How would rural hospitality cope with recent upheaval?

Thursday September 10, 2020

Post-lockdown, we’ve all been desperate for a short break away from the confines of our work-from-home spaces. Cabin fever had certainly set in chez Wolffe and during the depths of lockdown, I took the risky decision to book a short staycation break for the end of July. Risky, because at that point (early June), we weren’t sure if lockdown would be eased or not.

But where to go? Our daughter had a hand in this as she’d been reading the Katie Morag Stories which are set on the fictitious Isle of Struay. Turns out Struay is based on the Island of Coll and our daughter made sure we knew she was very keen to go. As an end of term ‘prize’ for doing so well at home-schooling, we announced we were going to Coll. Happiness all-round.

The Coll Hotel has been run by the Oliphant family since 1964 and is the only hotel on this sparsely populated Hebridean island. Online it looked just right. Having booked in advance during lockdown, we were reassured that the hotel had a policy of not taking cancellation fees (nice touch #1). The next challenge was booking the ferry. We were going to leave our car in Oban and travel on foot, but we heard that there were restrictions on who could travel on CalMac ferries. Looking at the new timetable though, there were thankfully no issues there. However, we subsequently discovered that no food or drink was being served on the ferry and it was obligatory to wear face masks.

We enjoyed a first-class welcome, amazing freshly-landed seafood, bikes we could borrow (nice touch #2) and a generally fantastic stay on Coll. I cannot recommend the hotel highly enough. Especially when you think about the challenges they’ve faced. Their market disappeared overnight with lockdown and on top of that, once lockdown eased, travel restrictions meant people couldn’t even get to the island. Yet the hotel has clearly invested heavily in its bedrooms, a new wing with a kitchen, bar and dining room, and above all, they’ve invested in their staff. If rural hospitality businesses want to research how to look after their guests, I suggest they take a look at the Coll Hotel. Not only do they cater to their guests superbly, they look after their staff, and just as importantly they look after locals. Which must help, because come mid-winter on Coll every pint of beer, birthday lunch or mums’ meeting in the hotel supports their income off-season. They’re certainly doing something right because when we were there, on sunny days and even rainy evenings, there was a good amount of local business in the beer garden and around the property.

Above all, the sanitisation and social distancing in place wasn’t intrusive, nor did it feel like staff were under any social distancing pressure. Additional service tables were also set out and food and drink placed on them for us (nice touch #3). One-use menus on thin paper were given out, or QR codes were available if tech-heads preferred them. Hand sanitiser was also at hand, but not obtrusive. There was a general happy, relaxed vibe about the place. Some residents wore face masks, some didn’t, but we were all relaxed and felt welcome at this delightful place. If you haven’t been, book a staycation on Coll – go!

Andrew Wolffe