Marvellous Marcliffe

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Susan Young paid a visit to Aberdeen recently to catch up with hotelier Stewart Spence, the man behind the cities five-star Marcliffe Hotel & Spa.

There is no doubt about it, The Marcliffe Hotel in Aberdeen has been the talk of the steamie for the past couple of years. In fact ever since Stewart Spence revealed he was to retire and sell the building to developers, fans of the hotel have been dismayed. However at the beginning of the year he had a change of heart… and to say his customers are relieved would be an understatement. In fact during our interview, which took place in the reception area of the hotel, umpteen ladies took the time to say how delighted they were that the Marcliffe was staying open. Although I am not sure how his long-term partner, Doreen, feels about it. Plans for the two of the them to retire and live together have obviously been put on hold. Stewart tells me, “I worked with my ex-wife Sheila for 25 years and when Doreen and I got together 18 years ago we said we wouldn’t live together until we didn’t work together.”

So why did he decide to put his retirement plans on hold? Says Stewart, “The sale has been hanging over the hotel for seven years. In 2007 a local businessman, Ivor Finnie, approached me to buy the hotel. He got planning approval to build a 200-bedroom Crowne Plaza but then the financial crisis happened and the deal fell through. Then a local developer made an approach about selling the site for development – he would knock the hotel down and build offices – there were planning objections, so the idea to build offices became apartments instead. That company was sold to house developer, Stewart Milne, but all the way along there were planning objections, and these were outwith my control. When it looked like it wasn’t going to happen I decided to take it back into the family.”

He continues, “I have three sons, but in 2009 I lost my daughter, Jackie to cancer. She would have run the Marcliffe if I had retired. She used to say, “Dad, I’ll run it as long as your not there.” After she died I was happy to progress with the sale of the site. I was much keener on a developer turning it into apartments rather than someone buying the hotel and running it as such. A lot of people didn’t want to buy the hotel, as it would have been a big undertaking to take it on after it had been run by my family for so long.” Stewart says, matter of factly, “I am the face of the place. In fact one of my good friends Donald MacDonald said that no-one would buy it until I started taking a back seat. He told me ‘I’ve 34 hotels and no-one knows me.’ But I have always been the face of every hotel that I have owned and that’s why they have been successful.”

Stewart has been working in the hospitality industry for 53 years now. He started off at the Station Hotel in Aberdeen in 1962 and worked in Paris and London before returning to Aberdeen and buying the families first hotel – The Atholl in Aberdeen in 1972. Since then he has owned and operated six hotels and one restaurant – The Capitol, in Aberdeen. The Marcliffe Hotel and Spa was opened in 1993 by former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and it remains Aberdeen’s only five-star hotel.

marcliffeHowever he is now taking a different approach to the business. Says Stewart, “I have got a new young team and we now have department managers and myself and Doreen. Even though each department manager will have responsibility for their own area, now they will also know about all the other departments too. I want them to know about everything. This means that everyone can work everywhere. We haven’t operated like that before. But it is time for a step change. Multi-tasking is the secret to survival.” He continues, “We have always been a busy hotel. Last year we had a £7.7m turnover with only 41 rooms. If we hadn’t been winding down that would have been over £8m. Fred Duncan of Grampian Country Foods once told me ‘Delegate but never abdicate’, and that is now my philosphy. Ross, my son, who is also the Head Chef, is a huge asset here, he will take over from his father’s front of house role in the long term and my other two sons – Greg, who works offshore, and Craig who is a landscape gardener, are also very supportive. I also brought an advisor into the equation who was able to help me make the decision to keep the hotel.

“To be honest,” says Stewart, “The idea of golf and dog walking was probably never me.” Instead, Stewart and his team are about to embark on a refurbishment programme for the hotel. However the hotel will not close during the refurbishment. Stewart explains, “We will do it bit by bit.”

Despite having a new team, not everyone is new. Says Stewart, “So many of our staff had already left at the end of November. Four are now back. I’ve always been fortunate with my staff. We always paid way above the odds, and staff work for me not for a company. We very seldom lose people to another hotel. But I have one rule and that is I only ever employ nice people. My staff also know that – they also hire only nice people. You can work with, and mould nice people.”

Stewart is also not fazed by the thought of business declining with regard to Aberdeen’s reliance on the struggling oil industry. He tells me, “I operated throughout the 1986 and the 1998 recessions. I know what it is like and I know how to run a business in a downturn. In 1986, the first slump, Aberdeen emptied overnight. Oil went from $40 a barrel to $9. The Americans all went back and houses were empty, and the hotel business had gone. I had been one of the founders of the Aberdeen Hotel Association and we went to see Gordon Hendry who was director of tourism for Aberdeen. We went to his office and he had a smirk on his face. We asked him what could he do for our hotels… they were empty! We asked him where were the tourists? He said, “Gentlemen about fifteen years ago when oil arrived you told every tourist to f*** off.” What he said was absolutely true. Before oil arrived we had survived on package deals. At that time there was no internet. And the package providers screwed us into the ground on price. When the oil workers arrived they didn’t ask the price of a room. And in 1986 I had Invery House and I thought holy shit what will I do. I realised that we had all our eggs in one basket. Ever since I have embraced tourists. I sell our hotels and Aberdeen as the gateway to Royal Deeside and a base for travelling. I set my tariff and I stick to them – my rates never change for 52 weeks a year. I don’t drag them down, but every other hotel in Aberdeen changes their rates. You can’t build your business and attract tourists if you keep changing your price.

Currently the Marcliffe is rated the No 2 hotel on tripadvisor but says Stewart, Personally I always think of the Marcliffe as No 1. Skene Apartments may be No1 on tripadvisor, but it is not a hotel, but it is classified as one. This is not right.” Stewart is a member of Connoisseurs Scotland Hotels – a collection of luxury hotels situated here, and one of the perks is that members can stay in each other’s hotels for very attractive rates. Stewart makes the most of this perk. He tells me, “Because Doreen and I don’t live together we do like to get away on a Sunday night, and stay over at a good hotel. It helps keeps the romance alive. I love Gleneagles. The staff there are great. Iris who looks after guest relations is unbelievable, and Ahmed who still works in the restaurant at the weekend is a 40+ year employee. It is all about the people and the service. I also like the fact it is dog friendly.” Says Stewart, “We’ve always been dog friendly. If people who have pets are going away for a weekend they don’t want to put their dogs into kennels. We have ground floor rooms with patio doors that have dog mats and dishes.” And on that note Stewart spies his grandson, Elliot, who is now eight, but who was only three when his mum Jackie died. He gets up to have a wee chat with the young fellow who has just been fundraising and has raised £106, no doubt for his mothers charitable trust. Since Jackie’s death Stewart and his family have donated a garden for the local Maggie’s Centre and are paying for its upkeep. A lovely legacy. And for the people of Aberdeen who obviously hold Stewart Spence in high regard, they are just happy that his own legacy, The Marcliffe Hotel and Spa is staying ‘open for business and under his stewardship.’ Stewart concludes, “It was good, but we will now make it better.” Of that I have no doubt.


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Category: Features, Hotel News, People
Tags: Aberdeen, hotel Aberdeen, Marcliffe Hotel & Spa, Stewart Spence