Lord Thurso talks of accidently getting into the hospitality industry to his leadership in building luxury hotel brands, in the second of a three-part interview with the new VisitScotland chairman by journalist Kenny Kemp.
VisitScotland’s new Chair John Thurso is a man of impeccable Scottish pedigree. He was born John Sinclair in Caithness, and became the fifth generation of his family to represent the area in the House of Commons.
He still sleeps in the room in the family home where he was born. Indeed, his great, great, great, great grandfather was also Sir John Sinclair of Ullbster, renowned for recording the economic performance of Scotland in the Old and New Statistical Accounts, up to 1845.The present day Sir John of Ullbster, as 3rd Viscount Thurso, was an hereditary peer between 1994 until 1999, when the Labour Government abolished most hereditary peerages. In 2001, he was elected Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, until 2015 when he was defeated by the SNP’s Paul Monaghan. He returned to the House of Lords after winning a by-election to fill a vacancy for the remaining Liberal Democrat hereditary peers.
His Mum, the daughter of Colonel Robertson who led the Seaforth Highlanders in the First World War, was a PE teacher at Wick Academy before the Second World War and then into the 1950s.
However, he rejects any suggestion that he is ‘too pucka’ to be running Scotland's tourism organisation. And he talks at length, and with passion, about his love for the hospitality industry and his achievement in building several prestigious hospitality businesses in the UK.
“Before stepping into politics, I was an hotelier all of my professional life. I absolutely know what it’s like to be there late at night looking after a difficult guest or worrying about the ‘under-departed’, the euphemism for those who hog their rooms while other guests have arrived and there’s nowhere for them to stay.”
His knowledge of the hospitality industry and his leadership in building luxury hotel brands is second to none in Scotland, so he is ideally suited to understand the seasonal challenges and vagaries of the industry.
“I got into the hospitality business by accident really. I worked during the summer holidays. My father had turned a Caithness shooting lodge into a hotel and during the summer I would get a pound a day for washing the dishes. For a short period, it was a wonderful hotel.”
This was a lodge at Loch Dubh, near Altnabreac, in the remote peatbogs of the Flow County where the train halts on request on its northward journey to Wick and Thurso.
In the late 1960s, his careers master at Eton encouraged a long-haired 16-year-old who was not keen on joining the army, going to university or working in the City to look at a career in hospitality.
“I had this long list of what I didn’t want to do. The master opened up a drawer and pulled out a dusty application for the Reeves-Smith Scholarship to become a management trainee at The Savoy. He said: ‘What about hotels?’ And I couldn’t think of any reason not to look at this.”
After taking a gap year as a cowhand busting broncos on a Mid-West ranch, he went on to become a management trainee at The Savoy Group. It was five years of hard graft and learning: polishing crystal and perfecting table service, with a year in the massive kitchens, a year as a silver-service waiter, six months as a white-gloved bar tender, and then ending up on reception at Claridges Hotel, where he eventually became the reception manager. After a year in this role, he was sent to be the general manager of the Hotel Lancaster on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
“There I was, a 27-year-old running a five-star hotel in the centre of Paris. The whole thing was a wonderful accident because a careers master had waved a dusty form at me.”
What did he learn about this time?
“Working in the Savoy Group taught me about old-style service. That was a given. What was important was to be courteous, not just to our guests, but to our staff too.”
He admits to being a naive young managing director at the Lancaster, but he secured funding for a leadership training course which helped himself and the other managers in the hotel improve their hospitality industry skills.
“This is where I developed a passion for people and a realisation that if you have good people, who are well motivated, you end up making good profits. When I came out five years later, I had worked out a great deal that had become a blueprint for my future life,” he says.
This was all to do with motivation and what makes people get out of bed in the morning and be prepared to do great work.
“I wanted to find out what makes people happy at work. How do you motivate your people working in the kitchen or serving in the dining room? Why do people enjoy looking after customers? It was all of these things that mattered to me.”
In 1985, he was headhunted to lead the team that founded Cliveden. He was given a blank sheet of paper to build the business from scratch. “I hired every single member of staff. I was able to invent the culture and literally created the atmosphere as well as the management systems. That was a fabulous thing to do. We ended up with a Michelin star.”
In the 1990s, he worked as chief executive of Kuwaiti-owned Granfel Holdings, owner of several hotels and a top-flight golf course, before becoming chief executive of the Champneys Group, a top-of-the-range health resort and time-share that was languishing on its past reputation. Under John Sinclair’s leadership, the Hertfordshire establishment went through a painful restructuring before emerging as the de facto gold standard for all modern spa and health resorts in the UK. The team worked on a vision which ended with the strapline: ‘Nowhere else makes you feel this good.’
What does he look for in a good hotel – and what would he suggest to emerging hoteliers?
“When I was running the Lancaster, my predecessor, who was very artistic, used to do the decoration, he would choose the material for the curtains, decide on the colours for the walls, and when I took over I used to do that too. An epiphany for me was when I worked out that, as a hotel manager, I didn’t need to be a first-class flower arranger or a decorator. My job, more than anything, was to understand the strategic needs of the business and ensure the right resource was there to deliver it.”
During his time he did market research on Champneys and found it had massive high street recognition. People wanted the spa resort to deliver what it was saying in its publicity.
“We rebranded and had new collateral. We got everyone to join the club, instead of the time-share. This helped us get £6 million of extra investment to build a new wing which created the virtuous circle. If you build confidence, you are able to win investment. That means more customer satisfaction and you get more turnover. It is part of the cycle to improve the product and you can charge a bit more. We got into that happy scenario.”
He became involved with the British Hospitality Association as a panel chair and sat on various hotel boards, including the Savoy. He became patron on the Institute of Hospitality (HCIMA). In 1995, after his father died, he became a peer. He sees his political connections as helping give VisitScotland a wider profile in government. He understands the political imperative of ensuring that tourism remains at the top of the economic agenda for Scotland.