NOVEMBER 30 may have be St Andrew’s Day, but for the Kingsmills Hotel it was also independence day as the Inverness venue celebrated 10 years since it broke away from corporate ownership and regained its own local identity – and its name.
Opened as a hotel in 1946, the Kingsmills’ tradition of hospitality dates back much further, most famously to when poet Robert Burns was entertained by the building’s original owner Provost William Inglis in 1787.
After decades in private ownership, the Kingsmills was sold first to the Swallow Group and then to US-based Marriott Homes.
Despite the efforts of the manager at the time, its new American owners rebranded the hotel as the Inverness Marriott and further eroded the hotel’s local identity with the introduction of group-wide initiatives such as a hotel shared by the other hotels within the group.
The Kingmills’ image problems were compounded by a lack of investment.
"I came back to work here in 2006 and something had to physically break before it would be replaced," recalled hotel general manager Craig Ewan, who was then a depute manager with Marriott.
Tony Story, the managing director of Patio Hotels Group and who was to buy the Kingsmills from Marriott, had observed the apparent decline of one of Inverness’s favourite hotels.
"For reasons outwith its control, what was then Marriott Inverness was a bit tired and down at heel and, although I didn’t realise it at the time, had lost its way. It was no longer the Kingsmills Hotel," he said.
"I think it’s fair to say this was the smallest Marriott in the world, but also the least successful because they didn’t know what to do with it."
Mr Story, however, did have plans for the Kingsmills and bought it for £10 million, which he acknowledges was a lot of money to pay for an under-performing hotel, but by taking it into his ownership, he was able to restore one important element.
"In branding terms, the most valuable asset was the name Kingsmills, and when we had what I feel was our resurrection of the Kingsmills and brought back the name officially, a huge cheer went up," he said.
"And what a difference it made. What I think we have done over the years – and it is very much about what we have done – is about giving Kingsmills back to Inverness."
Mr Ewan opted to stay on at the hotel, despite an offer of a posting with Marrott south of the border, and since then has worked closely with Mr Story on the improvements and upgrades at the hotel.
"At the time it was a tough decision because I had only worked in a corporate environment, but I decided to stay and it’s the best thing I ever did," he said.
However, Mr Ewan’s 11 years of service still makes him appear like a relative newcomer in comparison with some other staff.
The 185 current workers – up from 75 when Mr Story purchased the hotel – include 14 who together have amassed in excess of 535 years’ service.
While they help provide a continuity of service, the last decade has seen upgrading and refurbishment.
This includes knocking down six separate two-bedroom apartments at the hotel and replacing them with the 37-bedroom King’s Club in 2010 and expanding the hotel, eventually adding a further 90 new rooms to the 57 offered previously.
"Every single bedroom in this hotel is either new or has been totally refurbished since we’ve taken over the hotel," Mr Story said.
With the major redevelopment work now complete, other than the ongoing improvements and repairs that keep the Kingsmills’ full-time decorator busy, Mr Story is looking at two other major developments in Inverness.
One will convert the riverside Maple Court Hotel into a five-star facility ready for opening in Easter 2019.
The other major project will see the conversion of the Bridge House former Highland Council service point into a hotel.
Both are intended to complement the Kingsmills.
"It’s very important that we don’t compete with ourselves," Mr Story said.
Both he and Mr Ewan acknowledge that the Kingsmills occupies a special place in the affections of Invernessians.
"It’s amazing the number of people who have become successful in the business community, who have worked at the Kingsmills at some point," said Mr Ewan.
The hotel’s reputation went much further than Inverness, Mr Story pointed out.
"A lot of our family are from the west and even in the west, the Kingsmills is an aspiration – you are somebody if you’ve been to the Kingsmills," he said. "But it was never a snobby hotel. Maybe that’s why it was Inverness’s hotel."