My year: Graham Wood, The Chester Hotel

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Graham Wood reflects on the ups and downs of the past year, during which he and his wife Gillian oversaw the £5m renovation of their second property, The Chester Hotel in Aberdeen.

Spring 2013: Works commenced

Gillian and I had lived in Aberdeen before we moved and opened our first boutique hotel in Edinburgh, The Chester Residence, in 2007.

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Four years ago we moved back to Aberdeen with our children. In the past, we’d spent a lot of time socialising with family and friends at Simpson’s hotel on Queen’s Road, yards from where we lived.

When we returned to the area, the Simpson’s owner approached me.

He knew we had a hotel in Edinburgh and asked if we were looking for one in Aberdeen. He’d been talking to a friend of mine and had said he’d had enough of the industry.

So we had some further discussions and eventually we took on Simpson’s hotel in spring 2012. We knew when we bought it that the hotel as it was had come to the end of its life but with some serious investment, it had fantastic potential as a hotel.

For the next 12 months, we ran the hotel and gathered guests’ opinions on what they were looking for. It became very clear that Aberdeen needed a new venue for conferences and weddings.

We started planning a £5m overhaul and extension of the property and building works commenced in spring 2013.

Summer 2013: Works underway

During that first year we put together a team for the renovation of the 19th Century building.
We decided to use two designers, Aberdeen-based interior designer, Ambiance — who we’d worked with for the Edinburgh hotel — styled the guestrooms.

We brought in Graven Images to design the public spaces. Its portfolio includes the former Hotel Missoni in Edinburgh (now the G&V Royal Mile) and Blythswood Square in Glasgow.

Drawing up the blueprints with the architect took four – five months. We decided that the hotel would have 59 guestrooms, two suites and a 90-cover fine-dining restaurant and relaxed lounge bar plus two beauty rooms and nail bars.

We planned three private-dining spaces catering to groups of 10-14 into the restaurant area, which have been fully booked since we launched. Then there is the function suite which we initially thought would cater to 180, but decided to almost double this to a 300 capacity.
We started with the demolition of the existing extension containing the restaurant and on that site we started building the conference and wedding facilities with a restaurant and bedrooms above it.

Autumn 2013: Works halted

About four months into the build we realised that the original roof height in the extension was too low.
We’d had so many decisions to make in those early stages of the project that we hadn’t really considered the impact of the ceiling height.
Anyway, we went and looked at some similar hotel venues and realised our current design wouldn’t work for us. So we made the tough decision to send the builders home for two months so we could redesign the area.

We increased the roof height from nine feet to 13 feet, which was basically the difference between a claustrophobic conference venue and what we can now call a ballroom. Now that we’re open, we’re glad we did.

The second huge decision we had to make was to double the size of the ballroom by nearly 50%, a decision we made overnight. Again, the builders had to leave the site while this was redesigned. Both changes to the original plans posed big challenges during those 12 months.

One of the key objectives was to increase weekend occupancy. Often, Aberdeen hotel occupancy is 100% from Monday to Friday and drops to around 20% on the weekend. We expect the weddings business will push this up.

Winter and into 2014

Over the winter we were working to a strict deadline as we had our first wedding booked in for the spring.

We reopened the restaurant and rooms on March 1, followed by the conference venue. The first wedding was held in April. It wasn’t a huge event so it didn’t push us too much, but we had good feedback.

We had a few small soundproofing issues due to the restaurant being located above the venue. The wedding parties often have bands and DJs playing until late evening, which could be heard if you were enjoying a meal in the restaurant upstairs. These kinds of issues are very difficult to test and resolve until you’re up and running.

Overall the F&B, weddings and conferences make up less than 25% of revenue. Looking ahead, we expect we can increase this to achieve a split of 60% of overall revenue from rooms, and 40% from F&B, conferences and weddings.

The IX restaurant, run by Savoy-trained executive chef Kevin Dalgleish, has already been a success.

Over the next few years, our focus will be on this hotel — creating something we can be proud of.

Then if after several years I can take a two-week holiday, I’ll be a very happy man.

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