a bit less knowing it was all fresh and lovely.
“We have a lot of people wanting to book tables of eight, 10, which is families coming together and this is where we’re trying to untangle the relationships, who can sit with who.
“I think people will be a wee bit more extravagant because it will be a celebration. Out of 180 bookings no one was looking for a rate – it’s not the time.”