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Licensee Interview: Change at the Top

August 2nd, 2017 | Posted in:

After more than 47 years in hospitality Jean Urquhart is handing over the reins of Ullapool’s Ceilidh Place to daughter Rebecca. 

Creating a catering business from scratch on a shoestring budget is tough. Factor in a rural, Highland location at the end of single track road and it is evident that the odds were stacked against the late actor Robert Urquhart and wife Jean, founded Ullapool’s Ceilidh Place back in 1970.

However, forty seven years on, the road has been upgraded and the Ceilidh Place is not only a thriving hotel-cum arts centre and award winning music venue; it is a Scottish cultural institution that enjoys widespread notoriety as a place for good food, engaging cultural events and chance encounters.

Now, Jean who has been a major driving force behind the business since its early days- is facing a major challenge. She is managing the transition of the enterprise to the next generation of the family – her daughter Rebecca and son-in-law Gary. She says, “Some years ago an Edinburgh retailer told me that if you can successfully pass a business onto the second generation then it has a good chance of surviving to the fifth. Athough nothing can be taken for granted.”

Rebecca and husband, Gary Craig returned to Ullapool in 2009 and this was the start of an ongoing process to take over the business. Their presence allowed Jean the freedom to pursue a career in politics that took her to the Scottish Parliament via the Highland Council as member of the SNP and then as an independent representative. Now Jean is based in Shetland where she is immersed in painting and where she intends to create a written account of the history of the Ceilidh Place. However, she still visits Ullapool regularly and is on hand to provide business support and guidance to her daughter and son-in-law.

Before returning to Ullapool, Rebecca was manager of Glasgow’s Gandolphi Fish restaurant and Gary managed rehearsal studios for bands. Asked what inspired them to make the move to back to the Highlands Rebecca says, “ I think Ullapool is a great spot and there are some really cool people in and around the area. Also, it was our wish to have a family and it is a good place for that. The Ceilidh Place being a family business, it was an opportunity to step in there. It was really at the point where it would be sold.”

Contained with in a row of converted croft houses, the Ceilidh Place has 13 bedrooms in the main hotel and another 11 in the more modest and affordable bunkhouse. There is a bar and a coffee shop which leads through to an extension known as the green room. The walls of these spaces accommodate an ever changing series of art exhibitions and at night the coffee shop becomes a restaurant, performance space or ceilidh venue, depending on what is on the events calendar. (There is a further performance space in the bunkhouse.)

The bookshop keeps the same hours as the bar and it relies on customer integrity because it is not always staffed, so people often have to track down a receptionist or waiter, in order make a purchase. Upstairs there is a residents’ lounge which has a small kitchen adjoining it where guests can help themselves to tea or coffee and buy drinks from an honesty bar.

One of the founding principles of the Ceildih Place was that it would, in the words of Robert, become a place where, “not just postcards but life histories would be written.”

Jean says that in an industry that is very much concerned with constantly raising the game and improving things, they did not set out to be top hoteliers or to create a gold standard. “We don’t really fit into the guide books and we do not appeal to everyone, but Robert and I would always say that people would not remember the bed or the bedroom but they would remember if they were kept up all night by a really good political debate or a wonderful discussion with musicians.”

Jean Urquhart

Loyal Ceilidh Place customers need not worry too much about how the business is being taken forward. Gary and Rebecca whilst acknowledging that the business can’t stand still, do not intend to make any fundamental alterations to the way it is run. Rebecca says, “I am aware of all the hard work that was put into the business from day one so that is the base of it really and we have to be careful that something of that is always present. That can be quite difficult. I haven’t made any grand sweeping changes and I don’t think I ever would. There is plenty that we can do in modernising it without destroying the original ethos and brand.”

Jean contends that, if a small hotel is to be viable over the longterm, then the way it is run must reflect the true personalities of those running it. The Ceilidh Place is a venture founded on a sense of fun and a fascination with the arts. Jean says:

“Robert always compared the industry to theatre. When the dinner gong went at seven o’clock or the dining room door opened, it was the equivalent of the curtain going up. The waiting staff would perform and the whole thing was an event.”

Since returning to Ullapool Rebecca has focused her energies on improving staff training and on upping the standards of food provision. She says “I think what’s important is getting a sort of infrastructure in place that keeps the business modern and keeps it up to date from a technological side. The next big thing at the moment is online bookings and people being able to access it that way. The website is now being looked at “It needs to have a bit of a buzz about it so it is being constantly updated whether it’s letting people know about gigs, exhibitions or menu changes and other events.”

Gary, meanwhile works behind the bar and often fulfils a role as sound engineer for live performances. However, a great deal of his time is taken up with practical, maintenance tasks. This is a good thing according to Jean. She says, “You need somebody around knowing that there’re are things to be done. Gary seems to be very happy looking after the buildings and anyone who has run a hotel will know that there is never an hour when you are not needed to go and fix a tap, mend a fuse or repair a lampshade or piece of kitchen equipment.”

Gary and Rebecca now have two young children who they are bringing up with the help of au pairs, at the same time as working together full time in the business. Things were different when Rebecca and her older brother Jonathan were children because Robert’s film and theatre career took him away from Ullapool and Jean was on her own for around two thirds of the year. There were, by all accounts, some comical scenarios. Jean says, “ I used to alternate between reading the bedtime story and taking orders in the dining room. I was sure that one day I would present customers with a copy of ‘Peter Rabbit’ instead of the menu!”

However there were advantages to what was undoubtedly a challenging situation. Jean says, “ By and large, I got a lot of things my own way. Once you have more than one person driving a hotel it in terms of how things are going to be, I think it gets complicated and people can fall out about the silliest things.”

Nowadays, when Jean returns to Ullapool she cannot help but cast a critical eye around the hotel. “It is very easy getting caught up in one aspect of your business and you actually stop seeing things but it always makes it annoying when I come back and point out things that need to be done, which are already on the list.”

As well as hoping that the business will be passed down through the family for generations to come, Jean hopes that Gary and Rebecca will have as much fun running the business as she has. She is under no illusions, though, about how hard a task it is to keep on top of things in the catering industry. “You know what they say, you are only as good as your last hard scone.”

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