THE BIG INTERVIEW: Paul Szkiler, owner, Glenapp Castle on accelerating development plans during the pandemic

Paul Szkiler Proprietor Glenapp Castle Scotland

At Glenapp Castle in Scotland, owner Paul Szkiler has utilised the pandemic to accelerate development plans that have been in the pipeline for some time. Now ready and raring to show off its newest offering and reopen after the third lockdown, the hotel is ready to capitalise on a bumper summer. We speak to Paul about how the business has adapted during Covid-19, coped without its usual influx of international guests and prepared for the launch of The Endeavour.

This year will see the launch of the Penthouse at Glenapp Castle, a project that has been part of owner Paul Szkiler’s vision since he acquired the property in 2015. The Endeavour sits atop the historic hotel, boasting more than 4,500 sq ft and comprising four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a lounge with dining room, a TV snug, sauna, library, a games room, plus a private lift and a personal treatment room.

The new addition has been designed to appeal to guests looking for the ultimate luxury experience and looks set to hit the mark with the hotel’s solid North American guest base, as well as visitors from around the UK as Glenapp looks to gain momentum in the staycation market.

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Glenapp Castle has been on a steady growth trajectory since Paul and his wife Poppy took over the hotel six years ago. They have invested in facilities and made significant changes to operations to maximise the potential of all the hotel has to offer.

The launch of The Endeavour is just the next part of the puzzle.

We caught up with owner Paul Szkiler as he puts the finishing touches to the new Penthouse, to discover his plans for reopening.

How has Glenapp managed each lockdown? What government support have you utilised? 

Of course the whole lockdown scenario has been relatively unprecedented certainly in our lifetime. Being informed that we were unable to trade at the outset of the COVID-19’s appearance seemed initially unjustifiable, however as we saw the infection rates and deaths increased we began to understand more clearly some of the reasoning for the draconian measures. It is very difficult for many hotels to remove all fixed overheads and at the same time to have zero income is of course a huge challenge. Having made that point I believe the Scottish Government together with the UK Government have provided a level of support which has allowed a basic level of sustainability. 

We have benefited from a number of grants one of which has been targeted on job retention and creating new jobs when we are able to trade again fully. In addition, Glenapp within the hospitality industry has benefited from 5% VAT and for us here this has been especially helpful as we have been involved in some very large capital projects.   

Additionally, we are coming up to the first year of rates relief and of course the initial furlough scheme and the flexible furlough scheme have allowed us to avoid any redundancies or lay offs and to keep a very valuable and efficient team together for when we eventually reopen. 

What have been some of the biggest challenges of 2020 and the lockdowns, tier systems and regulations on the sector?

Probably some of the biggest challenges of lockdown are in attempting to disseminate the information provided and being able to make good business decisions sometimes without a full picture. We all appreciate the tremendous efforts that local and national governments have gone into to deal with the effects of coronavirus, but certainly clear concise communication has been one of the weaker aspects of what we are dealing with. Unguarded or thoughtless comments to news media from ministers and even scientists have their implications for us all. 

The climate of fear which has been created seems disproportionate to the reality of the pandemic. We will all no doubt debate this much into the future but in a time of crisis, clear unified communication is essential, credible facts being the most important and opinions generally being unhelpful. 

We consider as a team that we have been up to date with all the changes, week by week, but it was quite shocking to hear second-hand and then confirmed on the Scottish Government website that English guests could not travel north of the border. Guests were unable to stay in the hotels for leisure purposes in the latter part of December and through the festive season. This was in reality the beginning of the third lockdown and as a business we had to unwind almost £250,000 bookings from the 11th December to the end of December with all the intense management time which goes into such an exercise. 

In addition, some deposits had to be returned to guests, and food and beverage orders reversed. All this happened at one of the peak trading points of the year just before we headed into the quietest period for any country hotel being January, February, March. 

Without doubt some of the rules such as allowing wedding guests to have alcohol and normal guests not to have alcohol could only be regarded as utterly absurd. However, on the whole we have largely marvelled at the grace and flexibility of guests who very clearly want to see beautiful private hotels such as Glenapp prosper and have themselves been very helpful in postponing their plans and generally rebooking in the future. 

Glenapp Castle photographed on 31/5/16

What changes did you make to the way the business was run upon re-opening? 

Like so many top hotelswe investigated and purchased technologicalsolutions to ensure guests’ safety such as electrostatic fogging machines. The standards of compliance with regulations had to be exemplary, our management team were particularly adept at pre and post arrival communications. Dealing with concerns, talking through practicalities and preferences have been key pre-arrival. Post-arrival the usual familiarisation time for guests with a key member of management was extended to go into much greater detail with guests as they would share their thoughts and preferences upon arrival at Glenapp.

How did you manage rates during the summer period? What was your ADR during the peak season last year? Was this any significant change on previous years? 

Interestingly ADR was only lower by roughly £30 per night or around an 8% decrease from 2019 – 2019 being an average ADR of 392 and the figure for 2020 being 362. 

Did you see a rise in domestic guests last year? 

Up to 2019 more than 50% of our guests would have been from overseas. Over the past year these guests have almost entirely been unable to travel to the UK. However, when we were able to reopen on July the 15th 2020 we saw the loss of overseas business fully compensated for by UK guests with a significant overall increase in trade from the 15th July to the end of the year.

How are forward bookings looking for the rest of the year? Is there strong demand for summer already? 

We have created more than 65 activities and experiences including a Sea Safari into the Hebridean islands and there is tremendous interest for both 2021 and 2022. Forward bookings generally are reasonably healthy but some of that is replacement business which has postponed from 2020. Our experience here in Scotland is that enquiries are high but to date bookings would be down possibly 70% on a like for like basis 2019 to 2020. However, we are encouraged by the level of enquiries and of course if we see a repeat of last year, once dates are confirmed for reopening the bookings will inevitably flood in. 

 “As a business we had to unwind almost £250,000 bookings from the 11th December to the end of December with all the intense management time which goes into such an exercise”

What has been your main focus of lockdown 3.0? 

Whilst for owners lockdown 3.0 will have presented its own unique problems in managing finances, for employees this most unusual of times, assuming they have retained employment, has also presented many opportunities. Given that training can be conducted during furlough for both staff and management we have attempted to capitalise on this in a major way by identifying the most relevant upskilling available throughout most of the departments at the hotel. 

The difficulties which we have all endured can sometimes be double edged and where there are good honest relationships it has given great possibility to keep on building those relationships by staying in regular touch with each other. 

Additionally, we have taken a view that life will continue to change but that there will still be a great demand for high quality travel experiences and for destinations such as Glenapp. With this in mind we have taken advantage of these long closed periods to invest heavily in capital projects refurbishing large parts of the hotel and focusing on what has been the conversion of the entire top floor of the Castle into a penthouse apartment. 

Managing this project has been a huge undertaking given that it has stopped and started so many times. We are extremely pleased to be able to open the new floor before Easter 2021. As social distancing and space is now key to the guest experience this four bedroom apartment covers almost 4,000 square feet with its own library and games room, media room, sauna and treatment room together with private dining for up to sixteen. 

Separately, we have been very fortunate to receive a grant from Scottish Enterprise and are in advanced stages of converting our Victorian Glasshouse and adjacent stone buildings into a beautiful new restaurant and event space on the edge of our walled garden and overlooking a beautiful lake. We are targeting a late spring opening and this will provide an informal dining experience in addition to our Castle dining rooms which provide fine dining.

Your penthouse is soon to launch, who are you looking to target with this new offering and have you seen any interest already? 

We are targeting discerning guests who are seeking a unique five star Castle experience whilst overlooking the beautiful Firth of Clyde and the iconic island of Ailsa Craig. We had previously targeted an early December opening and had very significant bookings during December which were of course entirely from the UK market. However, going forward we expect that the North American market will also be one which will be attracted to this new accommodation here at Glenapp. Interest from consumers directly and agents globally has been significant for the new apartment.

What are your plans for development for the rest of the year? 

For the rest of the year we will be focusing on integrating the new penthouse apartment into the life of the hotel together with opening our new kitchens and restaurant as described in the walled garden. This will require the training and integration of almost ten to twelve further staff.

How will you ensure that reopening is a success? What worked well in lockdown 1 and 2? 

Perversely we believe we are getting rather good at opening and closing the hotel and whilst we dislike immensely having to do it, we now have clear procedures, timings and processes to ensure that when the first new guests arrive it will be as if we have not been closed. 

Without doubt mindsets and attitudes are key, and for us focusing on all the areas of the hotel that would have been hard to work on during normal times has been important. As described that has included upgrading systems, upgrading the fabric of the hotel and taking the opportunity to provide additional training. 

Strong communication with guests has also been vitally important and we are extremely grateful that without doubt our guests seem very keen for us to succeed and for Glenapp to weather this storm and to be fully open for them again in the not-too-distant future.   

What are your main concerns going forward?

The most immediate thought would be that we will not have a lockdown 4.0, and that sufficient would now have been achieved in terms of lockdowns not to see a repetition in the future. We are grateful to have been supported by UK guests but we also look forward to the return of international travellers and we hope that coordination and cooperation between international travel destinations will go from strength to strength.

If I had one concern for us all, it would be at a macro level, in that there was already deep anxieties about the level of indebtedness at every level of society, but now we have a further mountain of corporate and national debt to deal with. Inevitably history shows us that this debt will have to be paid back one day, and therefore what might be the implications particularly for the younger generation. 

Tags : Big interviewGlenapp CastlehotelsPaul Szkiler
Zoe Monk

The author Zoe Monk

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