The Big Interview: Royal College of Surgeons’ commercial director Scott Mitchell

Scott Mitchell is driving the commercial arm of a venture that has a much more complex remit than just maximising profits
Scott Mitchell is driving the commercial arm of a venture that has a much more complex remit than just maximising profits
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The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RCSEd) is an august institution with a pivotal role in the development of surgical techniques we take for granted today, with notable names in its history including anaesthesia pioneer Sir James Young Simpson.

More than 500 years after the college’s formation, Scott Mitchell took charge of its commercial arm in 2010 following many years as a hotelier at the likes of The Scotsman Hotel and Cameron House.

A key attraction of his current role was reinvesting profits back into the college’s charitable aims and reach, with its skills being taken globally, including to areas of conflict and extreme poverty. But he also has a far more personal reason for seeking to run a business with a more complex remit than simply a hotel with function rooms.

“I was actually born blind, and it was only through pioneering eye surgery that I gained sight,” he says. “It’s actually very nice for me to be able to come back and operate the college’s commercial business, to then put money in to develop surgery etc that can hopefully benefit more people.”

Mitchell often sees the surgeon that operated on him when the latter attends the college’s Senior Fellows Club. “He has been known to actually give me an eye examination in the reception of the hotel.”

The RCSEd is one of the oldest surgical corporations in the world, and one of the largest UK medical Royal Colleges, with a membership nearing 25,000 professionals from students to retired medics. It was formally founded in 1505 and in 1778, King George III granted a new charter giving it the title the Royal College of Surgeons of the City of Edinburgh.

The organisation, whose remit includes influencing healthcare policy across the UK, in 2006 opened the doors to its Quincentenary Conference centre, and the college’s Commercial Enterprises business came to life the same year.

The latter organisation is charged with capitalising on the RCSEd facilities, promoting, selling and managing all commercial activities held on-site, including conferences, corporate events, weddings as well as Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe events. All profits go back into supporting the college’s charitable aims, namely education, assessment and advancement in surgery.

“We operate as any commercial hotel and events business would,” Mitchell says, with the only difference that it would not accept certain industries on site that would be inappropriate, such as tobacco. “Other than that, we pretty much run at arm’s length to the parent organisation, but always being mindful that the main activities of the college take primary focus for use of events space such as exams and education. That’s what makes it different – we don’t just have 24 function rooms that we can rent out 365 days of the year.”

Its facilities include the Playfair Building, which opened in 1832 and was designed by Scottish architect William Henry Playfair; the King Khalid Building that includes a 158-seat auditorium; and the Prince Phillip Building, formerly the University of Edinburgh Language School, which opened in 2015.

Additionally, Ten Hill Place Hotel was created in part from the college’s postgraduate residence shortly after the launch of Commercial Enterprises. The hotel opened in November 2006 and originally targeted visiting academics, medics and conference delegates, but has attracted a diverse customer base.

It was revealed in August that the hotel, bar and restaurant, which in the year to June 2016 achieved turnover of £2.7 million on the back of an 88 per cent occupancy rate, was to undergo an £8.5m expansion. This will boost its room capacity to 129 from 77, with the expansion tying in with the rebranding of RCSEd Commercial Enterprises to Surgeons’ Quarter.

Mitchell says that the renaming, set to complete by the end of summer, unites different elements of the commercial business but across a larger area. “We cover a significant portion of Edinburgh, which we are now obviously going to start referring to as Surgeons’ Quarter rather than using what has traditionally been known as Surgeons’ Hall,” he says. “Surgeons’ Quarter is more showing the size of our on-site presence – but also of the services and facilities in the commercial company.”

The firm is still operating under the Surgeons Lodge name, but in Mitchell’s view that doesn’t suit its upgraded offering, including a 129-bedroom four-star hotel.

Mitchell, whose title is commercial director of RCSEd Commercial Enterprises, also notes that the college’s membership extending to more than 100 countries helps bring in international events.

It comes as Edinburgh finds itself the UK’s most popular meeting destination outside London, and last year moved up eight places to 27 in the world’s city rankings for international association meetings according to the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA). The Scottish capital also hosted 76 ICCA-recognised meetings in 2016, equating to a boost of more than £35m for the city.

Such progress is welcomed by Mitchell, who says Edinburgh has a longstanding reputation for many things, such as education and surgery. But he sees it as now much more professional in its approach to hospitality and tourism, likely benefited by far better transport links into the city.

Additionally, Edinburgh was found to be the most attractive UK hotel investment destination outside London for the fourth year in a row by Deloitte’s European Hotel Investment Survey published in November.

Mitchell says the Ten Hill Place Hotel is the biggest current priority for RCSEd Commercial Enterprises, but it is aiming to grow its other areas.

RCSEd Commercial Enterprises was initially aimed to be purely an events company and had three staff in 2006, but last year headcount at maximum staffing exceeded 150. That figure “will go up, and I am expecting that we will be 180 staff by 2019,” Mitchell says.

Turnover hit about £4.9m in 2016, with roughly £5.4m expected for last year and about £6.4m targeted this year. “We are certainly looking to be in excess of £7m in 2019,” Mitchell adds, also outlining plans to grow the business by 30 to 40 per cent every five years “in whichever way we can”. This includes broadening its geographic presence, as this year it will “pretty much have maximised capacity of what we can do with the properties on site”.

As the company looks to expand, it is therefore broadening its horizons as suitable properties are found. It is not restricted to Edinburgh, with any expansion likely to be in the UK. Indeed, the college already has a presence in Birmingham starting in 2014, while 80 per cent of its 15,000 UK-based members are in England and Wales.

The commercial side of its activity, which includes Café 1505, is looking to ramp up its festive party nights this year.Last month it hosted 2,000 city workers.

Looking ahead for the Commercial Enterprises organisation, maintaining a “very motivated and focused commercial management team who in themselves get reward from growing a business” is key, Mitchell stresses. “We’re always trying to find new ways to become busier and busier. We will look at opportunities in the future as they come to us – but the key focus on site here will always be the Royal College of Surgeons – and we would never be taking away capital to just expand the commercial entity.”