It has quite a history, with the oldest part of the building dating back to the Knights Templar in 1460, and previous owners including Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, one of the few male passengers to survive the Titanic disaster. During the Second World War, it was used as a training ground for the fire service.
The hotel was some years ago acquired by the family of Scottish financial services veteran Martin Gilbert, and he said in 2018 on the news of Mr Walker’s appointment that the new MD was “an extremely well-respected hotel professional who is recognised as one of Scotland’s finest hotel general managers by his peers across the UK”.
Mr Walker joined Maryculter House from Meldrum House Country Hotel and Golf Club where he was general manager. He says he took on his current role as he could see the property’s potential, including its prestigious history and location, and the flexibility of private ownership. “I was never sure what I wanted to work as when I was at school. For work experience, hotels were suggested to me – and I’ve never looked back.”
You are set to reopen your doors tomorrow – how have you managed during this latest lockdown, and what was the reaction from potential guests when the April 26 reopening date was announced?
Yes, absolutely and we can’t wait to welcome guests back to Maryculter House from tomorrow and to share all we’ve been planning, from new and exciting menus to further refurbishment of the hotel while we’ve been closed.
But yes, things have definitely felt a bit more challenging this time – perhaps it's because this lockdown was over the dark winter months – and with so much uncertainty as to when we would reopen. Potential guests were delighted that we had a re-opening date and were almost as relieved as us to see that we had a date to aim for, as everyone knows how hard hospitality has been hit.
Weddings are a hugely important part of our offering and so the latest announcement about the easing of wedding restrictions has been fantastic for our happy couples who can now invite more guests – and with the earlier-than-expected lifting of travel restrictions, this is a major step forward for the hospitality industry, especially hotels.
What do you expect 2021 to look like for Maryculter House, given the question marks remaining over foreign travel?
I think our focus must be on the domestic market for the rest of 2021, but with an emphasis on continuing to work with our overseas partners to ensure future bookings for 2022 and 2023, as well as working with the rest of our local industry to promote Scotland as a destination. We are in the fortunate position of having overwhelmingly loyal local customers that we cannot wait to see once we reopen.
We have already had a lot of interest and bookings for overnight packages and dining reservations. I think people are excited to get out of the house and feel passionate about supporting their favourite local businesses, and we’re delighted to help families and loved ones reunite after such a long time.
We’ve also used this time to refresh parts of the hotel, we’re undertaking a full refurbishment of the bedrooms, with 17 rooms completed to date.
What is your view of the support the hospitality sector has had from the Holyrood and Westminster governments since the outbreak of coronavirus? Scotland, for example, has announced a £25 million tourism recovery programme...
I think we can appreciate that it has been a challenging situation for politicians to navigate, with a lot of big and difficult decisions to be made given the pace of the virus and how it spread. I'm not convinced the £25m tourism recovery programme will have much of an impact on hotels – but it will help our industry partners, and we hope to feel the benefit of this.
Furlough was a lifeline for a lot of businesses, no matter which industry. However, there have been and will continue to be costs to businesses while the staff are on furlough. I think the business grant system has been flawed at times – but I have been grateful to have had the government support to allow us to stay safe during this difficult time while being able to retain our team.
To what extent has the pandemic highlighted hospitality businesses’ key role in their communities – and to the economy? UKHospitality has noted that they provide 10 per cent of employment in Scotland.
I think it has been made clear, and one positive out of the past 12 months is that everyone, including governments, now sees hospitality as a hugely important part of the community, and a key industry that not only provides 10 per cent of employment in Scotland but is crucial to supporting the local supply chain.
On a surface level, good old-fashioned traditional hospitality is one of the things that we have all missed, and maybe we undervalued (especially as a career) before. It’s something Maryculter House has always had at its core and feels immensely passionate about, but there’s always more than can be done and I look forward to building on the success of the hotel.
What can be done to attract more people into your sector, for example the Hospitality Apprenticeship North East (Hane) initiative?
We need to ensure that we focus on our people and encourage them to grab every opportunity, whether it's extra training and/or education, or helping them to gather insight and experience from leaders in the industry. But we also need to all do our part to attract new people into the industry and show the potential there is for a rewarding career. I work closely with schools in the local area, offering them an insight into the hospitality industry through different initiatives and mini projects.
The last 12 months have been tough for everyone, so people coming into our industry must be looked after and supported. I was part of the founding committee of Hane. It is key to giving youngsters opportunities to learn on the job, gain experience in all departments, and nurture the talent of the future. We are delighted to have our apprentice, Luke, on board with us at Maryculter House. Unfortunately, Covid-19 has halted his training for the moment, but we look forward to welcoming him back and helping him finish what he started.
What does your role entail – you’ve been named an Unsung Hero of the Year in your industry – and what is your biggest challenge?
I oversee all operations of the hotel, I feel particularly passionate about the promotion and marketing side of the business due to its rich history and I like to offer a unique guest experience. I recruit, train, and supervise staff and support them to reach their potential. Not forgetting the day-to-day tasks of managing budgets, hotel refurbishments, and responding to guest queries and reviews.
A hugely important part of my role that I take very seriously is upholding the highest standard of hospitality. This is at the core of everything we do at Maryculter House. Something that has greatly contributed to the continuous development of this was me being nominated to join one of the hospitality industry’s most sought-after national bodies and become a Master Innholder, one of my proudest moments, and one that motivates me to promote the hospitality industry nationally.
I was also fortunate enough to become a Fellow of the Institute of Hospitality. I was delighted to be shortlisted for an Unsung Hero award in 2020 but I genuinely just do my job and enjoy it, if I get recognition then that is a bonus. My biggest challenge would probably be living up to the pressure I put on myself to ensure the business is a success with happy guests and motivated staff.
What would you like the hotel to look like in March 2022 – two years after the outbreak of the pandemic?
I would like to think my team and I have created a sustainable and successful business that exceeds guest's expectations and offers something different. A hotel that is committed to solidifying our position as the go to destination in the region for high-quality food, breath-taking surroundings, and traditional hospitality, all while honouring its history.
If we focus on achieving this and ensuring every guest leaves the hotel having had the best possible experience, as well as the continued development of our team, I have every faith we will make a positive impact on the hospitality industry.