This month we hear from Mary Martin, Director of the Aberdeen Douglas Hotel. During the interview she shares the impact of the Covid pandemic on the hotel, and how it has led to the development of Shiprow Village. We also hear about the challenges being faced by the hospitality industry in recruiting and retaining staff and the steps she has been taking to help combat this.
What was your response to the pandemic?
It was kind of a disbelief to start with because we were hearing about it and we were hearing things in the news, but the ultimate instruction to close was very quick and it was something that in over 40 years in the business I'd never even contemplated or thought how we would do that. So, it was shock to start with and then you check into a mode of trying to survive.
It was very tough at the beginning and furlough was a massive help. We would have had to close our doors otherwise because it was so unsettled for such a long time, we wouldn’t have been able to keep on our staff.
In Aberdeen we have a lot of offshore industry guests – they had to keep going and they were classed as essential workers. We were very lucky that we had some companies using us for their crew, because they were in a situation where there were no flights and their workers were stuck. So, although we closed the hotel for three months, we were able to let our apartments on a self-catering basis.
Were we busy? No. We were crippled by it, but we made the most of it. It was difficult to manage and to keep a team together, especially because some of my team had been with me for 10-15 years. To keep going you had to kind of pretend you knew what you were doing. We had a core team and technology helped us automate some things, including CCTV cameras and we had alarms installed in different places around the hotel because we still had to have a security aspect.
Are you seeing your pre-Covid customer segments returning?
We’ve probably seen more tourists this year than we've ever seen simply because we have no corporate market. The corporate market is certainly not travelling – in the last 2-3 weeks we've seen a bit of an upturn, but nothing like it was pre-pandemic. I guess companies have figured out how to work without flying all around the world and without having in person conferences, so that's a concern going forward.
Visitor-wise, we’ve had a lot of Scottish and English tourists and we've also had a lot of continental tourists and Americans, particularly golfers. We’ve also seen people coming for 2-3 days as opposed to just the one-night stays. It’s going to be very interesting going forward because I don't know what our weekends will be like. Traditionally in Aberdeen the weekend market is strong from the end of September to mid-December because Aberdeen and up to a 2-hour radius around the city was a big attraction to visitors from Norway and Shetland. We attracted people for shopping or to meet up with friends, just for a weekend away before Christmas.
There’s a whole lot of things now that are not looking good for Aberdeen; shopping opportunities are depleted and the city could look a lot better than it does. I think also the daily news about the cost of living terrifies people and they are being very cautious because of that, quite rightly. So what that will mean for us for our weekend market business, I don't know. Certainly, our Christmas parties, having said that, are fully booked which is incredible.
There really doesn’t seem to be a pattern anymore of what day of the week you're busy. It’s very much changed and we're learning something new every day.
How have you been affected by the staffing issues that have been widely reported within the hospitality sector?
We have been hugely affected. We have managed to keep many on and support them right through, but we have also lost three key staff members for different reasons. Many people have left the industry and it’s causing us lots of challenges.
It’s very hard to attract people into this business. I would say that the hotel industry and hospitality is one of the best businesses to be in. You’ll never ever be bored, and you get the chance to meet a really lovely bunch of people. In general, it’s a very positive and nice place to work, but people are not attracted to it like they used to be.
What steps are you taking to help combat that?
During Covid we had time to sit down and really look at what we had and what we didn't have. We developed an in-house project called “Invest In Me”. It’s an online training portal that we've uploaded lots of video courses and practical courses onto. It’s been really useful for our staff and they can refer back to it at any time. I think sometimes working in a hotel looks easy and people don't get the credit or the recognition they deserve. Not everybody can do it, it takes brains, personality and a lot of patience. There’s also a lot of learning in it, because the difference between someone who doesn’t know how to do it and someone who knows how to do it – the difference in the service that they can give the guest with that knowledge, it’s just black and white.
Because you can’t get experienced staff, as so many people have decided to leave the industry, we’re trying very hard to attract younger people, or people that have worked in customer service roles, such as retail. We’re looking at people who have never worked in a hotel before and have been doing a lot of training. Previously we may have had an idea in our heads about what kind of experience they should have, but we’ve kind of thrown that out and started again.
Shiprow Village has been developed over the last year. Can you tell us how the project came about?
Again, we had time to sit back and think about what we had. We had a fairly well-established hotel and apartments but limited business coming into them and the focus during COVID was all about being outside. Malones has always been a very successful bar and Keith, my nephew, who manages the bar had an idea to create an outside area.
We had these disused buildings and, as a start, we converted a small carpark area. The Irish are the only people in the world who would open an outside bar on the last weekend of October! It was only open initially for around five weeks and then we shut down due to restrictions and government guidelines. However, for the five weeks it was open, it looked nice. There was a lot of thought put into it and it was very successful. We thought there would still be a requirement to have outdoor space and as a result, we extended the space and took off the roof of a building that we had on site. It was just a case of assessing it, thinking “will this work?”, and investing some of the capital we had, and fortunately it did work.
There was always this horror of Shiprow, and it was a huge minus to the hotel as a location – I was once told the darkest hole in Aberdeen was Shiprow, and I had to agree with them! We added a lot of lighting, and a lot of security, which is what Keith used as the main ingredients to make it a more attractive and safer place. At Malones we got outside seating areas – of course we had to go through licensing and lawyers and architects, and all the joys of that, but we got there!
We also transformed the old workshop into a bar. It’s a beautiful old building that was used as a workshop by our maintenance team for 16 years. Milo, one of our barmen who’s very creative, had the idea and they did it and its brilliant. I love it. It’s one of my favourites!
It was also great to see young people come on and be involved. Keith took on a team that had very young creative people with a different mindset from hotels. He led that, came up with all the plans for it and got the right people, and we're very, very happy with it.
Having said that, we are now in October, and we are counting the weeks as to how long that'll still be attractive. It still was attractive last year in December and we put heaters over the tables, but now with the extra worry of energy prices rising, I’m not sure how we will cope, but we will just have to wait and see and we're going to remain positive.
I hope that with Union Terrace Gardens opening, it will change the city centre and draw more people in. We have lots of good things – the Art Gallery is gorgeous, and Marischal Square is lovely. We put up the umbrellas for the ADHD Foundation in conjunction with Aberdeen Inspired, and it made such a huge difference and brought so many new people down here. I don’t want them to come down, it’s been great! Everybody looks up and it puts people in a good mood. I’d love to see more projects like that in the city. I had the privilege of meeting Doctor Tony Lloyd, the CEO, an amazing man, and it was great that Aberdeen Inspired brought it all together.
I really think Aberdeen will only be successful if everybody works together towards it, from every aspect, industry, universities, Council, tourist boards, everybody.
How has the hotel benefitted from the Shiprow Village and Umbrella projects?
It’s made such a difference at Molly's Bistro, our restaurant in the hotel, with lots of people coming down to look around and they come in for lunch, coffee and dinner.
I think the Douglas has more now to offer than just a bed, so we're kind of a one stop. You can come and stay with us in a nice comfortable room, you can have a something nice to eat in Molly's Bistro, you can go to the Irish bar, you can go to Ivy Lodge and you can enjoy delicious cocktails. We believe that the only way forward is to promote it as a destination.
A couple of weeks ago we had a two-day conference for 80 people – they had the conference and that evening we did cocktails and pizzas and brought everything out in the Ivy Lodge. So, it was just a little bit different than sitting in a typical square events room with a bar. I think it's a big asset that we've created, but they're operated very independently. They’ve all got their own budgets and their own plans and if they can dovetail them together to create more atmosphere and a better offering for the guest, that’s our goal really.
Looking ahead to the future, what do you have planned for the next couple of years?
As we speak, we are putting in a new sound and video system into the ballroom. We have a lovely ballroom, it's the largest city centre ballroom, but in today's world, technology is key. In the past you would just hire in a company, and they would come in with screens and everything you need, but the client is now looking for more to be provided in-house, so they don’t have the hassle of hiring a supplier, more of a one-stop shop. So that's been a huge investment. We hope that will pay back big-time next year and it should be up and running soon. Conferences take a while to book, so going forward it's a market we're going to look at.
We also do a lot of dinners and weddings. We do a number of weddings in the year, but our market is probably more corporate dinners, and they need AV equipment, so we hope that is going to be a market that will grow hugely for us.
On the Shiprow Village side, the plan is to bring these old buildings that haven’t been used for 20+ years back to life and work with other businesses. We’re working closely with ABERDAM who won New Start of the Year at the 2022 Elevator Awards. We would like others to come in and add to the village – there’s talk of a bakery, a distillery, things like that, there are lots of ideas! It’s a great opportunity for people to start out and develop their business model and then they can move on to bigger premises. Obviously, revenue needs to start coming in because it's all going out at the minute! We’re hoping that soon we can start work renovating another building which will create more inside space.
So, our plan really is to develop more of Shiprow and our ballroom is going to be state of the art!