Gordon Campbell Gray talks to Amy Wakeham about his new project, the Wee Hotel Company, and why he’s left behind luxury hotels (as we know them) for good.
The Future of Hotels is Bright, Says Gordon Campbell Gray
‘As I’m talking to you, I’m looking out on the loch, I’m on a peninsula and I’ve got otters outside my home. I’m feeling very, very lucky.’ Hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray, famous for his glamourous international hotels in Beirut, Antigua and Bahrain, has had an enviable six months, living as he does on the shores of beautiful Loch Linnhe in western Scotland.
‘I have to confess that I’m not missing a lot of it,’ he admits over Zoom from his home. ‘I am loving not having to be in so many places at once. I used to travel an enormous amount, on two planes a week for years, and I haven’t been on a plane since February. I don’t miss it at all.’
But this change of pace isn’t merely a Covid-enforced blip. Last year, Campbell Gray made the decision to step back from the day-to-day running of Campbell Gray Hotels. ‘One Sunday night I got this back-to-school feeling as I was heading to the airport to go to London, after which, on the Tuesday, I was going to Bahrain. I remember thinking, “I wish I wasn’t leaving,” and I thought, “Why are you leaving? Why are you doing this?”’
Instead, he looked around for something closer to home – and settled on The Pierhouse, a much-loved local hotel 20 minutes down the road (15 minutes if he takes the boat). This was soon joined by The Three Chimneys, one of Skye’s most beloved and celebrated restaurants perched on its idyllic north-west coast. ‘It has allowed me to be free to start a new chapter,’ Campbell Gray says of the creation his new Wee Hotel Company.
On the story behind the Wee Hotel Company
‘I’ve always loved five-star hotels,’ he says about stepping back from Campbell Gray hotels. ‘But I’ve never loved their lavishness and excess. I don’t want to be blasé, but I think I just stayed in too many of them. I got bored of it.’
Instead, with the Wee Hotel Company he wants to try a different type of hospitality: one that’s slower, more thoughtful, and much more personal, and one that typifies what he calls ‘good old-fashioned Scottish hospitality.’
Campbell Gray had always loved the peace and quiet of The Pierhouse; of ‘sitting with a plate of langoustines and a glass of white wine, looking out over the loch to Mull.’ One day, the owners approached him and mentioned they were thinking of selling it – and he immediately knew he had to be the buyer.
‘It’s such a nice form of hospitality because it’s about the fisherman bringing in the lobsters, the oysters, the mussels. When the chef’s busy and needs more lobster, he just goes to the end of the jetty outside and picks up a creel,’ describes Campbell Gray. It also attracts a slightly different, more varied crowd than his old five-star hotels. ‘People arrive in kayaks, in canoes, in Bentleys, in yachts, on bicycles, in rusty old Land Rovers. It’s all of humanity.’
On the Covid-19 pandemic
The Wee Hotel Company was only a few months old when lockdown struck – a fatal blow for many other hotels and restaurants. However, it weathered the storm and, since being allowed to open, both The Pierhouse and The Three Chimneys have been fully booked – so much so, that Campbell Gray had to hire someone just to answer the phone and say, ‘I’m sorry, we’re full’.
Of course, everyone holidaying in the UK rather than abroad this summer has helped. And the two hotels’ beautiful, isolated locations, surrounded as they are by plentiful nature and lungfuls of fresh air, won’t have hurt, either. But Campbell Gray isn’t complacent: he’s been sending everyone who has stayed with him a hand-written letter of thanks – for returning after the Covid-19 pandemic, and for trusting the Wee Hotel Company to look after them. He’s written 210 so far and has 480 left to go.
But despite a busy summer he’s worried about what the cold weather will bring with it. ‘Everybody’s worried that it will fall off a cliff when the winter comes,’ he says sadly. ‘I just want to last through the winter.’
On sustainability and the travel industry
‘I find all the waste of luxury, the excesses in a luxury hotel, deeply offensive,’ explains Campbell Gray. ‘But it’s our responsibility to always be kind, and I say we’re in the kindness industry. So, whatever you do, if you do it really well, and you’re kind to people, and you’re very ethical, I think it’s fine.’
He hopes to see an end of what he terms ‘wanton travel’ – a weekend in Prague followed by a weekend in Barcelona, for example – and that people will decide to support local businesses and continue to holiday in the UK.
The Wee Hotel Company itself is all about championing the small, the sustainable and the local, with all ingredients sourced nearby or made in-house, and waste minimised. Both The Pierhouse and The Three Chimneys are signed up to the Green Tourism scheme, which promotes a more sustainable, eco-friendly industry.
On the future of hotels
Gordon Campbell Gray is clear that, to him, the idea of being small, local and sustainable is key to the future of the hospitality industry. ‘I’ve never been a very big corporate person,’ he explains of his career. ‘I’ve never believed that big is beautiful. I’ve never liked big chains or political hierarchies. And I could never bear head office instructions from people who never met guests.’
He hopes that other hoteliers and companies will use this current moment as a springboard to change for the better. ‘I would like to think that some of the big corporations will look carefully at what they’re doing. And I’d like to think that the traveller will be intelligent and be demanding and want to know why they do certain things.’
He also hopes that, once Covid-19 and Brexit are dealt with, the issue of the environment will come to the fore again. ‘It’s obviously the biggest problem in the world and if luxury hotels and hospitality don’t embrace this, then it’s totally unacceptable.’