Local accommodation trade needs ‘protection’

Former Busta House owner Joe Rocks.

THE FORMER owner of Busta House Hotel, Joe Rocks, responds to our news story on the implications of the end of the oil boom (End of boom reveals economic weaknesses, SN, 14/05/2018).

“The private accommodation sector has become the first victim of these radical, yet not entirely unexpected, changes. With the construction workers gone and the oil companies tightening their belts hotels, guesthouses and private houses for rent are standing empty.”

In 2012, Shetland Islands Council sought the opinions of those in the accommodation industry with a view to ascertaining a realistic picture of future requirements.

At that time, demand for accommodation was such that, for several years, those outwith the industry might have imagined that thousands were queued up at Jamieson’s Quay, desperate to journey north but unable to do so owing to a lack of anywhere to bed down once they got here.

In such circumstances, with the Shetland Gas Plant construction continuing, a new school to be built, a giant wind farm to, perhaps, be constructed and, not least, a thing called a ‘gas sweetening plant’ to be installed at Sullom Voe Terminal, the future demand looked unlikely to be able to be met by the ‘traditional’ providers.

I cannot know what opinion others expressed when asked how they viewed the matching of future demand with current provision. But I know what I thought.

That for 35 years, local accommodation providers had, no surprise, provided accommodation to the oil (and now gas) industry. And that sometimes demand outstripped supply, and that at such times, the oil industry brought in temporary provision (Rangatira, Stena Baltica, Safe Lancia, Bibby Progress – successfully adapting over a 20 year period).

And that, at other times, demand wilted somewhat, but that by reducing the number of bedrooms by stripping the temporary provision out of the equation, along with the reserves built up over the busy times, these same businesses survived until the demand curve swung upwards again. I also pointed out that any organisation (SIC, BP, wind farm) could ‘buy in’ an accommodation vessel to meet any temporary increase in demand.

Meanwhile, Brae and the North Mainland was seeing its bedroom stock more than double, permanently, due to the construction of The Moorfield Hotel, which meant that, so long as an additional 100 people wanted to stay in Brae, every night, for evermore, things would continue as they had done.

When in 2009 it was suggested that the demand during the gas plant construction phase would be so high that there was no way the traditional providers could meet demand, that point was conceded and planning permission was granted for a large, temporary accommodation facility. It was a logical decision at the time in terms of supply and demand. Much was made of how the timber facia could be utilised locally after the camp’s deconstruction in 2015.

The five-year extension to the temporary planning permission granted in 2013 and effective from 2015 was a mistake.

I believe it was made because the decision makers looked at the then current demand not as part of a cyclical, ongoing curve (up and down, up and down over a period of 40 years) but from 2011 as a permanent requirement stretching out indefinitely into the future.

Well, it wasn’t permanent. It stretched till the gas plant was finished, the school been built. The windfarm? BP? The gas sweetening plant?

Decisions will shortly be made regarding the facility at Sella Ness. Such decisions represent a choice. A choice between the traditional providers of accommodation (Brae Hotel, St. Magnus Bay, Busta, Drumquin, Valleyfield, numerous houses for rent) and the 400 room plus facility at Sella Ness.

It is either or. Either the various businesses which have been owned by and employ local people, feed value back into the local community and see themselves as part of Shetland’s ongoing heritage (Busta 1588, Magnus Bay 1900, Vallyfield 1978, Brae Hotel 1978, Drumquin 1980s) and, ironically, even The Moorfield Hotel (2013). Or the facility at Sella Ness.

My 36 years on Shetland (1979 – 2015) was professionally extremely satisfying. I learned to deal with the peaks and troughs (I’m sure I’m not alone in remembering the effect of $12 a barrel in 1998, or indeed $140 in 2008), and to plan a path through them both, highs and lows.

When Veronica and I sold Busta House to Grant and Joel in 2015, it wasn’t our intent to pass them a poisoned chalice, to have wrung the value out of it and to pass them a dry husk. We believed that Busta House would have a happy and secure future.

If the facility at Sella Ness continues to mop up the revenues that are the lifeblood of the North Mainland’s accommodation providers, it’s difficult to see a viable future for any of them. Lost business cannot be recouped.

It’ll take a lot of consultants to generate adequate tourism business between October and April each year to pay the bills and keep the jobs. In my opinion, the hotel trade in the isles doesn’t “need(s) to secure fresh opportunities” but it might benefit from a little protection from larger, more powerful predators.

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