By Scott Wright

IN more than three decades as co-owner East Haugh House, a country house hotel and restaurant in Pitlochry, Lesley McGown may have felt she had seen everything life in the hospitality industry could throw at her – until coronavirus struck.

And it is fair to say the pandemic, which has so far seen the industry lockdown, re-open, and now operating under again under a patchwork of trading restrictions, has tested the wisdom of her experiences to the limit.

From the despondency associated with closing the doors in March to the staycation boom that brought a record August for the Perthshire country retreat, there is probably no adjective suitable to sum up the highs and lows that 2020 has brought.

And, for now at least, plans by Mrs McGown and husband Neil, the hotel’s chef patron, to sell up and retire have been put on hold, as they prepare to make sure the hotel is ready to trade unencumbered again, hopefully by the time the spring season comes around.

“When is the worst time to put your property on the market after 31 years? That’s three months before a global pandemic, which is exactly what we did!” Ms McGown laughed.

READ MORE: Fife country house hotel for sale after four decades of family ownership

As of the weekend, the hotel is closed once more after Perth and Kinross was placed into tier three of Scotland’s new lockdown system. It did not have to close, but had it stayed open it would not have been able to sell alcohol to guests on the premises – unless as part of room service.

The fluctuating restrictions imposed on the hospitality sector even before the current tier system was introduced also had an impact.

In late summer, the introduction of the 10pm curfew placed limits on the number of diners it could accommodate during the evenings.

Then the hotel had to observe restrictions on the sale of alcohol, which meant investment had to be made in outdoor heaters and blankets to allow guests to enjoy a glass of wine on the terrace.

“I still don’t understand what they were trying to achieve,” said Mrs McGown, who has run the four-star hotel with Neil since 1989. “Does Covid know the difference between a glass of wine and a soft drink? It’s ludicrous.”

Travel restrictions imposed by government in England also meant a lot of lost business during the October holidays.

Many East Haugh guests travel from south of the Border to enjoy hunting and fishing in the area, as well as the charms and attractions of Perthshire in the autumn.

Now, Perthshire will this autumn have to contend without the hugely popular Enchanted Forest show, which last year brought around 100,000 people to the Pitlochry area.

“Some are rebooking,” said Mrs McGown, who runs the sporting side of the hotel.

“They are not asking for refunds, which helps – they want to reschedule their bookings.

“People still want to come away [on holiday], but we are totally governed by the restrictions. We don’t know where we are going to be [regarding restrictions] in December and January.”

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East Haugh House was originally built 350 years ago, as part of the Atholl Estate. Under the ownership of the McGowns, the hotel has built up a loyal following for its cuisine, which places major emphasis on locally sourced produce. It has also become popular among hunting and shooting enthusiasts, with East Haugh having won awards both as a sports hotel and for its food.

“The main attraction for our place is the food, that is what we have built our reputation on over 31 years,” said Mrs McGown. “That is what people are coming back for. We opened it up as a sporting hotel back in ’89, and that has gathered pace, but it is mainly food.

“And all the attractions that go with Pitlochry – the walking, the theatre and everything else.

“Of course, we have no theatre this year. It is amazing how many people are coming when there is absolutely nothing to do.”

Such has been the undulating nature of the pandemic, the current restrictions to normal trading patterns come after the hotel enjoyed its most successful August under the McGowns, despite the sharp fall in foreign tourists.

“The staycations have been absolutely huge,” Mrs McGown said. “The other hugely important thing was to really give customers confidence [and] have a really good cancellation policy, which gave people the confidence to book.

“And that we had a really good Covid policy when they came to the hotel. A lot of people were leaving their homes for the very first time.”

After such a tumultuous year, it is perhaps not surprising Mrs McGown and her husband are looking forward to their retirement, when it eventually comes.

“I have to say I loved every single minute of lockdown!” Mrs McGown said. “For myself and my husband it was a taste of what life will be when we finally retire.

“But it was a hugely worrying time financially. That was the big thing.”

Six Questions

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

For leisure, the Sea of Cortez in the Mexican Baja, fishing for Rooster Fish. We stayed in Jacques Cousteau’s house

where he had stayed when mapping out the sea of Cortez in the 50s.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

Air hostess. My father was a BA 747 captain in the heyday of aviation. As a child we lived abroad, Hawaii, Hong Kong and Australia, and I just wanted to continue travelling the world.

What was your biggest break in business?

Crashing my sister-in-law’s car. We borrowed it to view a dreadful hotel in Rannoch and had a prang on the way back forcing us to return a different route, passing East Haugh House (a private house then). 

What was your worst moment in business?

Probably Covid and the announcement of a total shutdown in March 2020. But we have been pleasantly surprised at the level of business since we opened – the “staycation” will be the saviour of Scottish hospitality.

Who do you most admire and why?

Tom Kitchin. His achievements in all his restaurants  are huge. We just love the Kitchin, it’s our “go to” for any occasion. And his achievements  are purely down to huge talent and total dedication.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

I have just read Andrew Cotter’s Olive, Mabel and Me. His tales of his dogs’ antics during lockdown were hysterical.

I love Billie Eilish singing the new Bond theme but I’m still a huge George Michael and Coldplay fan.