Interview: Scott Mitchell, managing director of Edinburgh's Surgeons Quarter

Scott Mitchell is MD of Surgeons Quarter, the commercial arm of the historic Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RCSEd), which was founded in 1505 by Royal Charter.
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The businessman joined the company based in the Scottish capital as commercial director in 2010, following many years as a hotelier at the likes of Cameron House at Loch Lomond, and was promoted to his current role in 2018.

Surgeons Quarter last year saw turnover top £9.24 million across its portfolio, boosted by its Ten Hill Place Hotel, and notes that all its profits support the charitable aims of the RCSEd, including the advancement of surgical standards worldwide. Mitchell has a personal motivation for helping drive this, having detailed how he was born blind, and only gained sight through pioneering eye surgery.

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Surgeons Quarter recently announced that it had been accredited as the UK’s first Living Pension employer in hospitality. Can you explain more about the rationale behind this – is it partly a bid to help tackle the industry’s skills shortage, and do you hope to see peers follow suit?

The hotel and hospitality industry has often been overlooked for its potential in offering rewarding careers, partly due to perceptions of low pay and around working conditions. We believe hard work deserves fair remuneration with living wages, appealing pension contributions, and an attractive benefits package.

It’s a simple strategy, but by caring for our employees they in turn look after our customers. This enhances customer satisfaction, increases repeat business, and allows us to keep growing, putting more back to our team. We hope others will adopt this approach, elevating our industry's reputation, and securing the recognition it deserves.

Last year, Surgeons Quarter flagged conference and events bookings being close to exceeding its “record-breaking” 2019. How has the business bounced back from, and navigated, Covid-19? Ten Hill Place Hotel provided more than 2,100 free rooms to key workers, for example…

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We have experienced an incredible bounceback post-Covid-19, every aspect of our business is surpassing pre-pandemic levels due to pent-up customer demand combined with the return to in-person events. However, this resurgence came with challenges, as we downsized during the pandemic and had to rapidly expand again to meet demand. Though we hired more than 200 new employees last year, around 140 departed during this timeframe. Thankfully our team is now stable, and we can focus on training new joiners.

'Surgeons Quarter Barbados might be a pipe dream for now, but it excites us to think about growth and partnerships beyond borders,' says Mitchell. Picture: Ian Georgeson.'Surgeons Quarter Barbados might be a pipe dream for now, but it excites us to think about growth and partnerships beyond borders,' says Mitchell. Picture: Ian Georgeson.
'Surgeons Quarter Barbados might be a pipe dream for now, but it excites us to think about growth and partnerships beyond borders,' says Mitchell. Picture: Ian Georgeson.

The entire hospitality industry has faced major challenges like rebuilding broken supply chains, and recruitment, as indeed have other sectors. It does seem, however, that some customers expect hospitality to be perfect all the time.

We certainly try our best to meet expectations and are willing to try new things. For example, supporting the community during the pandemic, by keeping Ten Hill Place open, was at our own cost. We had to discontinue this service as it generated no revenue, affecting the team who were then not eligible for furlough pay. We remain committed to exceptional service and appreciate understanding from those aware of our industry's complexities.

The business has been making great efforts to be eco-friendly, can you explain more about this?

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Sustainability has been deeply ingrained in our business ethos from the beginning. Years ago, we eliminated single-use plastic bottles from guest bedrooms, saving 80,000 of the containers annually and reducing costs, and we’ve introduced Scottish wildflower seed packets for guests to take home.

Surgeons Quarter last year saw turnover top £9.24 million across its portfolio, boosted by its Ten Hill Place Hotel. Picture: contributed.Surgeons Quarter last year saw turnover top £9.24 million across its portfolio, boosted by its Ten Hill Place Hotel. Picture: contributed.
Surgeons Quarter last year saw turnover top £9.24 million across its portfolio, boosted by its Ten Hill Place Hotel. Picture: contributed.

Our journey towards sustainability is ongoing, and our latest initiative gives guests the opportunity to opt out of daily housekeeping – in return we donate to Ecologi, which equates to offsetting half a ton of carbon dioxide.

Sustainability is more than a buzzword; it's a core value driving our actions. We're committed to meaningful changes that benefit the planet, and focusing on sustainability, we aspire to inspire others in the industry to follow suit.

This year marks the 13th anniversary of you joining Surgeons Quarter – can you characterise how much the business has transformed since then, for example it has launched a travel agency, and would you also say the organisation takes a suitably “surgically precise” approach to hospitality?

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Over the past 13 years, Surgeons Quarter has grown remarkably, with a six-fold increase in annual turnover and the addition of 150 staff – it’s truly a team effort. Ten Hill Place Hotel now offers 129 rooms, we’ve added Café 1505 and added the 1505 Collection of whisky, gin and ale to our offering.

We've expanded further by managing more event spaces, launching Surgeons Quarter Travel, and establishing ourselves in the Festival Fringe Operations scene to be one of the largest in town – we’re hosting nearly 250 shows this year. And excitingly, later this year we’re launching Hill Square Suites.

Our commitment to innovation and diversification enables us to reinvest in RCSEd, helping improve patient outcomes globally.

With Edinburgh set to be flooded with Festivals visitors this month, what are you expecting August to look like in terms of trading, and what are key aims for Surgeons Quarter longer term? You previously mentioned possible further expansion in the UK – is this still on the cards? What is your biggest challenge?

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August 2023 promises to be a thrilling month, and I have a strong feeling it will surpass the busyness we experienced in 2019. International tourism is back, and the festival programme is in full swing. To meet demand, we've expanded our on-site theatres and expanded our outdoor food and drink operations. Now all we need is for the good weather to return, and smooth traffic in Edinburgh to keep things moving.

The future is bright for Surgeons Quarter, and we're exploring several opportunities to expand our reach and collaborate with new partners. "Surgeons Quarter Barbados” might be a pipe dream for now, but it excites us to think about growth and partnerships beyond borders. With our dedicated team, Surgeons Quarter is poised for an exciting journey, making a positive impact in the hospitality industry.