During this pandemic there have been people volunteering their time with the trade groups working behind the scenes on behalf of the hospitality industry, liaising with government bodies and such like, and ensuring people are kept abreast of what is going on and how it affects them. One of them is Gavin Stevenson, who with wife Anita, runs the Mor-Rioghain Group based in North East Scotland. He is a member of the Scottish Hospitality Group, has been working with the Scottish Licensed Trade Association on the new tied pubs legislation, is a member of the Night Time Industries Association commission in Scotland and is also involved with the Scottish Leased and Tenanted Pubs Group sharing covid updates and information to hospitality businesses.
The Mor-Rioghain Group operates a traditional Scottish live music venue in the shape of Gellions, along with adjacent pub Monty’s and the nightclub Upstairs which are all in Inverness, and the Mains of Scotstown in Aberdeen, a large food and community pub located in Bridge of Don. They also have a small outdoor events business and are in the process of opening a new restaurant and bar later this year, a project that had been on hold during the pandemic but is now progressing again. But despite having plenty on his hands Gavin still makes the time to help his fellow entrepreneurs.
He is certainly my ‘go to’ when I need information outside my ‘ken’, and he is particularly good at disseminating figures and sectoral statistics. However, it is music that was his first love.
Says Gavin, who hails from just south of Aberdeen, “I have always been in hospitality or related sectors but when I first started working in the industry some three decades ago I came from the sound, light and music part of the business – I loved music. That’s what I did when I was young, it seemed like a fun way to make a living and I moved from there to working in the bar.”
He loved music so much that he went to America and completed a specialised degree in Music and Entertainment Business Management and then ended up spending another fifteen years working overseas where he met his wife Anita. In 2005 they came back to the UK – and he subsequently joined Luminar Leisure as a Multi-site General Manager before moving on to join Punch as a Partnership Development Manager – over the next nine years he worked in a variety of roles with Punch including as a Concept Development Manager for hotels and pubs with rooms. When he left he was the Senior Punch Development Manager for Hotels across Scotland.
Gavin enjoyed his time working in a corporate environment and his experience across a broad portfolio of hospitality venues is standing him in good stead.
He says, “It is always good to work for a big corporate business because you get a lot of experience and lot of training and personal development. Working for big corporates also teaches you a lot of the fundamentals of strategic business management. As an operator you are quite busy with the day-to-day working in the business. Having a broader exposure to management and business systems and processes and, in my case, the added experience of how to operate multiple businesses was incredibly helpful and allows me to work on the business as much as working in it.”
He left Punch a few years ago when Heineken bought around two thirds of their sites. Says Gavin, “Punch were great. I was with them for almost a decade and was given the option to transfer to Heineken as part of the transition. But when you come to a crossroads in your life people tend to do something different and try new things, and we just thought it was time to give our own business a go. It was a natural transition for myself and Anita. Both of us had worked in operational management for big hospitality and leisure companies for decades. But even with all the experience we had it is certainly true you learn something new each day and every day is a school day.”
When asked what advice he would give to someone considering setting up their own business, Gavin says “If I had any advice to give I would say to people the absolute key thing is to make sure you fully understand what you are getting into. It is hard work and a lot of hours, often for not very much money, and it takes many years to build a business up. Hospitality in particular can operate on wafer thin profit margins. So owners have to put in a lot of hours and there is quite a lot of risk involved. And of course, research, research, research… You have to put in the due diligence, talk to other operators, talk to people in the business, learn what the right questions are, and make sure you take good professional advice. I knew what we were letting ourselves in for before we took our first place but even then we changed the main focus of our business within the first few years.”
The couple’s first venture was a small hotel in Aberdeenshire which they ran for several years before deciding to focus the business more on pubs and bars. Says Gavin, “At the time we had quite a well established second site which was doing fantastically, but was also over a hundred miles away, and we’d just taken on another pub as well. The hotel was a great experience, but it took a huge amount of our time to run being a 24/7 operation and it became harder to justify the amount of time we were putting in when we also wanted to keep growing the business with other sites elsewhere. It taught us a lot about what we were looking to do and the importance of thinking strategically. So we forced ourselves to look beyond the emotional attachment I think everyone has for their first business and we found a new operator for it that could give it the time it deserved. Now we focus entirely on pubs and bars, so really just food, drink and entertainment, and that tighter focus has allowed the business to grow much more successfully.”
“One of the great things about being an area manager was that you get to know the market inside out and you learn the good sites and the right locations to be in. I think all area managers have their wee list of sites they’d consider should they ever come up and I had that list too, although I had only two or three on it. Funnily enough two of my favourites happened to come up so I stuck my hand up and said, actually… I’d quite like that. We had some business history behind us by then and we were in the right place at the right time so it worked out well.”
He adds, “Obviously I am from the North East. I grew up in Aberdeenshire so know the market, and Inverness and the North is also a great part of the world. The scenery is wonderful, the people are friendly and there is a great pub scene. If traditional music is your thing, there is honestly not a better night out anywhere in Scotland than in Inverness. In the city centre there are half a dozen premises with live music on just about every night, half of which is Scottish traditional music. Gellions alone booked around 650 gigs in 2019, obviously with Covid that’s all changed over the last year, but we hope to get back to normal soon. It’s very exciting to be part of the Highlands music scene and be able to showcase all the great local musicians that live and work here.”
When asked about the future of the North and North East after the pandemic, Gavin said, “Inverness is generally a pretty stable market but like all tourism driven cities there is going to be a real struggle for the next two or three years until international tourism returns to full strength. Everyone is very clear about that – from government to local agencies – yes staycations will replace part of the revenues, but it will not come close to replacing the majority of it. Inverness prior to the pandemic had a couple of its best years ever. The city had really established itself as a ‘must visit’ place when coming to Scotland and word had very much spread internationally that if you wanted a really high quality and authentic Scottish experience, and a very convenient gateway to explore the Highlands from, Inverness offered it. So it’ll definitely come back, but it will take a few years to get there.”
“Our businesses had some really good years before the crisis but this sector runs in cycles just like everything else and we do get interruptions and corrections every few years. There’s always something that comes along to stop a boom in its tracks. But hopefully there will now be a steady recovery and there is certainly some light at the end of the tunnel from a business perspective.”
“Aberdeen has had a more difficult time for some years now because of the oil crash and that has now been amplified by the global downturn this year. Our Aberdeen pub has thankfully been OK so far, we have great support from the Bridge of Don community and we’ve invested heavily in upgrading the retail offer and adding more outdoors space which has worked out very well for us, but it’ll still take time to bounce back from the pandemic.”
When asked about the biggest challenges facing the industry in the near term, Gavin noted that, “In 2008/09 hardly anyone fell over during the recession, but two or three years later many businesses did fail, often because they had to take on too much debt just to survive the recession. That’s a real worry now as well. The other big issue is Covid restrictions – social distancing and limited hours makes it impossible for landlocked, town centre business to trade viably or sustainably at all – and they will need financial support until all restrictions end or many of them simply won’t survive.”
“Most people have no idea of what it costs to run a hospitality business – they hear big numbers with regards to grants and loans, but don’t realise the enormous costs of keeping businesses running. It can easily cost tens of thousands a month to pay business fixed costs and keep staff employed – a couple of thousand a month in grants is welcome, but really? It’s just a drop in the ocean compared to the costs of staying afloat with little or no income coming in. Unfortunately, it didn’t cross my mind when I took our pubs on to ask ‘Is it pandemic proof’? ‘Is there a forced closure clause in the lease’? That’s certainly a question we’ll be asking in the future. And hopefully government will realise support will be needed for some time, and at least as long as restrictions continue to be in place, as those restrictions make it largely impossible to break even for many businesses.”
“I think if there’s one thing that our industry has failed to communicate before the pandemic, it’s that our sector operates on wafer thin margins and we all put in a lot of work for often not much reward even in the good years. It is hard work and high risk. We offer a great community service and we employ a lot of people. And I don’t think government perhaps appreciated just how important the hospitality sector is for local communities and local employment. That’s now changing and for sure all the trade bodies are doing their level best to get that message across.”
“Before Covid there was far less understanding between the politicians and the hospitality sector and particularly the licensed trade. I think it has been a real eye opener for us all. Politicians now have a better understanding of how the industry works and how important a contributor it is with regards to jobs, tax revenue, being a valuable part of the community and so many of the other benefits of hospitality including preventing loneliness, helping young people develop their careers, raising funds for charity, and more. This is an industry that really contributes positively to society.
He adds, “Although the pandemic has been a really challenging time for everyone it has been great to see the licensed trade community come together. For me it was a chance to get more involved, volunteer my time, and work with other people in the trade to try and help the sector through the crisis. And it has been good to see us all pull together. This has been an unprecedented time in terms of trade bodies having such a vital role to play working with government to ensure the immediate survival of businesses. I would hope a lot of that enhanced cooperation will continue in future too. The job of building back after the pandemic will be just as challenging, and perhaps even more so.”
Gavin concludes, “Twelve months ago we all thought this was unthinkable, now I don’t think anything is unthinkable. What does that mean for our business? We will certainly be looking to diversify – we are keen not be as exposed to just one operating model moving forward – so we are still working on related opportunities that add diversification. Takeaway and delivery for example, and things like specialist online drinks retail. But we’re very aware that the pandemic isn’t over yet – so we still have to be cautious until things are a lot more settled and the recovery is secured.”