This comes after industry officials cited the inability to recruit good teams amid “chronic” staff shortages as one of the biggest threats facing the sector, with UKHospitality warning vacancies remained “stubbornly high” despite an overall year-on-year decline.
Heading up a trade association is a big responsibility that needs a mixture of time, commitment, and passion for Lamont, who came into the role a few months ago.
“It’s no longer all about wearing the president’s chain of office and attending functions,” he said. “Obviously there are times when that is what is required and we’re a very social industry – it’s the people, relationships and friendships that make us want to be part of it – but we’re operating in an era now that throws up so many challenges that can be all-consuming.”
For Lamont, who owns and runs the well-known Mackays Hotel in Wick in Caithness, in the far north of Scotland, hospitality is a wonderful sector to be part of despite its challenges.
Moving into the retail trade 25 years ago, Lamont opened Bin Ends, The Fine Wine Shop in Wick, followed by the Thurso shop two years later. He opened Whisky Cellar & more in Inverness Airport in 2016.
Does the remote location of Wick cause staffing issues? Luckily, the recruitment crisis hasn’t caused too many problems thanks to the hotel’s family focus and place in the community, although Lamont feels for those in the industry who have lost staff due to Covid and Brexit.
Investing in talent
Despite this, he believed that the industry was making major headway in convincing the public – especially the younger generation – that hospitality is able to offer fulfilling and worthwhile careers. “It’s something I’m quite passionate about – as is the SLTA – so I want to have an impact on that myself,” he added.
He continued: “Young people are the lifeblood of our industry and those of us who have been in business for many years, and been successful, have a duty and moral responsibility to do what we can to nurture talent and help people develop new skills.
“Of course, that’s not to say that older people aren’t valuable to us – they are – and I always say that no-one is ever too old to learn something new.”
This comes after a recent survey found that around three quarters (72%) of pub and restaurant operators agreed that having more over 50s on the payroll could fix the workforce crisis that has pushed thousands of businesses to the brink of bankruptcy.
Murray said the SLTA has been “fantastic” in recent years in advising businesses and guiding the industry through Covid and the post-pandemic period, and he want to keep going with the “good work” started by the SLTA’s managing director Colin Wilkinson and predecessor as president, Graham Blaikie.
He said: “None of us ever thought something like Covid would hit us but sadly it did and the entire industry – licensed trade and tourism sector – continues to suffer, notwithstanding all the other challenges and barriers that hold us back and make trading successfully very, very difficult.”
Business, added Murray, is building all the time, with the post-pandemic “staycation” trend adding to that growth. What’s more, the fact that Mackays Hotel is very much part of the local community was a benefit. For example, throughout the pandemic, the hotel looked after key workers and ensured that local veterans and pensioners were provided with meals.
The Mackays story started back in 1955 when Murray’s maternal grandmother bought the hotel. Murray and his wife, Ellie, took over its management in 1983 before purchasing it from the rest of the family in the 1990s.
"We need to make sure our voice is heard loud and clear"
Since then, the business has evolved considerably. “The bar was a hub for the community, and we did a roaring trade, particularly on market days when all the country folk and farmers were in town,” recalled Murray, who spent some time in the south, and even ventured over the border for a short time before the call of the North enticed him back to Wick.
He added: “We still enjoy a busy bar trade but over the years we’ve branched out into weddings and functions, developed our accommodation offer and put huge emphasis on food – our No. 1 Bistro has one AA Rosette.”
It’s fair to say that Wick’s location is pretty remote. It is a long drive down to the central belt and public transport can be challenging. “Our location does present challenges at times, but I think that’s the appeal of it, too,” he said. “If you need to go somewhere, you will find a way and people will find us.”
Lamont – and Ellie’s – love for the sector saw the pair crowned joint tourism ambassadors at the Highland & Islands Tourism Awards in 2022. “It’s such a unique part of the country up here – we have so much to offer,” said the SLTA president.
For Lamont, trips further afield will become more frequent in the future. They’ll become more regular as he works with colleagues on the trade association’s board and regional council to represent the needs of members, promote training opportunities, work with industry partners and sponsors, and encourage uptake in membership.
He said: “I genuinely believe that the SLTA is a superb organisation because everything we do is for the benefit of our members, and we have a responsibility to do our best for them.
This could look like representing them in high-level government discussions about the deposit return scheme, VAT, rates or tourism levies, which Lamont believed were issues that affected the whole industry.
"We need to make sure our voice is heard loud and clear," he added. "It's a huge honour to be part of the SLTA over many years and now be entrusted as president, a role I’ll hold for the next two years.
“I know it won’t always be plain sailing but if I can make even a small difference, I’ll have done my job properly.”