The great tee party

The great tee party

With the Ryder Cup’s sat nav set for Scotland, Andrew Mernin reports on the increasingly global outlook of host hotel Gleneagles.

In September 2014 the Ryder Cup bandwagon pitches up at Gleneagles. Not since the G8 conference in 2005 will so many pairs of eyes around the world have gazed upon the hotel through TV screens, monitors and newsprint come the end of the three-day visit.

Then there are the hordes of spectators and the chasing press pack that will trample around the hotel’s pea green grounds as the heroes of golf do battle.

But at the time of the G8, as Blair, Bush, Putin and friends cosied up to each other behind forced smiles and handshakes, there was perhaps far more to concern the hotel’s staff than the impending global golf spectacle.

Gleneagles INSETWhile current director of events and leisure Stuart Smith (pictured) and his cohorts strived for customer service perfection, there was anarchy in the air and the looming spectre of trouble.

“We had to consider it fairly carefully,” Smith says, “because there are always risks.

“If I remember rightly, before we confirmed that we were going to take it, the police in Genoa [which hosted the G8 in 2001] were in trouble for assaulting protesters, and so we thought the event could go a number of different ways.”

In fact 70 police officers faced trial for brutality and a subsequent cover-up, highlighting the G8’s tinder box nature and the volatility which follows it around the world. Ultimately, though, the hotel recognised the marketing benefits of hosting the biggest political show on earth that year. “It wasn’t just about Gleneagles, it was much more about Scotland as a whole and the event put Scotland on the world map.”

While contending with a throng of over 2,000 members of the press each day, there was the backdrop of dissent.

Around 25 miles away, 200,000 protestors marched through the streets of Edinburgh. Meanwhile, Bob Geldof and an ensemble of stars turned up the heat during the Live 8 anti-poverty concerts.

Fortunately the hotel’s worst fears didn’t materialise, however, and Smith admits that lessons were learned which have helped to strengthen the capabilities of his team since.

“From an event management perspective, it taught me to always expect the unexpected. We always tell our event managers that things will always change that are out of your control. It may be weather based, which is quite often, or just circumstantial, like if a client's CEO falls ill.

“How we are able to accommodate that is the important thing and it’s a case of asking ourselves, ‘what do we need to do to make this happen?’”

The ability to react to last minute changes and remain cool under pressure are required attributes for members of Gleneagles’ events team - so too is creative thinking, as Smith explains: “It’s key for us to understand what our clients are trying to do when they request something from us. Is it just impressing clients? Is it training staff? Are they trying to find their strategy for the next five years or do they just want to relax after enjoying successful business results?

“In various situations people say they fancy this or that and that’s part of the fun of the job. We have to put our thinking caps on before we deliver it.

“We had an American group that wanted to do a World War Two-themed event so we brought in swing bands, we had things like Kendal Mint Cake and we didn’t have the usual finery on the tables, we had hessian underlay and we also had various historical re-enactments taking place. They absolutely loved it.”

Board meetings on a grand scale remain the luxury hotel’s forte – both from companies within Scotland and further afield. And Gleneagles has found a solution to the problem of distraction that comes with meetings in unfamiliar places.

The prospect of semi-retired non execs gazing longingly out of windows across the green instead of concentrating on what’s happening inside the room is eradicated if meetings are taken outside.

“As you can imagine with the Scottish weather, it’s not something that we would normally do but it can be a lot of fun.

“We set up a meeting for 12 around an old golf hole, so rather than being indoors wishing they were on the golf course we actually took them outside. Fortunately the weather was great.”

Requests for such corporate frivolity come from far and wide. Smith says Russian and Chinese  markets are slowly opening up for the hotel in terms of group visits, although a current quickening of visa processes will see this increase significantly in the future, he predicts.

“We’ve obviously got a very strong brand name driven by the golf courses and the luxury angle. You can travel around the world with this job and a lot of people are aware of Gleneagles. We will start seeing in due course a rise in the number of Chinese visitors since Scotland is trying to build close links in terms of the golf market out there - as the middle classes develop that will continue to rise. From that perspective we can see the American market getting stronger again.”

In the meantime preparation plans move at pace ahead of the Ryder Cup in 2014.

“We’ve just completed a major renovation of the PGA course on which the Ryder Cup will be played changing some of the bunker shapes and adjusting the 18th hole in terms of elevation, as it didn’t sit quite right. We’ve been working with Jack Nicklaus on that and have also put in an airflow system that alleviates the soil and can help greatly in controlling growth.

“We’ve got a good year and a half to bed in but beyond that it’s all about infrastructure like platforms and marquees, so the last two months prior will be absolutely manic.”