September 21, 2020

In conversation with... Federica Bertolini - The Fife Arms

Miriam Graglia
Social Media Executive

Set in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, and just 15km from Balmoral, The Fife Arms, Braemar delivers a unique blend of luxury and accessibility,  together with eccentricity and an innate timelessness. General Manager, Federica Bertolini talks to us about the four-year renovation – and the passion of those behind it – that inside of two years has seen it transform into a ‘must visit’ of the Scottish Highlands, as well as a hub of the local community.

I’ve been fortunate to work at some of the finest hotels in quite far flung parts of the UK. I started my career at The Balmoral, a five-star hotel in the heart of Edinburgh, and my time there has certainly set me up for success in my career since. From The Balmoral I went on to spend 11 happy years at The Hotel Tresanton, a luxury seafront property in Cornwall’s St Mawes.

Before I joined, the Tresanton had undergone a major renovation by its owner (Olga Polizzi of the Forte family), and I heard much about the project in my time working there. It had been quite a big risk at the time as the restoration transformed this former sailing club into an elegant and chic hotel property. While some critics felt this was at odds with the traditional appeal of the Cornish coast, projects like Olga’s essentially helped drive what became Cornwall’s ‘renaissance’ as a leisure destination – to deliver something more aspirational and luxurious to a previously untapped market for tourism. Like many Cornish communities since, investment in more boutique accommodations, alongside the family-friendly, has seen St Mawes thrive as a leisure destination that delivers the accessible and the aspirational.

This story always inspired me, so when the opportunity presented itself to return to Scotland (of which I had many fond memories from The Balmoral) and become a key part of the team who wanted to breathe new life into The Fife Arms in Braemar, I couldn’t resist it.

The sheer vision and ambition the new owners had for the project. Like Tresanton, it was being undertaken against the odds. Previously a Victorian coaching inn, the hotel was in poor condition and not befitting of the beauty of its surrounding location. It was dragging the area down. It needed vision – and cash – both of which had been in short supply. However, once the new owners (well-known gallerists and hotel owners Manuela and Iwan Wirth) saw it they knew they had to take it on. In a similar vein they had, just a year prior, successfully renovated Durslade Farmhouse in Somerset (a site that had previously been derelict for 40 years). They also saw it as far more than the renovation of a building, and were committed to creating something that would serve as a nucleus of the community. When Iwan and Manuela explained what this meant in terms of how this would be achieved, practically as well as culturally, and my role in making it all happen, I couldn’t wait to get started.

It’s been really varied as aligned to the different phases of the refurbishment – as to now, nearly two years after opening. In the earliest stages it was about overseeing parts of the renovation and preparing the hotel operationally for launch. Another really important element (which remains today) was liaison with the local community. If you can imagine, myself and the owners had all arrived from the outside to this small community in the Highlands to take over a building that many may have thought didn’t need ‘saving’. As such my role was very much a connection between the community and the hotel. It was really important that they felt informed about and connected with what we were doing to create jobs, provide something that was for the community as much as for tourists, and celebrate the region and Scottish culture in general. Through consistent communication and giving the community the chance to have their say and be involved, we have delivered on that vision.

Now it’s also about ensuring that we create an unforgettable Highlands experience for our guests. We do this in ways you would expect, such as through an exceptional dining under our Executive Chef, but also in ways that you might not – including through our team of ‘ghillies’ (a Gaelic term for a gamekeeper or attendant of sports such as fishing and hunting) who are pivotal to the guest experience, providing tailored itineraries for walks, cycles, shooting etc. Our product is so unique we have to be really ambitious when comes to delivering experiences to match the location, venue and history etc – my job is ensuring that this thread runs through every aspect of our hospitality.  

Each of our 46 rooms are individually appointed, and celebrate cultural or literary figures connected with Scotland.

We have 4 Royal suites – all of which feature a four poster bed and free standing copper bath. With their signature high ceilings and rooms dressed with antiques, artworks and objects that once belonged to historic figures, entering one of our suites is as close to time travel as you can get.

We then have our more modern Victoriana Suites –  which seamlessly meld opulent décor with Victorian features and stunning views of the surrounding landscape.  Our Scottish Culture Rooms and Nature & Poetry Rooms take inspiration from leading figures that Scotland has produced across literature and astronomy through to engineering, exploration and the arts. With titbits of information about the individuals that have inspired them in our Scottish Culture Rooms and pieces that ‘bring the outside in’ using materials such as heather, horn and tweed in our Nature & Poetry Rooms, they’re a cultural haven for guests that appreciate such touches.

Our Croft Rooms and Artist’s Studio are perfect for those who want to experience the hotel and its surroundings but don’t wish to spend on more luxurious accommodation. Boxed and cabin beds create a warm, cosy feel where guests can nestle or ‘coorie’ in as we say in Scotland! Both are again inspired by artistic and literary figures, with Our Artists’ Studio being an absolute one-off and something that’s perfect for the single traveller. Inspired by The Bloomsbury Group – which included some of the twentieth century’s most pioneering artists, writers and thinkers – these fiercely authentic rooms are themed as if the inhabitant is still in residence, with paint spattered floor and other personal artefacts adding to an experience where a guest can live like a writer, while enjoying some of the most top notch views the hotel has to offer.

A Victoriana Suite at The Fife Arms
All Suites feature a free-standing copper bath
Scotland's pioneers of Art and Science inspire the Scottish Culture Rooms

We see visitors from all over the world. Given the uniqueness of what we have created we have people who come for the art and culture, some for the outdoor space, some for the experiences we can offer – and many for all that and the sheer artistry of the venue itself. We have had many come to visit us from the USA (although less this year unfortunately with the current situation with COVID-19), but we look forward to welcoming more guests from near – and further afield – over the coming months and into next year.

For us word of mouth is so powerful and over half of our bookings come to us direct as a result. Also given the custom nature of our accommodations, many guests like to talk through the options that are most beneficial to their stay with one of our expert team. The regeneration also attracted a lot of attention in the press, and last year we were delighted to be announced as The Sunday Times Hotel of the Year. Since opening we have also earned accolades including The Scottish Design Awards and an international award for the best art hotel which, together with favourable word of mouth, have further propelled interest and demand. But we’re never complacent. The experience we offer, and the positive response and recommendations we generate from it, is what attracts people who haven’t heard of us and is why many that have visited return when they can.  

It sounds clichéd but it’s very hard to single out one thing with what we have here. To some it appeared a huge gamble, but the beauty of the area and the passion and belief of Iwan and Manuela has yielded an incredible product.

Our 16,000-piece collection of carefully curated artworks and historical artefacts would have to be up there as they are so intrinsic to our intent to create an environment that reflected as well as contributed to cultural life here in Braemar. How we showcase these, both in the common areas and within each individual room (as each requires careful housekeeping to preserve these aspects) is a continual source of pride, as is the opportunity to work with such a hotbed of creative talent and artists on new collaborations that inspire and excite so many, and really set us apart as a venue.

But it’s the team that we’ve built that I’m particularly proud of. Everyone here has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the hotel and this is something that benefits our guests hugely. While many hotels nowadays will reflect aspects of their locale through partnerships or cultural references, which is of course great, few deliver this to the extent we can, or create an experience as immersive – and that is down to our team. Everyone is committed to the part they play in creating a seamless guest experience. As a luxury brand we need eyes everywhere to ensure that our impeccable standards are maintained. I won’t ask any member of the team to do something I’m not prepared to do myself and that creates a wonderful culture of egalitarianism that goes beyond hierarchy and where everyone is focused on guest’s enjoyment (any tips received are shared equally in recognition of this). As such we have an extraordinary team and an extraordinary product - I don’t think you can have a stronger USP than that.

Over 16,000 artworks and historical artefacts help the hotel to tell stories of local people and places

We do but unlike other hotels ours is actually geared towards our local community. The people of Braemar put their trust in ourselves and Artfarm (the development company through which our owners adapt and reinvent unique sites) to create something that would benefit and lift the community. As such we have a program in operation that gives locals discounts on food and drinks in The Flying Stag Pub and restaurant within the hotel. This is another way we invest in maintaining that sense of community both within and outside the hotel itself.

The Stag pub and restaurant operates a loyalty scheme for locals of Braemar

While there were understandably cancellations – which we of course accommodated – a great many guests were happy for us to retain their booking and deposits for when they could return. Many colleagues I spoke to in hospitality businesses outside the UK didn’t get the support that we did here, so that was of course a great help.

So, while we had to retrench; running a skeleton staff for core operations, including processing requests for guests who needed refunds or to freeze their bookings, we also didn’t delay in preparing for re-opening – despite an uncertain timeline.  This included updating our risk assessments and communicating to guests about how we’re operating. We re-opened with a slow host opening in mid-July, in line with Government guidance, and re-opened in full from 1st August.

We’re still operating on a controlled numbers basis the positive thing is that because we’re a Victorian building – and where we’re situated in the middle of the Cairngorms – there’s plenty of space. Perfect for those who appreciate the outdoors – or have gained a new appreciation for nature during lockdown. The perfect escape!

Martin Creed
Work No. 3435
44 x 1250 cm / 17 3/8 x 492 1/8 inches. Picture courtesy of Martin Creed and Hauser & Wirth
© Martin Creed. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020

For me as a General Manager you have to be hands on. And you have to love being a host. As such I never tire of showing guests around; whether it’s a mini tour of our artworks – from international commissions to those from our artists in residence – or pointing out the intricacies that make their room or suite completely unique within the hotel.  

But it’s also the ability to not take yourself too seriously as a luxury brand. We're as proud of our eclecticism as we are of our premium touches. We don’t even use one single brand identity or logo – with items from our menus to business cards all using historic logos that reflect the hotels from its nineteenth century roots to now.  For some brands this might be highly unconventional approach, but for us it recognises and celebrates the hotel’s history

Over the course of next year we will have some exciting news to share on another property in Braemar, so do watch this space!

Guests also have immediate access to all the Cairngorms National Park has to offer

To find out more about The Fife Arms visit their website here.

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