Karen Peattie chats to the SLTA’s new president John Shearer, a Highlands hotelier who is bringing his vast business experience to the table
He is a former international banker who gave up a globetrotting lifestyle to become a hotelier but now runs a thriving hospitality business in the Highlands and is “greatly honoured” to be the new president of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association.
John Shearer owns two hotels – Morangie Hotel and Mansfield Castle, both in Tain, Ross-shire – and is looking forward to a busy summer season. Tain, sitting on the south shore of the Dornoch Firth, is famous as the home of Glenmorangie, the world-famous single Scotch malt whisky and is a big draw for tourists.
“We’re in whisky country and that’s obviously good for business,” says John. “Whisky tourism is increasing and the hospitality sector needs to tap into that. You don’t need to have a distillery on your doorstep to do that though – all licensed trade operators can benefit.
“If you spend time talking to people in the industry you get to hear what they’re doing, how they’re responding to trends and making changes in response to what’s happening in the market.”
Membership of the SLTA, then, is a no-brainer. “We all know how tough this business can be,” says John, “and that’s why it’s so important to share information and learn from others. If you’re a member of the SLTA you have the perfect opportunity to meet other operators and network.
“Often they have the same issues as you and it reassuring to know that you are not alone – there are others who are navigating the same challenges and you can talk about it with them.”
John’s first foray into the licensed trade came in 1995 when he bought the Royal Hotel in Cromarty, followed by the Selkirk Arms in Kirkcudbright. He’s previously been travelling all over the world working in banking, trading and futures, mainly based in Australia but also other countries.
Coming from a corporate background with no experience led him to his local licensed trade association. “When you have no experience like I did at the time you really need to speak to people who do,” he says.
For John, SLTA membership provided him with a sounding board for picking up new ideas and getting feedback on the latest trends as well as meeting other operators. “If you leave a meeting or event with just one idea or piece of information that you then weave into your own business then your SLTA membership has been worthwhile,” he points out.
Now a seasoned hotelier who is celebrating his tenth anniversary in Tain this year and 23 years in the licensed trade, John is ideally placed to lead the SLTA – he has been president of the Inverness, Highlands and Islands branch on two occasions and most recently was SLTA president-elect for two years. He is also vice-chairman of the association’s non-executive board.
John takes over from Edinburgh’s Marshall Bain who, he says, has done a “sterling job” for the SLTA. “I’ll be working with a very strong team – Colin Wilkinson, Marshall and also Jim Grierson, who has recently been appointed chairman of the board and has vast industry experience which brings a lot of gravitas to our association,” says John.
“It’s an important and exciting time for the SLTA because we’ve had an internal reorganisation resulting in a new board replacing the previous executive committee. I’m looking forward to getting down to business and working with the other members and also our patron, Peter Lederer.
“The new board will be made up of executive and non-executive members,” he continues. “We have also re-organised the executive committee which is now known as the regional council but it will still ultimately have the power as they appoint and approve the president and chairman.”
The SLTA has “come on in leaps and bounds” in the last few years, suggests John. “We’ve really modernised and are now well placed to tackle all the big issues and challenges facing our industry because we’ve got experienced people guiding us and passionate people who want what’s best for the licensed trade.
“We’re also collaborating with other trade associations and that’s important because it gives not just the SLTA but the wider hospitality industry a louder and stronger voice.”
Big issues to contend with in the coming months include pursuing VAT reduction on tourism, working with partners to improve the conditions on tied houses, and supporting efforts by the Scottish Government to develop new strategies to improve the Scottish diet out of home (OOH) focusing on obesity, portion control and calories.
There’s also the complex issue of a deposit return scheme (DRS) to which the Scottish Government is committed and the business rates issue in which the SLTA has already played a key role, helping to save operators across Scotland millions of pounds.
“It’s an exciting time for the industry, a challenging time and a time of big change for the SLTA and the trade,” says John.
“We’re not just representing traditional pubs now – the SLTA must appeal to all types of operators and we’re getting a lot of younger people involved now by providing SLTA membership to personal licence holders (PLH). We are looking to make membership cheaper overall to become a stakeholder or participant.
“It means that all personal licence holders can benefit from our shared best practice and attend our networking events and so on,” John continues. “They also have the opportunity to develop skills through training which is a priority for us because it is hugely important for the growth and development of our industry.”
John, who will be president for two years, also hopes to encourage operators in the more remote parts of the country to get involved with the SLTA. “Marshall got the ball rolling by taking meetings out of the central belt to other areas,” he says. “That’s been a good thing and I want that to continue.
“Being located in Tain means I understand the geographical issues facing many operators and often we feel isolated because everything tends to happen in Glasgow or Edinburgh,” he continues.
“I want our members to know that we are there for you no matter where you are in the country – get involved and participate.”