Travelling man who settled in Tain

Karen Peattie chats to the SLTA’s president-elect John Shearer, a former international banker who gave up a globetrotting lifestyle to become a hotelier

BACK at home in the Highlands after a family event in the warmer climes of Tenerife, hotelier John Shearer has quite a lot to say about air connectivity in his part of the country. “More flights in and out of the north of Scotland, Inverness in particular, would bring a significant boost to businesses and tourism,” he points out.

“If there were more flight options we’d get more visitors coming to the Highlands,” Shearer continues. “There are more flights in the summer and you can see the benefit – tourism is so important to businesses here but what the Highlands needs is improved air connectivity. If we’re going anywhere it’s cheaper and easier to go via London rather than drive down to Edinburgh or Glasgow.”

His views will no doubt be shared by many others in the licensed trade and hospitality sectors in the Highlands where business does tend to be more seasonal. For Shearer’s two hotels – Morangie Hotel and Mansfield Castle, both in Tain, Ross-shire – the main tourist season runs from April to October with a good corporate market, tapping into the oil and gas industry and increasingly the renewables sector, bolstering the business throughout the year.

For those unfamiliar with Tain, it’s a small town on the south shore of the Dornoch Firth and is Scotland’s oldest royal burgh. It’s also the home of Glenmorangie, the world-famous single Scotch malt whisky. “Between the two hotels, which are about a 10-minute walk apart, we have 50 rooms and which do great business during the tourist season,” says Shearer.

“There’s a lot to see and do in the area and obviously Glenmorangie is a big draw – we’ve also got Balblair nearby and tours at both distilleries are popular with tourists and visitors. Indeed, the whisky industry in the Highlands is booming and we have a good relationship with both Glenmorangie and Balblair.”

So how did an international banker end up in the licensed trade? “I was travelling all over the world working in banking, trading and futures, mainly based in Australia but also other countries,” Shearer explains. “I was looking for a different pace of life and in 1995 I bought the Royal Hotel in Cromarty as a first venture then the Selkirk Arms in Kirkcudbright.

“Next year will mark our tenth anniversary in Tain and I’ve been in the hotel business now for early as long as I was in banking.”

Laughing as he reflects on his early days in the trade, Shearer admits that he hadn’t expected running a hotel to be such hard work. “I think I thought I might be sitting in the bar with a G&T chatting to customers,” he says. “That couldn’t have been further from the truth – anyone coming into the trade needs to be prepared to work hard.”

Coming from a corporate background with no experience led Shearer to his local licensed trade association. “It’s one of the first things I did when I bought the hotel in Cromarty,” he says. “I had no real knowledge or experience in the industry so it seemed the obvious thing to do – I’d be surprised if people didn’t look to those already operating in the trade for advice.

“For me it was a massive learning curve and I found the SLTA to be a great sounding board because at meetings and events I’d pick up new ideas, get feedback on the latest trends and discover people often had the same problems or were facing the same challenges as me. I wasn’t alone and it was also good to experience the camaraderie you get from getting away from your business for a while.”

Shearer went on to be president of the Inverness, Highlands and Islands branch of the SLTA on two occasions and is looking forward to taking over as president-elect from Edinburgh’s Marshall Bain next spring. “I’ve been very impressed with the SLTA over the last few years and take my hat off to Paul Waterson who’s an excellent chief executive and figurehead for the industry,” he says.

“The SLTA has modernised and to bring in someone like Peter Lederer as patron and chairman of the new External Advisory Board and is a masterstroke. We need to capitalise on the talent and breadth of knowledge in the industry – that includes working more closely with leading suppliers and other organisations which are involved in the trade.

“When you look at all the challenges we’ve had – the rates issue is just one of them – the SLTA has been right in the middle of them fighting the licensed trade’s corner. We’ve never been in such a strong position or had such a high profile and I’m looking forward to getting more heavily involved when Marshall steps down next year.”

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