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Features / ‘Arrive as strangers, leave as friends’: hotel owners plan to move on

Hotel owners Andrea Manson and Paul Bird: 'We like to chat to folk and get to know them.' Photos: courtesy of Pete Bevington

Owners of the St Magnus Bay Hotel Paul Bird and Andrea Manson look back on their 15 years of ownership with fondness after making the decision to sell the business – but they feel they “saved the building”.

In an interview with Shetland News, they explained the reason for selling was “primarily down to age” and had nothing to do with recent staffing issues or ramifications from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bird said: “I do genuinely feel we’ve saved the building. I don’t think she would have had much longer if we hadn’t bought it.”

The St Magnus Bay Hotel is a wooden clad building that sat empty from April 2003 until September 2007 when the couple took it on.

They have spent the last 15 years restoring the hotel to its former glory, which included a complete renovation of the building’s exterior to reinstate the original colour after it was painted white in the 1970s.

When they first bought the hotel there were 22 leaks, six of them major which required immediate attention.

“The building was knackered when we got it,” Bird said, “but we’ve never taken funding or grants from the council to renovate the hotel, apart from the Covid grants everyone got.

“Everything has come from our back pocket, but we can see the results now and this hotel is something for Shetland to be proud of.”

Recalling their first winter in the building, Manson added: “I had to sit with my feet in a cardboard box for the cold, and my fringe was blowing in the wind while we sat inside because of all the drafts.”

The St Magnus Bay Hotel was damaged during a major storm in 1991, and there were repairs still needing done when Bird and Manson took it over in 2007.

It was first built in Norway, before coming to Scotland and being displayed in Glasgow’s Great Exhibition of 1899.

After this the building was shipped to Shetland and was constructed in its current location in 1900, owned by the North of Scotland Orkney & Shetland Steam Navigation Company. An additional one-storey annex was added during the First World War.

Manson, who is also a councillor for the North Mainland and was appointed convener in May this year, added that due to the staffing issues so many in the hospitality sector face, they’ve been unable to provide the level of service they wanted.

She said: “Our motto is ‘arrive as strangers, leave as friends’. We like to chat to folk and get to know them. But we haven’t been able to do that as much because we’re doing everything else.”

Their most recent project involved creating a suite named after W.H. Auden, a well-known British-American poet who reportedly stayed in the hotel during a visit to Shetland in the 1930s.

They’ve also added extensive fireproofing to every room and replaced all the external windows which cost over £120,000. Renovation work is ongoing as the pair continue to upgrade the rooms.

Bird and Manson have made some interesting finds during their restoration work; when redoing their fencing they found Nazi swastikas in the joins, assuming they came from a Second World War wreck and were repurposed.

They’ve also had loyal guests over the years, including one gentleman who travels from the Netherlands to stay for three weeks in June, and has been coming to the hotel since 1984. More recently, there was a TV crew filming in Hillswick who landed their helicopter in front of the building.

When reflecting on the issues they’ve faced during their tenure of ownership Bird said: “We have witnessed all the worst possible scenarios since we’ve had the building.

“We’ve had Covid, we’ve lost the oil contracts, we’ve had Brexit, we’ve got Airbnb on our shoulders now.

“Before oil came to Shetland there was one hotel in the north, and if we’re not careful it could easily go back to that because there isn’t enough in the winter to keep these places going.”

Meanwhile, the short tourism season in Shetland poses its very own challenges as Bird explains: “The only way you can build a professional staff is to have people with experience, who can tell guests about the wine, explain the flavours in the food and make recommendations, but you can only bring people in seasonally.”

Recently, the Magnus Bay Hotel had to cancel lunch service and a carvery due to ongoing staffing shortages.

However, since posting a public Facebook post about the crisis, they said the issues were resolved and they’ll be offering a full lunch and dinner service all summer, with carveries on a Sunday as usual.

St Magnus Bay Hotel will officially be on the market shortly. The owners are in the process of appointing estate agents.