The good times are returning to the Old Course hotel, as it gears up for St Andrews to host next year's Open golf championship. General manager Helen McBride tells Janet Harmer about the five-red-AA-star hotel's latest major refurbishment.
What is widely regarded as the world's most prestigious golf tournament, the Open, will return to the spiritual home of the game in July 2022, when it will be held for the 30th time on the historic Old Course, St Andrews, on Scotland's east coast.
The championship will be celebrating its 150th edition, and the adjacent Old Course Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa is ensuring that everything is in place to host the event flawlessly during a pivotal year, having just completed a multimillion-pound extension and refurbishment.
Overseeing the refurbishment has been the hotel's general manager Helen McBride. It will be the first time she will experience the Open – the hotel overlooks the public Old Course where it is held – having joined the property in 2016, the year after the tournament was last held in St Andrews. "The prestige of hosting the 150th Open will be phenomenal. I know it is going to be a very exciting experience and a huge amount of planning is already in place to ensure that we will host the event absolutely perfectly," she says, highlighting the importance of the hotel's close relationship with the R&A, organiser of the tournament.
To this end, McBride is grateful that the hotel's owner, the US-based manufacturing business Kohler, has continued to invest in the hotel during the turbulence of the Covid-19 pandemic. "The company wants the hotel to be the very best and believes that if you put everything in place to deliver the best service, the guest will come."
Kohler is a family-owned company best known for bathroom and kitchen products. It also owns some of the most prestigious golf resorts in the US, including Whistling Straits, which will host the Ryder Cup on the shores of Lake Michigan later this month (21-26 September). Kohler bought the Old Course in 2004 from Japanese business Kosaido and has since undertaken a number of renovation programmes. In 2016-17 it refurbished all the bedrooms – there were 144 at the time – with suites created by French interior designer Jacques Garcia.
The company added the Hamilton Grand, a Victorian property previously used for student accommodation by the University of St Andrews, to its portfolio in 2009 and has since converted the building into 26 luxury apartments. Today, the apartments, which are in the process of being sold to individual owners, are serviced by the Old Course hotel under McBride's remit.
The latest refurbishment, overseen by Kohler's principal interior designer Niti Bhatt, has included adding a new third floor with 31 bedrooms to the hotel's Champions Wing, taking the total room count to 175. A new fourth storey is home to a penthouse suite, accessible by private lift and featuring a wrap-around balcony with fire pit overlooking West Sands Beach and the golf course.
Also new is an 80-cover restaurant and bar on the fourth floor of the east end of the hotel, further expanding the hotel's existing clutch of restaurants and bars. Accessed via a glass lift, Swilcan Loft – named after the renowned Swilcan Bridge that links the first and 18th fairways on the Old Course – is a relaxed, brasserie- style, all-day operation, offering an eclectic menu with locally sourced ingredients and an extensive wine and cocktail list. The hope is that it will become a destination venue for the high number of day visitors who flock to St Andrews from Edinburgh, Glasgow and across Fife, who will be able to enjoy extensive views across the town and golf course.
Coming from a food and beverage background, McBride has been in her element creating the new restaurant in conjunction with Herbert Kohler, executive chairman of Kohler. "It has been a wonderful project to work on," she says. "I've put various options in front of Mr Kohler – he is all over the finer details." Menu choices include a starter of St Andrews Bay lobster and beef carpaccio with celeriac rémoulade; grilled half lobster or white truffle and Champagne risotto for main course; and desserts of local berries, Champagne and basil jelly with crème fraîche sorbet; and lime and coconut rice pudding with caramelised pineapple.
The final element in the latest series of improvements at the hotel is the expansion of its largest event space, the Hall of Champions, taking its capacity from 280 to 450 guests for a sit-down function. It can be used as a single large venue or split into smaller spaces, and benefits from floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto a terrace for pre-dinner drinks. The Conservatory has also been extended and can now serve 120 seated guests. It is expected to be particularly popular for weddings.
Business and pleasure
The events sector, of course, has been decimated by the pandemic, and McBride does not expect corporate business to come back properly until the end of summer 2022. But she is heartened by the number of weddings already on the books for 2022 and 2023.
The loss of international golfers due to the pandemic has hit the hotel hard, given that they usually make up 75% of guests during the summer months. As a result, the hotel's sales and marketing teams have focused on promoting the business to domestic leisure and spa guests, who are attracted by the extensive wellness facilities that were expanded three and a half years ago. In addition, there is a great deal beyond the hotel that appeals to the UK market: the historic town of St Andrews itself, the impressive local beaches and a wide range of activities throughout Fife that can be arranged by the hotel, including hunting, fishing, horse-riding, driving experiences and distillery tours.
Serious golfers often play two courses a day, allowing the hotel to focus on leisure guests while the golfers are out. Additionally, business at the Old Course hotel is boosted by more than 300 local leisure members.
The recent relaxation on rules allowing international visitors from the US and Europe to travel to the UK again has resulted in a flurry of activity as golf operators secure rooms again. "It is not the best timing, as we are approaching the end of the summer season," McBride says. "There is some uptick in business from overseas, but there is yet to be a flood of bookings; there is still some nervousness in the market."
While occupancy levels were slow to pick up when the hotel reopened on 26 April, they have steadily built up to an average of around 50%, compared with the usual summer average of over 80%. "The hotel can be anywhere from between 30% and 70% full, which means we have to be prepared on a day-to-day basis to staff the hotel accordingly," she says. "It requires flexibility among everyone and a need for managers to communicate well with their teams. Fortunately, many staff are happy to pick up extra shifts when required."
It is no surprise when she has no hesitation in naming the current biggest challenge of her role. "Keeping the staff motivated as a team and motivated on the delivery of five-star service – something which is very difficult to do when you can't shake hands or the guest is unable to see the smiles behind the masks," she says. "We are doing a lot of body language training, encouraging the team to take more time when talking to guests. When you are unable to take the usual cue from a guest, it is necessary that staff allow plenty of pauses to encourage a response."
Delivering five-star service is very difficult when the guest is unable to see the smiles behind the masks. We are doing a lot of body language training
Despite the enormous challenges of the past 18 months, McBride is just as enthusiastic now about her current role and the location of St Andrews as she was when she first visited the Old Course hotel prior to her appointment. "I immediately fell in love with the property," she says. "The fact that the hotel was privately owned, combined with the beautiful Fife countryside and coast, were the reasons I came here."
Initially appointed as resident manager of the Old Course, she joined the hotel under the then general manager Stephen Carter, The Caterer's 2011 Hotelier of the Year. It proved to be an inspired move. "Stephen is the epitome of hospitality and in particular taught me about Scottish hospitality at its best, which is all about creating a home from home within the environment of a luxury resort. There is nothing quite like being greeted and welcomed with open arms by a doorman with a kilt on," she says.
There is nothing quite like being greeted by a doorman with a kilt on
"Everything Stephen did was focused on the guest, as well as being supportive of all the staff. He would frequently come in on a Saturday afternoon when he was off duty to greet guests."
Homing in on what makes Scottish hospitality unique, along with her extensive international experience, will undoubtedly stand McBride in good stead for next year's Open, Her aim is to ensure that guests depart with "happy memories", having enjoyed a "seamless and gracious five-star hospitality experience", with the wish to return one day.
Contact and details
Old Course Hotel, Golf Course & Spa, Old Station Road, St Andrews KY16 9SP
History The hotel was built in 1968 by British Transport Hotels on the site of the old railway station of St Andrews and overlooks the 17th hole of the Old Course. The former stationmaster's house, dating back to the 1850s, is now the hotel's pub, the Jigger Inn.
General manager Helen McBride
Executive chef Martin Hollis
Staff Up to 365 during summer (including both full- and part-timers)
Food and beverage The Road Hole (a three-AA-rosette restaurant focused on seafood, with grills and a bar serving more than 260 whiskies), Swilcan Loft (a brasserie, opening early autumn), the Jigger Inn (a pub), Sands Grill (informal dining), the Conservatory (afternoon tea), Hams Hame Bar & Grill (a sports bar in the basement of Hamilton Grand), the Duke's Clubhouse (post-golf fare), and the Spa Café (healthy options)
Leisure facilities Golf options include the 18-hole Duke's Course, the Duke's Golf Academy, and a Swing Studio golf simulator. There is also a Kohler Waters spa with 13 treatment rooms, a 20m indoor swimming pool, hydrotherapy pool, steam room and sauna, a fitness centre with gym, and an extensive range of classes.
Meetings and events Seven event spaces from the 18-seat Boardroom up to the 450-seat Hall of Champions.
Guest profile Pre-Covid, up to 75% of guests during the summer months were international golfers, and around 70% of guests during the winter come from within the UK.
Room rates From £460 during high season and from £260 during low season. The hotel has not dropped rates during the pandemic.
Helen McBride: career to date
Helen McBride's journey towards her current position as general manager at the Old Course Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa has taken her from waiting on tables in London restaurants to a succession of high-profile roles at some of the most glamorous resorts in the Caribbean.
McBride began her hospitality career in 1994 when she joined Conran Restaurants (now D&D London). She worked her way through a host of F&B positions at Quaglino's, Mezzo and the Great Eastern hotel, among other establishments. Seven and a half years later she joined London's Sanderson hotel, where her roles included assistant food and beverage manager and operations manager. In 2003 a move to the Atlantic Bar & Grill saw McBride undertake the biggest challenge of her career to date as general manager of the 460-seat venue in Soho.
The next step in her career came in 2005, with the start of a 11-year stint overseas that included positions in Shanghai (John-Georges at Three on the Bund), Barbados (Sandy Lane), the British Virgin Islands (Rosewood Little Dix Bay) and latterly as deputy general manager at Richard Branson's Necker Island.
F&B has always been McBride's passion. It is this, alongside the experience she gained working in a myriad of departments across three leading resorts in the Caribbean, that has stood her in good stead for taking the helm of the multifaceted operation that is the Old Course Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa. She joined the property in 2016 as resident manager, moving up to general manager two years later after Stephen Carter retired.
In her spare time, McBride enjoys exploring the Fife coastline with her husband Soren Kofoed (a dive instructor who she met when working at Sandy Lane), her nine and 12-year-old sons and Border collie dog.
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