The seaside on the West coast has an abundance of guest rooms with jaw-dropping views. But the vista from the Glen Rosa suite at the Seamill Hydro Hotel and Resort in Ayrshire would be high up on any league table.
On a glorious, cloudless blue-sky November day, the silvery Firth of Clyde gives way to the peaks of the Isle of Arran and the majestic Goat Fell. From the window, you can see and hear the youngsters from a wedding party, some dressed in white mini-Elvis suits, jumping and jiving on the lawn, while further out, other hotel guests with buckets and spades, are digging on the wet sand as the tide is out.
But the Glen Rosa wedding suite – named after a Scotland-in-miniature glen over in Arran – is worthy of comment. Here is a signature bedroom suite, with a bathroom with a bath at the window, and a touch-screen waterproof Galaxy pad, and an adjoining sitting room, with the latest multi-media audio, that would grace any top five-star hotel. Yet this recently completed suite is all part of the radical refurbishment of the Seamill Hydro, with banking support from Santander.
It is exactly the kind of upgrade and attention to detail that Scotland’s middle tier of hotels require. Sylvester Sweeney, in jeans and an Ash & Dust Diesel sweatshirt, is one of the hotel’s five directors, and he has been overseeing the ongoing refurbishment, as the hands-on project manager.
“This room is one of the best in Ayrshire I would say. This is a feature turret-room with a dining area, its own mini-bar, fancy zip-taps, with hot and chilled water, and the room has a high level of latest technology. Then there are guest facilities, such as Playstations, iPads, touch-screen items to control and stream the music and dimmer systems for lighting. In the wedding-suite bedroom, we’ve sourced all the items ourselves including the bed.
There’s even a secret cupboard that niftily turns into a dressing room for a bride. It is touches like this that are making a difference to Scotland’s tourism market.
“We have been getting fabulous feedback about this suite,” says Sylvester.
The entrepreneurial Sweeney family have run the hotel, with up to 180 staff, for touching on 30 years – the anniversary is in 2015. Sylvester’s father, also Sylvester, and his mother, Mary, came from Donegal, and eventually bought a guest house on the south side of Glasgow which became the Mulberry Hotel, one of the most famous watering-holes in the 1970s. Then in 1985, the Sweeney’s sold up in Glasgow and bought the Seamill, in West Kilbride, which had a history as a sanatorium set up in 1879, and later a popular hydropathic with Turkish baths and steam rooms for those escaping the grim and soot of Glasgow.
The family are still in charge. Sylvester’s sister, Lorraine, is front-of-house manager, his brother, Steven, heads up procurement, while his younger sister, Marina, a qualified beautician, runs the hair and beauty salon in the hotel. Sylvester’s son, also called Sylvester to add to the confusion, is in honours year at university but spends time working in the hotel, like many of the family.
“We all dovetail well as a family. My brother would work and serve at the weddings, my sister would take bookings, deal with reservations, and I would create the websites for bookings and I built the leisure club. When my mum and dad retired, we all moved into the management.”
Over 25 years ago, Mr Sweeney senior built 18 two-bedroom flats beside the hotel. Last summer, these were turned into 36 family holiday suites, with a frontage overlooking the sea.
“We’ve been told that we are on the brink of being upgraded to a four-star hotel. There are elements here now that are five star. However, we don’t really want to be in the five-star market because that puts extra pressures on the business, when we are known as a family hotel that’s always been excellent value for money,” he explains as we tour the bustling hotel.
In the leisure club area, another teenage Sweeney family member is finishing a spell of work experience, learning how to change light bulbs in the swimming pool. The leisure club is an important part of the fabric and history. The gym has been kitted out with the latest machines, many facing out on the Clyde coast. It is what you might expect of a hotel that has hosted Scottish football teams (and even referees) and was once a favourite pre-match getaway for Jock Stein and the Celtic Football Club before big games. Indeed, for some of a certain generation it is infamous for a boating trip involving the late-great Jimmy Johnstone. But that’s another tale.
“We have plans to expand to become a full-blown spa. At the moment it is a leisure club with some spa facilities. But to become an authorised destination spa you require special baths, treatment rooms, such as the laconium. We will be moving the gym to a new position to allow us to have hydro pools and jets, and salt grottos. This is a few years away.”
“When you’ve not got the weather, there has to be a reason to come to a hotel, and having a proper spa with full treatments and baths seems the modern way. We have always been busy in Christmas, New Year, and from Easter to September. The shoulder months are when you have to come up with unique ideas, with such things as the bridge club.”
For the Orangery Restaurant’s refurbishment, walls were knocked down, a patio built and the kitchen was expanded, while 10 Design, based in Glasgow, was brought in to give a ‘cosy and contemporary twist’. “The food and the drink is a major part of our business. If you get the food right people will always come back.”
The Orangery’s executive chef Scott Gilmour arrived from the top flight Costley Group, with its LochGreen and Brig o’Doon hotels. “A cornerstone of the business is the weddings, with up to 100 hosted per year. Overseeing this is general manager, Norman Rennie, also a partner in the business, who has been with the hotel for 20 years and something of a local legend when it comes to organising weddings.
“Every wedding is different. While we offer the backdrop and the wonderful setting, it is unique to each couple,” says Norman.
The Brisbane function room is one of the biggest in the area, and can host larger weddings, where the likes of Ayrshire Chamber of Commerce holds over 380 people. Smaller matrimonial occasions can be accommodated in the Arran suite with its French doors leading down to the lawn. The upgrade of 24 rooms in the main hotel is already paying dividends.
“The business has grown 10-20% over the last few years because of the investment and the work we had done,” says Sylvester.
There has been a lot of work: 36 suites at £33,000 per suite, then 24 rooms at £12,000 a room, and then the leisure club had £300,000, then the new gym was over £100,000. Add on the Orangery restaurant, which was £900,000, plus the refurbishment of the corridors and kitchen was another £300,000. Then the Glen Rosa suite is £150,000 alone. In total, this is over £4m in the last five years.”
So how have Santander helped?
“We had been with the Royal Bank of Scotland for 50 years – and it was going through its turmoil and we felt we weren’t getting what we wanted. For many years, we never used banks because my mum and dad didn’t borrow money. When the recession came along there were challenges. People were cutting down; when they were going out they were only having one course, and they might stay one night instead of two. Yet the hotel might be as busy with all the fixed costs. There could be a 20% drop in turnover but your overheads don’t drop.“
“We also recognised that as a family we have not had the opportunity of learning about operations in a major hotel group. Behind our family, we have a great team of dedicated colleagues who have been helping us on our journey. George Jones, our hotel development manager, and Iain Silver, our operations development manager, have brought a fresh approach to our recent success. With their help, we have adopted proven systems and procedures from their time in other venues. “We wanted to make things happen to get us out of the slump and we had great ideas, but we couldn’t rely on organic growth to fund it,” says Sylvester.
“RBS were not amenable at the time. We went to the market place and spoke to Christie Finance, the restaurant and pub finance specialists in Glasgow. We borrowed a fair amount from Santander, with £1 million loan for refurbishment and that topped up our investment and speeded it all up. Without this, we would be further behind.”
“Santander really liked our business plan and location and felt it could work. They invested in us as a family directors and they’ve got to know us as a family working together. It was through this that we were able to build the Orangery, which is doing very well. It was a great thing to bring in Santander.”
With only six rooms still to redo, and with a future four-star rating expected, the hotel’s equity value has increased. “We’re not looking to sell. We just want to get the hotel where we want it and everything in the right place.”
And there are plans for an extension in 2015 with a revamped reception area.
We recognised that as a family we have not had the opportunity of learning about operations by working in a major hotel group. Every day is a learning one and this has kept up our enthusiasm for the business.”