HEADING up a trade association is a big responsibility that needs a mixture of time, commitment and passion, and for Murray Lamont it’s one he is relishing after just a couple of months as president.
“It’s no longer all about wearing the president’s chain of office and attending functions,” he says. “Obviously there are times when that is what is required and we’re a very social industry – it’s the people, relationships and friendships that make us want to be part of it – but we’re operating in an era now that throws up so many challenges that can be all-consuming.
“The SLTA has been fantastic in recent years in advising businesses and guiding the industry through Covid and the post-pandemic period and I want to keep going with the good work started by our managing director Colin Wilkinson and predecessor as president, Graham Blaikie.
“None of us ever thought something like Covid would hit us but sadly it did and the entire industry – licensed trade and tourism sector – continues to suffer, notwithstanding all the other challenges and barriers that hold us back and make trading successfully very, very difficult.”
For Murray, who owns and runs the well-known Mackays Hotel in Wick in Caithness, in the far north of Scotland, the hospitality is a wonderful one to be part of despite the challenges. Moving into the retail trade 25 years ago, Murray opened Bin Ends, The Fine Wine Shops in Wick, followed by the Thurso shop two years later. He opened Whisky Cellar & more in Inverness Airport in 2016.
Having a point of difference – and a passion for whisky and wine – is always going to give a hospitality business an advantage. And in the case of the award-winning Mackays Hotel, it really does deserve to be described as an “iconic” business as it has the distinction of sitting on the “world’s shortest street”, with Ebenezer Place measuring up to six feet, nine inches long.
This means that people actively seek it out, with visitors arriving from all over the world – pre-pandemic, the hotel was receiving numbers reaching 50,000. Being on the North Coast 500 route has also been beneficial.
Business, says Murray, is building all the time with the post-pandemic “staycation” trend contributing to that growth but also the fact that Mackays Hotel is very much part of the local community. During the pandemic, for example, the hotel looked after key workers and ensure that local veterans and pensioners were provided with meals.
The Mackays story started back in 1955 when Murray’s maternal grandmother bought the hotel. Murray and Ellie took over its management in 1983 before purchasing it from the rest of the family in the 1990s.
Not surprisingly, the business has evolved considerablly over time. “The bar was a hub for the community and we did a roaring trade, particularly on market days when all the country folk and farmers were in town,” recalls Murray who spent some time in the south, even venturing over the Border for a short time before the call of the North lured him back to Wick.
“We still enjoy a busy bar trade but over the years we’ve branched out in weddings and functions, developed our accommodation offer and put huge emphasis on food – our No. 1 Bistro has one AA Rosette.”
While Wick’s location would be considered “remote”, the town is bustling and has certainly benefited from the arrival of the North Coast 500. However, it’s a very long drive down to the central belt and public transport can be challenging. Indeed, Murray’s journey to Edinburgh a few weeks ago to attend a licensed trade lunch involved two trains and a bus!
“Our location does present challenges at time but I think that’s the appeal of it, too,” he says. “If you need to go somewhere, you will find a way and people will find us.”
Does the location cause staffing issues? For the Lamonts, the staffing issue hasn’t caused too many problems thanks to the hotel’s family focus and place in the community although Murray feels for those in the industry who have lost staff because of Brexit and Covid.
However, the industry is making sterling progress in training and convincing people – particularly the younger generation – that they can have a fulfilling and worthwhile career in hospitality. “It’s something I’m quite passionate about – as is the SLTA – so I want to have an impact on that myself,” he adds.
“Young people are the lifeblood of our industry and those of us who have been in business for many years, and been successful, have a duty and moral responsibility to do what we can to nurture talent and help people develop new skills.
“Of course, that’s not to say that older people aren’t valuable to us – they are – and I always say that no-one is ever too old to learn something new.”
Murray – and Ellie’s – passion for the industry saw them named joint tourism ambassadors at the Highland & Islands Tourism Awards in 2022. “It’s such a unique part of the country up here – we have so much to offer.”
For Murray, journeys to more populated parts of the country – and further afield – will become more frequent in his role as SLTA president as he works with colleagues on the trade association’s board and regional council to represent the needs of members, promote training opportunities, work with industry partners and sponsors, and encourage uptake in membership.
“I genuinely believe that the SLTA is superb organisation because everything we do is for the benefit of our members and we have a responsibility to do our best for them,” he adds. “Whether it’s representing them in high-level government discussions about the deposit return scheme, VAT, rates, tourism levies … these are issues that affect the whole industry and we need to make sure our voice is heard loud and clear.
“For me, it’s a huge honour to be part of the SLTA over many years and now be entrusted as president, a role I’ll hold for the next two years.
“I know it won’t always be plain sailing but if I can make even a small difference, I’ll have done my job properly.”