The surprising benefits of opening a hotel during the Covid-19 pandemic

Opening a hotel during a year of lockdowns and travel bans hasn’t been all bad explains Euan Ramsay of Newhall Mains

Euan Ramsay has transformed his family farm into a luxury holiday offering

After three years of painstakingly renovating a series of ruined farm buildings into a collection of luxury cottages Euan Ramsay was ready to show Newhall Mains off to the world.

Now all that faced the Black Isle native and his family was a fear and excitement-inducing launch.

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The proposed launch date? April 2020.

Newhall Mains hosts its own light aircraft runway built during the first lockdown

Just days before the proposed launch the Westminster and Scottish governments locked down the country, bringing the hospitality industry to a shuddering halt.

While Ramsay admits that it has been a “bizarre” and “challenging” eighteen months (hasn’t it just) the first time hotelier has also enjoyed the unlikely benefits of the forced-pause on business.

Another jewel in the NC500’s crown

Situated on the Black Isle a short distance north of Inverness, Newhall Mains is destined to be a must-stay offering for well-heeled travellers circulating Scotland’s NC500.

The term 'mains' comes from the Scottish term for a collection of farm buildings

With a flashy bar stocked with a library of whisky and local Cromarty beer, a collection of charming and voguish holiday cottages, and a suntrap outdoor dining space, Newhall Mains is a far cry from the “nice cottage on the farm” which Ramsay initially envisaged when he began renovating the abandoned properties of his family farm.

The delay in opening caused by coronavirus allowed Ramsay to further the hotel’s x-factor with a few ambitious additions.

“When lockdown arrived I was stuck on the ground and didn't know what to do,” explains Ramsay. “And one of our one of my big dreams had always been to develop a small airstrip for light aircraft.

"There was a chap who was supposed to be doing a big wind farm out on the West Coast and his work was cancelled and I called him up and said let's build a runway.”

“We also added an Argentinian barbecue area, fun things which wouldn't have been possible while the hotel was in operation what with the racket caused by diggers”.

Few customers have yet been able to enjoy take advantage of these luxury add-ons, but last Summer a soft-opening of sorts took place when the hospitality sector was partially reopened in Scotland.

This period of limbo, while frustrating and far from ideal on the financial front, allowed the team at Newhall Mains to fine-tune their operations and limit, as Ramsay puts it, any “cock ups”.

“It gave us the breathing space to better understand how the business works in a limited capacity, and hopefully not make too many stupid mistakes,” he says.

“It provided us an idea of costs, and how everything fits together, we can just slowly scale up with staffing for instance.”

The pandemic has hit the hospitality industry harder than most with an estimated 660,000 jobs lost in the UK last year.

While rival hotels have been laying off staff, Newhall Mains has been on a recruitment drive and this has seen the hotel able to “put together a really, really good team”.

Attracting talent to the north of Scotland had been a fear of the Black Isle-raised hotelier prior to the hotel’s planned opening in 2020.

But he says that lockdown has seen hospitality staff based in big cities such as London and Edinburgh reassess their lifestyle following an extended period cooked up in an urban jungle, making recruitment “a breeze”.

A fairer deal for the customer

With the UK set for a ‘staycation’ boom, and international travel to and from the country limited until further notice, Newhall Mains will predominantly be hosting domestic tourists in 2021.

Ramsay said that he is hopeful that this shift from international to domestic guests will see fairer prices emerge for travellers.

"I did a tour of the country last year and found some places that were quite frankly, overpriced. And I felt that they kind of got away with it because they were attracting a certain demographic and a certain type of tourist. A North American tourist for instance might be happy to pay £400-a-night.”

"I hope that this whole situation has rebased everything, because you're dealing with the domestic market and people, that won’t pay those prices which I think is fair.

A stay-for-two in one of Newhall Mains’ luxurious double suites is priced at £125-a-night, while the rental of an immaculate four-person cottage starts at £205-a-night, providing value which Ramsay hopes will encourage a year-round trade.

“At the moment in Scotland, it's very cyclical because people charge extortionate rates throughout the summer, and then clearly, it's not financially justifiable in the winter months to operate.

"If we can charge a fair rate throughout the year, then that's great.

"My approach has always been okay, but let's get things right from the get-go and get the pricing right, and not take the Mickey. If we can fill that gap from November to March, then great.”

Gearing up for the reopening

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has indicated that the hospitality trade can reopen on April 26 – a year after Newhall Mains’ originally planned launch date.

With that delay taken advantage of by the team at Newhall Mains Ramsay is confident that his new hotel can emerge as an instant success.

“There is no real textbook for launching a hospitality offering - and there is certainly no textbook as to managing a business in the midst of a global pandemic,” he says. “But I think it's all gonna come together, and it should, fingers crossed, work?””