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Finding A Surprise In Scottish Hospitality

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Finding A Surprise In Scottish Hospitality

October 21
20:07 2013
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I’d decided to stay in Edinburgh that evening for one principal reason: I’d had two meetings during the afternoon and another planned for early the following, morning, so I figured it wasn’t really worth enduring the 60-mile round trip home just be shrieked at by my family for a few hours in between. My hotel of choice (sort of) was a medium-priced, big-name brand, housed in a tired, dated building whose former glory – if it ever had one – had long since been masked behind a smeary film of lichen and carbonised traffic fumes. To put it into context (and probably give away the very establishment I’m on about), from the outside I was reminded of Denys Lasdun’s Royal National Theatre on the South Bank of the Thames; the type of building that epitomised architecture in the 1960s and ‘70s. Flat, grey, hideous. The foyer was comfortable and modern enough – just – but it was a bit dark and not really all that welcoming. The seating area looked like it could do with a significant refurbishment, too, and the front desk also appeared to be showing signs of fatigue. But hey, so was I. By now, in fact, I was weary enough not to really notice the dimly lit public areas and two-decade-old décor; I just wanted food and bed. And here’s the thing: despite my reticence to engage in anything remotely approaching conversation with the front desk clerk, I was treated like I owned the place. This was not what I had expected. In common with many people in hospitality, I’ve been fortunate enough to stay in my fair share of hotels over the years. Some of them have been memorable for the right reasons, and some rather less so (a particular Elgin ordeal springs to mind), but the check-in experience at that front desk was easily the most welcoming I’ve ever encountered in Scotland. The lady behind the computer was chirpy and friendly, but not in a ‘I’m-usually-morose-but I’ve-been-trained-to-do-this’ kind of way. Nor was she too earnest or overly familiar, like a North American adventure park attendant or the annoying Continental waiters who trot up to you on holiday and try to persuade you to dine in their suspiciously similar restaurants. No, this girl – from Ayrshire, I’d say – had just the right blend of enthusiasm and professionalism to make me feel welcome and vaguely important at the same time. She cheered me right up. It was the same everywhere else in the hotel, too. The barman and the concierge, the room service waiter and the restaurant waiting staff; they all seemed to have the perfect blend of charm and formality, humour and knowledge. It was weird, but in an entirely pleasant kind of way. And yet despite my rapidly changing perception of what it takes to make a truly positive hospitality experience, I couldn’t help thinking, perhaps a little cynically: it’s not supposed to be like this. We’re Edinburgh: the city of John Knox, Calvinism, embarrassed silences and that familiar old greeting: ‘Ye’ll have had yer tea’. At what point – and, frankly, how – did this grim-looking edifice on the outskirts of Edinburgh become a beacon of standards for Scottish hospitality? It’s not even as if all of the workers were from overseas, either. In my 24 hours there, I met one foreign employee – one! – and his English was better than mine. The point was that as soon as I encountered the friendly staff and appreciated the relevance of a welcome which made me feel valued without being flattered, the dated facilities became a whole lot less significant. Of course, it’s not that we don’t need nice things to make our stays more comfortable; it’s just that, when it comes down to it, the guest experience will usually base itself more around the human interaction we encounter than the quality of the lobby doors or the brand of rowing machines in the gym. For while equipment and facilities can all be upgraded, funds permitting, it takes a whole lot more effort to instill the kind of positive, genuine attitude needed to make someone want to return on the basis of mere banter. This bodes well for us in the next couple of years.

 This article has been edited from its original version. For the complete feature, please see Catering in Scotland magazine June/July2012

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After electing to stay overnight in a fairly well known, slightly shabby hotel near Edinburgh last March, Alex Buchanan didn’t hold out much hope for his hospitality experience; how wrong he was…

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