The Big Interview: St Andrews Old Course Hotel general manager Helen McBride

'We'll always continue to explore ways to be attractive to all different clients,' says Helen McBride. 'And no business is going to want to have just one stream of revenue.'
'We'll always continue to explore ways to be attractive to all different clients,' says Helen McBride. 'And no business is going to want to have just one stream of revenue.'
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My family keeps telling me I should write a book,” laughs Helen McBride, saying her near three decades working in hospitality – including a stint at Sir Richard Branson’s tropical paradise Necker Island – have provided days at work she’s told could only happen in her world.

One anecdote relates to the Old Course Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa in St Andrews, where she has been general manager since July, when a golf ball smashed through one window and out another, narrowly missing a waiter’s head in the process.

The renowned Fife resort bills itself as one of the most luxurious destinations of its kind in the world, and has thankfully played host to far more accomplished players.

Indeed, golfing great Tiger Woods is among those to have stayed at the hotel, which has 144 rooms including 35 suites as well as the first Kohler spa outside the US, with 13 treatment rooms. There are 11 golf courses in the immediate vicinity including its own championship course – The Duke’s – and the resort borders the 17th Road Hole of the Old Course.

It is part of Wisconsin-headquartered global plumbing giant Kohler Company, in which Herb Kohler is the executive chairman.

The group was founded in 1873, and describes itself as one of America’s oldest and largest privately held companies. Among its portfolio is championship golf course Whistling Straits that welcomed the PGA Championship in 2004 and 2010, and will host the 2020 Ryder Cup.

Returning to this side of the Atlantic, St Andrews is very close to Herb Kohler’s heart, says McBride, who arrived just before it in January 2017 embarked on a three-and-a-half-month refurbishment, which saw bedrooms revamped and the spa extended.

She had joined as head of food and beverage, progressing to resident manager, and then assuming her current role, now leading a team that can reach 400 in peak season.

Kohler Company has a wholly owned subsidiary, Kohler Scotland Limited, which owns 99.8 per cent of The Old Course Limited, which in turn owns and operates the Old Course Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa and develops luxury properties.

The Old Course Ltd in 2017 saw its annual pre-tax loss widen to £4.2 million from £833,736 in 2016, while turnover grew to £23.7m from £18.1m due in part to occupancy rates and the number of hotel guests increasing.

One of the advantages of not being owned by a large hotel group, says McBride, is it enables the hotel to offer guests a more personalised experience. Kohler has also provided funds to make sure that it keeps up with consumer trends and preferences.

The hotel has been expanding its offering with the likes of seaweed-based spa treatments, “pro-sleep” massages, outdoor yoga on the hotel’s fourth floor balcony, and virtual reality golf that was unveiled in September.

Such moves come amid a somewhat subdued outlook for the UK hotel sector this year, with PwC anticipating slower growth “reflecting uncertainty, softer economic and demand trends, and the impact of high levels of new hotel room additions”.

The accountancy giant expects hotels outside London to see growth in their average daily rate of 1.2 per cent, down from 1.3 per cent in 2018, with occupancy forecast to remain flat.

McBride flags the pressing need to be ahead of the game, adding that most of her job, and indeed the most challenging part, entails planning what to do next, and how it will be done.

The benefits of such a broader offering include helping boost occupancy in colder months as well as catering to the partner and/or children of golfing guests. “We’re always exploring, we’ll always continue to explore ways to be attractive to all different clients. And no business is going to want to have just one stream of revenue coming in,” she says.

McBride started her career in the hospitality trade as a “busser”, clearing and resetting restaurant tables, and she climbed the ranks at Conran Restaurants in London, at the likes of Butlers Wharf Chop House and Quaglinos, serving as opening manager for both the Great Eastern Hotel and Mezzo.

Working for the Conran group proved a formative period, giving an in-depth education in hospitality, “how much fun you could have with it, and how fast everything moved”.

Roles that followed included managing Irish restaurateur Oliver Peyton’s now-shuttered Atlantic Bar & Grill near Leicester Square, where her duties included working on the door and ensuring the right calibre of client was granted entry.

Her working environment gained a much balmier backdrop with her first international post at Sandy Lane in Barbados. It has welcomed guests including Joan Collins, Gwyneth Paltrow, the Beckhams, and Beyoncé. Tiger Woods got married there in 2004 and the resort also often hosted controversial retail tycoon Philip Green over the festive season.

McBride later worked at Rosewood Little Dix Bay in the British Virgin Islands, which is scheduled to reopen later this year after being damaged by Hurricane Irma.

That weather event also affected Necker Island, which was her next posting. She spent about two years there, holding the deputy general manager post, and now describes it as a great deal of fun and a “crazy” place to work.

“How Necker runs is completely different from any other resort that I’ve experienced – it was a phenomenal job,” she continues, saying its whole ethos was to make sure everybody had fun “all the time”, and focus on constantly coming up with new ideas for guest experiences.

But with her children’s schooling in mind a relocation was on the cards, although St Andrews had not been on her radar. She was headhunted to join her current employer, also pleased to have the chance to work with Stephen Carter. He was appointed Old Course general manager in 2016 after eight years working with De Vere Hotels, the lion’s share of which was spent at Cameron House on Loch Lomond. Previous roles include managing The Caledonian in the Scottish capital, which is now the Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh.

McBride admits that the adjustment from the Caribbean to the chilly coastal climes of Fife – and the inevitable wardrobe changes – took some time.

But she is keen to stress the advantages of her Fife base, with the hotel inking tie-ups with many local names such as beer and spirits maker Eden Mill, while the hotel’s Road Hole Bar lays claim to being able to serve a Scotch from any of the 212 active distilleries in Scotland.

Also part of the Kohler portfolio is Hamilton Grand, built in 1895 and renovated by its current owner in 2013. It comprises 26 luxury apartments overlooking the North Sea, the Royal & Ancient clubhouse, and the first tee and 18th green of the Old Course.

Built on the site of the Union Parlour, the first golfers’ club anywhere in the world, and described as having the best view in golf, it started out as the Grand Hotel more than 100 years ago, hosting guests including Edward VIII, Rudyard Kipling and Bing Crosby. It was also the first building in Scotland both to have a lift, and hot and cold running water in each bedroom.

It later served as the training headquarters of the Royal Air Force, and a University of St Andrews hall of residence, and was at one point in the sights of Donald Trump.

Herb Kohler said in the Old Course Ltd 2017 results statement, published in September last year, that Brexit uncertainty would stifle selling the apartments in 2018 and beyond, adding: “The weakening pound presents a risk of increased costs to the company, but could also stimulate overseas tourist numbers visiting the UK.”

The Office for National Statistics said in July that visitor numbers to Scotland were up by 17 per cent over the previous year to 3.2 million, with spending up by nearly a quarter.

McBride says the resort has not yet seen any impact of Brexit on its workforce, “but we are braced”. And she admits that there is “absolutely” concern, with question marks also over the future of its considerable EU imports.

The strategy is to try and manage whatever happens in the best fashion possible, but Brexit is “not something I’m looking forward to”.

For now, the focus is on service, with revenue and occupancy in robust health and their outlook positive.

You can’t take your foot off the pedal, she adds. “We need to make sure that… we’re able to give availability to the clients that want it – and that we’re using every stream of revenue well.”