Meet the Birnies at 23 Mayfield, Edinburgh

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Boutique Hotelier spoke to Ross, 42, and Kathleen, 37 — the husband-and-wife team behind award-winning Edinburgh guesthouse, 23 Mayfield — for a ‘Mr and Mrs’ type insight into the dynamics of being in the hotel business with your beloved

How did the two of you meet?
Kathleen: We met at the big Hogmanay party in Edinburgh, basically on the street.
Ross: I can’t remember, haha, it was a long time ago.

Whose idea was it to open a hotel?
Kathleen: It was my husband’s. He’d worked in hotels since he was about 16 so he’s always had a bit of a flair for it. Some of Ross’ friends had a guesthouse in Brighton and chatting to them made it seem like something we could do and something Ross would be really good at, so that inspired us and we started to look for somewhere. The opportunity came up to buy a hotel, so we went for it. We said ‘why not? We’ve nothing to lose’.
We bought our first guesthouse 10 years ago. It was at a time when property in Edinburgh was rocketing and we sold our flat and made a good profit, and with help from parents, we managed to scrape enough together to buy it. Then we sold that and bought 23 Mayfield in 2008 as it’s bigger.
I still work full time as a scientist, I’m on maternity leave now but I’ve always had a separate job to the guesthouse and I help when I come home.
Ross: I’ve worked in hotels since I left school; I was an engineer on an apprenticeship and wasn’t making enough money at night so worked in hotels. I got a bit sick of working for somebody, so Kathleen said ‘why not sell our flat and find a guesthouse’. One of our friends owned a guesthouse in Brighton and said it was good and the kind of thing we’d be suited to. I was thinking ‘can we afford it?’ because to make a decent living you’ve got to have a reasonable-sized house. We had some friends in Edinburgh with a guesthouse too and they helped us look for one. We were both 100% on board from the beginning.

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How do you divide the duties?
Kathleen: Because I work fulltime, Ross does the vast majority of the checking-in, the breakfasts and I just do what I can in the evenings as well as at the weekends.
Ross: I do it all! No, I’m terrible with the book work so Kathleen does all of that. Kathleen’s got her own job so she’ll help me check-in people in the evening and she’ll give me days off at breakfast and help me do the cooking. She’s been off on maternity leave for a while now, so she’s doing as much as I’m doing and a lot more on the front-of-house side of things, and she’s really good at it.

How many hours a day do you spend together?
Kathleen: Right now we see each other every second of the day.
Ross: At the moment, all of the time, but normally Kathleen will go out to work at 8:30am and be back about 5:30pm. We do get to spend plenty of time together, it doesn’t distract from normal family life.

Who works the hardest?
Kathleen: With regards to the guesthouse, I’d say Ross does. But I do have a nine to five as well.
Ross: Me of course, haha. I think we both do, we both know there’s a lot of hard work so we both get stuck in and don’t even consider it anymore.

Who wears the trousers?
Kathleen: It’s definitely my husband. The hotel is his baby.
Ross: Both of us. If it comes to the rooms and decor, that’s myself and Kathleen’s got her head screwed on when it comes to money. I’d just overspend. Kathleen will say ‘hold on a second, we’ve got to make some money here as well’. So it works 50:50.

Is it tricky juggling the hotel and family life?
Kathleen: Yes, we have two children — Alfie, who’s 20 months old and Ethan, our 14-week old. It is hard work and especially when Ethan was newly born, but we are lucky as Ross’ parents help out a lot and we’ve got a couple of good staff here.
Ross: We’ve got a great routine going on now, Kathleen looks after the children while I’m doing the breakfast and dealing with the guests, then they’ll settle and go to sleep and she comes out and helps. So it works quite well and the guests love to see the children. Before we had children we had a dog and people came to see the dog, they weren’t interested in us.

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What do you like most about running a hotel together?
Kathleen: It’s our business so everything you put into it you’re getting back. We never wanted to be the place where you’re embarrassed to show people to their rooms. We’re proud of what we’ve achieved and we want to give guests the best experience.
Ross: We get to see each other all of the time. We’ve got the whole family here and we’re always discussing ideas for the place. Even this morning we were cooking kippers and started cooking and presenting them in a different way, but you still get excited about little things like that — it’s great.

What do you least like?
Kathleen: It’s the seven-day weeks; we don’t get a day off every week which is quite hard.
Ross: Having to do the rooms. I like the more creative stuff at breakfast time.

What do you argue about?
Kathleen: We argue most when we’re doing breakfast together. Ross is an absolute perfectionist so the slightest thing that’s wrong on the plate, he’ll pick up on and that drives me crazy. But that’s how we’ve got to where we are because of that perfection.
Ross: The bank because it’s quite hard to always stay on top of the game and you’ve got to worry about paying staff and we’ve only been going for five years so it’s a relatively new business and not a small mortgage, so it’s either that or what film we’re going to watch at night.

What would you say is your most annoying habit?
Kathleen: Probably nagging Ross to do more of our part of the housework as he feels like he’s done what he needs to do in the guesthouse.
Ross: If Kathleen was cooking breakfast and I wasn’t happy with presentation, I’d keep pestering her about it until it was right because I’ve got a thing about breakfast. It’s got to be spot on. And I won’t let it go out until it is right.

Where do you see the business in five years’ time?
Kathleen: We really want to maintain the standards and build up our repeat clientele and word of mouth. We’ll potentially extend the guesthouse into another couple of rooms, but we’re pretty content with what we have.
Ross: I hope it’s still running like it is now because we’re doing quite well and we’ve got a great repeat guest base so I just want to keep going.

Would you recommend going into the business with your beloved to others?
Kathleen: Yes, you are obviously going to be the best business partners because you’ve got each other’s back in every sense and most guesthouses are run that way and it seems to work.
Ross: Not to everyone. You’ve got to be prepared to put in 150% to get something nice out of it. I’ve recommended it to a few of my friends, they’ve done it.

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