THERE are people in life who are gamblers, risk-takers, the kind who like to live life out on the edge.
Then there are people like Gillian and Graham Wood, who go so far out on a limb you expect them to fall – but instead they jump.
The couple, who own the Chester Residence in the heart of Edinburgh’s West End, have survived their leap of faith. Despite the fact that six years ago the only experience they had of working in the hospitality trade was some bar work, their luxury accommodation has just been named as Scottish Hotel of the Year at the industry’s “Oscars” – the first Edinburgh hotel to win in the nine years the awards have been running.
The accolade comes on top of being consistently rated as one of Trip Advisor’s Top 25 hotels in Europe, winning a 5 Star Award and gold medal for Management Excellence and Graham being named Entrepreneur of the Year at the same awards two years ago. So far, everything the Woods touch turns to hospitality gold.
“It has been very hard work, stressful at times, and while we’ve been doing this we’ve also had two children, so things have been mad,” admits Graham. “But six years ago we wanted a change in our lives.
“I was in IT and Gillian in PR for an oil company in Aberdeen and we just wanted to do something different. Gillian had worked in hotels as a teenager and I’d worked in pubs. We didn’t want to be stuck where we were and we’d always had an interest in restaurants and hotels so we just thought, let’s go for it.”
The pair researched the UK market, visiting many other apartment-style hotels in order to gain an understanding of what was missing in the Scottish marketplace. That research led them to the Chester Residence in Chester Street, which was a serviced five-apartment block. They soon changed that, bringing in their ideas of what a luxury apart-hotel should look like and offer.
“It was a steep learning curve. We did everything ourselves, from the housekeeping to looking after the guests, which gave us an excellent insight into the running of a hotel business,” says Graham. “We took a small step, then very quickly a much larger one. We had gained confidence and thought it was working well. So we saw the Rothesay Place buildings as a chance to expand, and close to where we were already established.”
Yet despite its new accolade, the Chester Residence doesn’t fall easily into the bracket of hotel. In fact the five-star townhouses operate as 23 apartments, but are held together by a central point, very much in the same way a hotel foyer works.
“Although we’re spread across a number of buildings, we have tried to move on from being an apart-hotel,” says Graham. “We have the same experiences hotels offer – reception, a bar, concierge, a chef experience in their suites with a butler serving . . . but at the same time we give them their own personal, private space. There are no winding narrow corridors but individual suites, even some with their own garden. It’s a home from home, but with the benefits of a hotel.”
What it definitely is, is luxurious. Whether you’re in the penthouse, a mews garden apartment – complete with barbecue – or a more family-orientated two-bedroom suite, you are surrounded by the kind of quality you would expect from Edinburgh’s top hotels. Yet there’s no nod to playing on traditional themes with tartan carpets or wallpaper. At the Chester Residence the vibe is distinctly modern European.
Which is a surprise, as from the outside, the buildings couldn’t be more 19th century New Town if they tried. The rooms are large with corniced high ceilings and you would expect tartan carpets and swags and tails around the windows.
Instead, the walls are black or orange, covered in textured paper (those in the VIP suite even sparkle), the furniture is minimalist but in expensive leathers, the kitchens and other technology are state-of-the-art. And the baths . . . well let’s just say some of them are enormous.
But there are nods to the native, which no doubt stem from the fact that the interiors were created by an Aberdeen designer and the furniture is from Glasgow. Each suite contains sets of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, while works by artists such as Jonathan Hood and Anthony Scullion decorate the walls. In the summer there’s even complimentary Mackies ice cream in each freezer.
Originally the old Rothesay Hotel, the buildings were developed by Sundial Properties, the Edinburgh company which specialises in bringing listed buildings back to life. They opened number seven first in 2009, then eight and nine, and finally, and most recently, number six. The investment must have been huge, but Graham is tight-lipped on costs.
And in the midst of it all they got married and started their family. Gillian took nine months off to be a full-time mum to Jack, but retained her day-to-day involvement with the business. The secret, they say, is that they make all business decisions together, respect each other’s opinions and have common goals.
They obviously are a dynamic duo and it’s easy to see why their hotel vision would win awards. But how do they continue to attract customers in a cash-strapped economy?
“We have a lot of return business people during the week,” says Graham. ‘It used to be the banks, but now it’s IT companies. We are also used by companies when people are relocating to Edinburgh, so we have people stay with us for two or three months, though the longest guest we had stayed for nine months. Those guests are here Monday to Friday, then it all changes and we get the UK tourist market in over weekends.
“But we think we’re reasonably priced, and the family market is very important to us because we know how difficult it can be to have small children in a hotel. Prices fluctuate, as they do in every hotel. If someone’s here for six months it could be £130 a night, in August a two-bed would be between £400 and £450 a night, though usually it would be £250, which as a family room between four people becomes very affordable.”
Of course the Woods are not finished yet. They’re attempting to export the Chester Residence experience to their home town of Aberdeen, while still juggling a demanding business with even more demanding toddlers Jack, three, and 18-month-old Ellie.
But right now they are delighting in their award. “As a small, family-run business, winning this in such a competitive category is just fantastic. Since we first opened our whole team has worked extremely hard to continuously improve on every aspect of the service we provide. We wouldn’t have won without our staff, they’re fantastic.”
• The Chester Residence is at 9 Rothesay Place, Edinburgh, EH3 7SL. Telephone 0131-226 2075 or visit www.chester-residence.com
Prizes and good causes
SCOTLAND’S Hotel of the Year awards began in 2003, with the first awards night held in Edinburgh in 2004.
Since then the Scottish hotel “Oscars” have been hosted around the country – this year at the Thistle Glasgow – with thousands raised for good causes such as HIT Scotland, which offers bursaries to those who want to work in the hospitality trade.
The first ever winner was The Torridon – the Highlands hotel which won again last year – while others to claim the title include the Fairmont St Andrews, the Summer Isles Hotel in Achiltibuie, the Old Course Hotel & Spa in St Andrews, Inverlochy Castle Hotel, Western House Hotel in Ayr and Blythswood Square in Glasgow. The Chester Residence has become the first Edinburgh hotel to win.
The awards have become a celebrity event and this year they were attended by Miss Scotland, Miss Edinburgh and Miss Glasgow, Britain’s Got Talent winner Jai, X-Factor’s Gamu and patron Lady Claire Madonald.
The main point of the awards though, say the organisers, is to encourage, guide and recognise the highest standards at each individual hotel.