MURRAY Lamont will hand over the helm of the hotel that has been in his family for 67 years with a heavy heart.
He is both “sad and proud” as he readies to pass on the iconic Mackays Hotel in Wick, renowned for its Scottish welcome and its position on the world’s shortest street.
Business is coming back but Mr Lamont and wife Ellie have decided to move on, while daughter Jennifer has opted to return to the financial sector in Edinburgh.
In part two today of our special series, Mr Lamont also said he will continue his whisky selling business which includes three shops and an online outlet.
He said there are opportunities for expansion with the North Coast 500 hotel which was receiving 50,000 visitors a year from all over the world. Among them over the decades have been The Hollies, Heather Small of M People, Mike McCartney, and Edwyn Collins who has a studio nearby.
“There has been a huge change over the years. It has gone from the days when the market was on a Thursday in the town for the country folk coming in, it was the biggest day of the week,” said Mr Lamont. “Our main business was selling drinks with a huge public bar trade and a good cocktail bar trade.
“Drinks for the locals to weddings and food and accommodation is our main trade now. We’ve evolved to the three rosette restaurant that we also have.”
He said: “There is scope for expansion in more than one way. There’s room to increase the level of business that we’ve got now and there is also room to build at the back as well.”
The pandemic has punctuated the family’s plans.
Mr Lamont said: “We were heading to probably the busiest we’ve ever been and then the pandemic came and it knocked it back. Just like everyone else we suffered greatly, but during the pandemic we still took in key workers and we worked with them.”
SPECIAL SERIES – Part One: ‘Bleak’ summer ahead for Scottish tourism as 300 hotels on market
He continued: “We had a very small staff, just the family, and a couple of others from time to time and we looked after the key workers, and did takeaway meals for a period of time, and we did meals for veterans and old age pensioners.
“The staycations were very good in terms of the number of people they brought but it was interesting because still with the restrictions we had we weren’t able to maximise the business and also with staff shortages.
“It is not back to normal yet, however it is going in the right direction, it is heading there.”
Mr Lamont’s maternal grandmother bought the hotel in 1955, and Murray and Ellie took over management in 1983 before purchasing it from the rest of the family in the 1990s.
“It has been a lot of fun. There have been a lot of good memories. The customers and the clients we have had round here have been absolutely fantastic. We’ve had quite a few members of the royal family in for lunch.”
He continued: “It was a great centre for the press years ago. In the 1960s if there was big story or at election time they would hook up at the exchange just down the road. Without saying too much you can guess which one of our facilities they used most.”
He said the sale will be “very sad,” adding: “The decision wasn’t taken lightly and it was taken with a very heavy heart in going, but we decided we wanted to be in charge of our destiny rather than it in charge of us.
“It allows us the time to get things sorted out and to plan the future with where it goes.”
He said: “Coming out of this pandemic, for someone coming into the business now, there are opportunities here and ways to go forward. I can see it myself but we have decided the time is right to hand over. There are opportunities and if people can spot them and work with them there’s a good future out there.”
Mr Lamont, 65, is also vice president of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, which was active lobbying and pursuing ways of trying to keep businesses afloat during the pandemic, while Mrs Lamont also involved in the business community with programmes such as the marketing initiative Venture North.
Selling agent Stuart Drysdale, of Drysdale and Company, said the hospitality landscape is evolving with a variety of offerings coming to market.
He said: “Having valuations from five years ago, you can’t really hang your hat on that now obviously, but as we have seen, people are still keen to spend money, people are still keen to get out and explore the country.”
Part Three Tomorrow – Moving in: The challenge of setting up a hotel business post-pandemic