The rover's return

17 December 2004 by
The rover's return

At the wheel of one of Gleneagles' fleet of sleek black Land Rovers, Patrick Elsmie suddenly pulls to a halt. Something's not right. He carefully reverses back through the gates of the world-famous Scottish hotel and looks at the concrete posts on either side. On the left, the iconic gold plaque of an eagle perched on a branch is there, but its twin on the right is missing.

"How odd. I'm sure that was there yesterday," he mutters. It's typical of Elsmie's sharp eye for detail, and also illustrates the allure of Gleneagles - an allure that unfortunately motivates petty thieves to make off with attractive fixtures in the night.

Elsmie's detail-orientated nature is an obvious asset when managing a business as large and complex as Gleneagles. As we tour the hotel, he instinctively straightens lampshades on his way, and while showing me the golf courses, falconry, shooting, and horse-riding facilities, he always stops to chat and get an update from workmen.

Naturally modest, Elsmie says he was taken aback when told he was our Hotelier of the Year 2004: "I didn't realise I was on speaker phone so hope I didn't say anything foolish."

As we settle into Gleneagles' art deco bar, he refuses to blow his own trumpet but methodically explains some of the key developments that have taken place at Gleneagles since he returned in 1999. He puts these under three headings: people, physical changes, and marketing.

Elsmie instilled a strong customer-service ethos into his staff by creating two teams who serve both guests and "internal customers". Front-of-house staff are named the "guest services team" and back-of-house "the service delivery team". He explains this has eliminated the pigeonholing of job specs that causes barriers.

"In the past, it was common to have a chef who viewed the kitchen as his fiefdom and had the attitude that he produced food for the customer," Elsmie explains. "Well actually, if he didn't have staff to serve the food it'd never get to the customer, so really his customer is the waiting staff. He has a service contract with them."

Another success has been online recruitment, which attracts up to 400 job applications a month. The Gleneagles website doesn't just list what jobs are on offer, but gives comprehensive information about the local area, benefits, training, and accommodation. Prospective employees can even view a 360¡ panorama image of the staff accommodation.

One great satisfaction for the energetic and debonair 52-year-old is to see former colleagues he "coached" go on to lofty positions in the hotel world. For example, Luis Fernandez, who was F&B manager at a South African hotel Elsmie ran, is now managing director of the Rosewood resort Las Ventanas al Paraiso in Mexico.

On the expansion front, building work at Gleneagles couldn't have started at a less-auspicious moment. The foundation work for Baird House, a new 59-bedroom wing, began on 10 September 2001. The next day, Gleneagles' owner, drinks giant Diageo, had to decide whether to go ahead or not. Despite looking at an inevitable short-term fall-off in US visitors (which accounted for 22% of business), Diageo supported Elsmie's desire to carry on the extension.

Elsmie made up for the lack of Americans by concentrating on the domestic family, leisure, and short-break markets. UK visitors have increased from 75% to 85% of guests since his arrival. "There are times when we wonder if we've been too successful, judging by the number of children running around," he laughs. "But they are our customers of the future." The father-of-two is a great believer in the "pester power" of kids to encourage repeat business.

Gleneagles' expansion into seasonal ownership is half-way to completion, with 26 Glenmor cottages built or under construction. The scheme, which has deliberately avoided the timeshare label, allows the public to buy one week's holiday for 50 years at prices between £9,000 and £46,000. The most expensive weeks - Christmas, Hogmanay, and September - have already sold out. When finished, there will be 50 cottages.

Elsmie admits that Glenmor's main customers are hotel guests, but is confident he can maintain occupancy levels. Each year, more than 60% of Gleneagles' guests are new customers, and turnover continues to rise.

In the aftermath of 11 September, Elsmie, along with other leading Scottish hoteliers, successfully drummed up new business among Russia's wealthy elite. "The great thing about Russians is they're not weather-conscious. If the weather's poor here, it's usually much worse in Moscow," Elsmie observes.

What does the future hold for Elsmie and Gleneagles? Next June the leaders of the most powerful nations in the world will stay at Gleneagles for one week. Elsmie was instrumental in pushing for the hotel to host the G8 Summit 2005. But given the disruption by protesters at previous summits, isn't he at all worried?

"We're in the hands of the police who have made enormous efforts to reassure us that they're capable of looking after the property and personnel. I imagined some staff may be worried, but was enormously pleased when they said it was great for Gleneagles and Scotland," he smiles. "For one week, we will undoubtedly be the most

Gleneagles could have been badly affected by 11 September, but Elsmie made sure US guests were replaced by domestic visitors
talked-about hotel in the world." Criteria The Hotelier of the Year judges were looking for a candidate who: - Exhibits strong attention to detail. - Is willing to impart knowledge to staff. - Has an exemplary business track record. - Has the personal touch with guests. - Is totally dedicated to the industry. A world-class career After crab fishing in Alaska to finance a trip down the West Coast of America, Elsmie studied hotel management at Oxford Polytechnic. His first jobs were with Richmond Gate Hotels, running the bar at a local golf club, and at the Rank Organisation, as assistant manager of a large Heathrow restaurant. In 1977 he bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong, where he stayed for seven years, meeting his wife, Pat, while there. He worked first at the Excelsior Hotel and then the Mandarin Oriental, with whom he relocated to Bangkok. After two years in Thailand, he moved to the St James Club resort in Antigua for one year, before becoming resident manager of Gleneagles in 1986. Four years later he moved to South Africa where he opened a golf resort. Elsmie returned to Scotland as general manager of the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews, and in 1999 moved to Gleneagles. My role-models Peter French - "He gave me my first senior management position and, with his attention to detail and organised work manner, was an excellent role model." Kurt Wachtvitel - "Extremely people-focused, knowing that, the better people felt about working, the better the guests would be looked after." Peter Lederer - "Peter has always embraced challenge and change and has never accepted the norms in our industry." Andrew Fairlie - "My favourite restaurant." Greg Meadows - now at the Conrad in Bangkok. Nick Seewer - with Orient-Express Hotels. Jonathan Thornton - recently with the owning and managing company of the Old Course Hotel, St Andrews. What the judges said - Robin Hutson, 2003 Hotelier of the Year: "Patrick is the consummate hotelier, doing a very difficult job and doing it successfully. Gleneagles is a huge hotel in the middle of nowhere. Patrick is literally creating every roomnight." - Nicholas Rettie, managing director, Great Eastern Hotel: "Patrick is unfailingly courteous and well mannered and thus represents our industry extremely well to the outside world. The fact that he is an avid motorcyclist really means there is no contest!" - Ricci Obertelli, global development director, Dorchester Group: "Patrick makes his job enjoyable through innovation." - Albert Hampson, business manager, AA Hotel Services: "The quality of service and hospitality has really come together in the past three years. Elsmie has used exceptional marketing, built a brand-new wing, and brought in Andrew Fairlie's restaurant." - Harry Murray, managing director of Lucknam Park: "Patrick has an eye for detail, attention to quality and a passionate caring for guests. He leads his team in a very difficult operation." - Dominic Walsh, business reporter, the Times: "Patrick has strong business acumen. He's clearly had to appeal to the home market and he's done that with great marketing skills, creating a range of packages."
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