Alan Bannerman: ‘I was writing off thousands of pounds in cancellations’ (pic: Terry Murden)
Interview: Alan Bannerman, hotelier
Alan Bannerman was preparing for a funeral. Mourners would soon be arriving and he’d be ready to greet them. It would mark another step back to a routine he was familiar with before the Covid pandemic forced him to mothball the function suite at the only hotel in Coupar Angus, a regular host for family gatherings in the town and surrounding area over the years.
Lockdown put a halt on proceedings, but now the Red House, built on the site of a former railway yard, is slowly building up steam as it once again welcomes guests and attempts to pick up the pieces of a shattered sector.
Sixteen months after the shutters came down on the economy, Bannerman is just grateful his family business survived and can see a way forward, though he still bears the frustration that his 20-bed hotel – the biggest of his three hospitality businesses – was unable to access funds that were available to the others, a restaurant and a cafe bar, both up the road in Blairgowrie.
“Because of the hotel’s rateable value we could not get a grant. Smaller businesses were getting £25,000, yet I had 40 staff,” he says. It was not until January that he was offered support. “Somewhere down the line someone decided it was unfair and that we needed help,” he adds. “I still had to pay the bills and had it not been for furlough we would have been away.”
He says he wasn’t keen on the government loan schemes but his bank offered a further lifeline, agreeing a £350,000 facility for all three businesses. Aside from the furlough scheme, the cut in VAT was another big help. All in all, he had enough to get through the grinding months of uncertainty. Luckily, with the staff on furlough, he didn’t lose anyone. Even so it was a battle to keep the company afloat.
“That first lockdown at the end of March was imposed on Mother’s Day weekend,” he says. “It’s normally one of the best Sundays of the year and our fridges were full. Staff took home what they could, but the rest had to be binned. We lost £10,000.”
In the depths of the crisis he admits it was tough not knowing how long it would last and being frustrated by the regular on-off decisions. “The biggest issue was that there was no finishing line to aim for. I was in every day and writing off thousands of pounds just in cancellations,” he says.
The Red House’s usual business apart from family functions, is coach loads of folk on day trips stopping off on their way to the Falkirk Wheel and other attractions. There are groups of golfers and a regular flow of shooting parties from Italy organised by a local agent and it is also popular with commercial reps, mainly in agriculture.
Restrictions on how many could be accommodated in the rooms or on the coach at one time, together with a need for extra staff to serve everyone at tables put added pressure on costs.
Bannerman, now in his late 50s, has worked in the business since leaving school at 16 to help his uncle and father who developed the old potato store & railway yard into a hotel in 1980, having purchased the old Railway Hotel from Scottish Brewers a year earlier.
It remains very much a family affair. Younger brother Ian runs the public bar side of the Red House while their sister Susan has just marked 15 years as owner of Number 31, a popular café and bar in Wellmeadow, Blairgowrie.
Family affair: Susan, Ian and Alan Bannerman (pic: Terry Murden)
Included in the portfolio is another Blairgowrie based hospitality venue – The Dalmore Inn – which has been managed since its opening in 2014 by Frenchman Arnaud Merrouche, originally from Dijon.
Bannerman is just relieved to see customers returning and he’s planning an extension at the front of the Red House to provide more function space.
“The golf has held up and that has been important to us. We’re expecting our first Italian shooting party in months. At Dalmore we’ve had our best 12 week run for 11 years. People have money to spend as they’ve not been on holiday and there’s only so much DIY you can do. At Number 31 we can only get 46 in, about half the normal number, and there is no music.”
If that represents a slow return to normality, the intervening months have seen some inventive ways of dealing with the restrictions. A big screen was erected in the function suite so that 50 mourners could take part in a funeral also being held at the crematorium where another 50 were in attendance.
“The minister was here, and the coffin,” says Bannerman. “The company that organised the screening did a good job with a couple of guys in the corner operating a control desk.”
He said it went well and that he will probably adopt the hybrid model now that he’s seen how it is an effective way to manage people at different venues “attending” the same event.
“We’re getting back towards normal occupancy,” he says,”though organising functions again has been like starting a new business.”
Educated: Blairgowrie High School
Career highlights: Straight into the family business at 16.
Did you think of doing anything other than working in the family business?
I was good at figures and was interviewed for a job as a clerial assistant with the DHSS. I went to the bank and was told to stay on at school. I also had a trial at Arbroath FC and Ian Stewart, the coach, had turned me down for the job at the DHSS. I still see him from time to time and we joke about it.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Rangers. I have four club deck tickets at Ibrox and go when I can. I also have a soft spot for St Johnstone (local team).
If you could choose three people, living or dead, to join you at a round table discussion or dinner party who would you invite?
Walter Smith... former Rangers manager
Eddie Rintoul… banker at RBS.. because he looked after me.
My father, Norman … who was a great influence on me.