Oban – local issues on hotels and town redesign

There’s a lot of discussion going on in Oban at the moment about aspects of its visitor facilities.

One topic has caused annoyance in the key part of the local tourism sector; and one relates to a proposal which includes a major re-engineering of the waterfront.

On the first, the Chair of Oban Community Council, Mairi Malloy, has said that hotels in Oban are expensive. Several hoteliers are incensed at what they see as being undermined from within.

The remark was apparently made in connection with the opening in Oban of the 81 bedroom Premier Inn with Mairi Malloy saying
Mairi Malloy reported as saying that this was needed: ‘We put it round the community council, everybody likes it. It is a budget hotel which we don’t have in Oban. Some of the hotels are quite expensive, especially if you have children. We thought it would encourage families to come for more holidays. You have to try to suit everybody not just couples with plenty money.’

The reality appears to be that most hotels in Oban are cheaper than Premier Inn – if one uses its Fort William hotel as a benchmark.

Prices  in Oban yesterday were ranging from £30 room rate to £65.00 – against £85.00 in Premier Inn for a twin or double.

There is a case to answer where a community leader, with the representative authority that position brings, makes public remarks which may have the effect of undermining the commercial performance of local businesses.

This issue of expensiveness or affordability can only be measured by the evidence of what the market will stand.

Any judgment on matters like this has to rest upon an intelligent analysis based on accurate data, which, in this case, is never likely to be securely forthcoming because of commercial confidentiality and competition.

Occupancy rates, set against room prices, set against both market periods and specific event dates and set against the sector of the accommodation market in which each each hotel pitches its offer would all need to be part of a modelling exercise before a safe conclusion could be reached.

Value for money – at any level in the sector – is the issue. If you charge a lot, you give everything visitors value – and then some.  If Oban hotels are enjoying commercially healthy occupancy rates, whatever they’re charging, they must be getting it right.

Islay is a good benchmark. Accommodation costs in Islay are high – and, very unusually, accommodation providers on the island largely make no seasonal alteration to their room rates.

That means that the market is there – year round; the market is paying; and the market is presumably getting what it wants.

As an island, there is an extent to which accommodation providers in Islay have the market in a half -Nelson. But this island is also in the happy position of having eight operating single malt whisky distilleries, with a ninth coming on stream soon – Gatrbreck, on Loch Indaal south of Bowmore. The distilleries are scattered around the island, generating accommodation business through:

  • the corporate life of the distilleries themselves;
  • visitors coming to the place of a distinctive brand long famous worldwide for a quality product – and in the most unarguably bounded location;
  • whisky tours and distillery visitor centres, with Ardbeg’s wining awards virtually year on year;
  • the role they play in just about every one of the island’s major events; either in the foreground, as with Feis Ile, the festival of music and malt; or in the  background, as supporting the visitor offer of the event and as sponsors.

Islay also has the pull of having been the historic stronghold of the famous masters of the seas from the Hebrides to the Isle of Man – the Lords of the Isles, a phrase that resonates powerfully even with those who have no idea what it’s about. The island copper fastens this unique attraction in having a visitor centre at Finlaggan, on a loch in the centre of the island, on the very site of the headquarters of the Lordship and with its extant architectural remains.

Oban has more of a schizophrenic offer to visitors – it majors on being the ‘Gateway to the Isles’ with its cluster of wide ranging ferry routes to inshore and outer west coast  islands coming and going in its busy bay. But that suggests brief practical stays on the way to somewhere else.

This role has the benefit of bringing people to Oban. The challenge then is to make Oban a destination in its own right, dealing with what is – amongst many others, a rather run down town – but one with a uniquely beautiful location in its tiered crescent physicality, wrapped around Oban Bay and sheltered by the opposing Isle of Kerrera.

Part of the challenge is not to ruin but sensitively to support and develop this unique strength.

This brings us to the second current topic of discussion – a major propostion for a re-engineering of Oban town from Ian Dougall of West Highland estates.

This includes the filling in of the bay at George Street; and the building of an underground car park.

Whatever the attraction of the rest of the proposals, anyone who imagines that filling in a bay at a waterside town is a good idea has only to go and look at Bangor on the County Down coast of Northern Ireland – or scrutinise it on Google Earth.

Bangor and Oban had many common features, each a celebrated waterside town with a history commercially brighter than its present; each with a tiered section of the town embracing its bay; each with retail waterfront aimed at a visitor market no longer what it was; each with major yacht clubs; each with inadequate parking.

Bangor filled in its bay and made the area into a large waterfront car park. They tarted it up with twee red brick walls and flower beds.

The end result is no shortage of town centre car parking capacity – and even less reason to come to Bangor.

You only see the water from the hills plunging down into the town. Walking along the once waterfront esplanade – now a beached commercial whale that overlooks nothing but the urban desert of the car park – the water is  little more than an urban myth existing somewhere beyond the limits of the car park – which is markedly underused. The Victorian retail once-waterfront of shops and hotels has declined even more rapidly and is gap toothed and squalid – think Rothesay before the effort to pull that once lovely town back from beyond the brink.

If that is the direction of travel the Oban business community want, they will wreck the potential that still remains for recovery – which depends as much as anything on gutsy private sector investment arising from a robust and durable town-wide planned identity.

Car parking is, of course an issue.

One radical solution might be for the Council to take the hit of the sunk costs in their continuingly empty Harbour Bowl enterprise; level it; and built a multistorey on its maximum footprint. That would serve the town centre, the rail station and the ferry port and would be inoffensive in what is already an immovable hotch-potch of major services provision.

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Related Articles & Comments

  • I’m not usre what you mean by Premier Inns being expensive. I regularly stay in them throughout the UK and have recently booked rooms for £29, £30, £50 & £70. The accommodation is always excellent with a money back guarantee if I’m not satisfied (which I’ve had twice). I’ve also stayed at the Fort William Premier Inn and paid nowhere near the price you quote – although I do not leave my bookings until the last moment.

    I’ve also stayed in several Oban hotels over the years, as have my relatives. The accommodation leaves a lot to be desired and hopefully the Premier Inn will make them up their game.

    The Premier Inn will bring business and employment to the area and I’ll definitely be booking rooms for visitors to Oban.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 21 Thumb down 4

    Lowry December 13, 2015 6:28 pm Reply
    • I would agree it is possible to get a good deal in a Premier Inn but usually only if you book at least 3 weeks in advance. If you’re a couple and have breakfast that’s another £17.50 sp all of a sudden your £35 room is £52.50 and doesn’t look such a good deal. Perhaps an opportunity for one or two Oban cafes to do a value breakfast and advertise in the right places.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

      keith stanger December 13, 2015 11:52 pm Reply
      • The delicious continental breakfast is cheaper and offers a far better deal for me than most other hotels. Permier Inn even warms the criossants if you ask (and not in a microwave.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 4

        Lowry December 14, 2015 9:08 am Reply
        • The full price at a Premier Inn is about normal for a decent hotel and of course you pay for the room not per person. I despair of many hotels where you see promotions of a low price but that is for one person, usually in a single room often very small single room. With a Premier Inn you know how much it will be though might find cheaper offers when you go to book. They do not overbook like Travelodge so you know the room is guaranteed.
          I once made a mistake in the date in booking one of their discounted rooms, I immediately cancelled it and rebooked. I knew there were no refunds on discounted rooms but rang them out of courtesy and got a refund.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

          Lundavra December 14, 2015 3:29 pm Reply
      • It depends on availability, if they plenty of empty rooms then the price will come down automatically. I prefer it to other hotels where people say that ‘no one pays the rack rate and you should haggle’. I have no time for haggling, if they want to try and sell the room at a higher price than necessary then that is their choice but I will probably go elsewhere. I know Premier Inn will be offering the best price they can at that time.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

        Lundavra December 14, 2015 3:32 pm Reply
        • That should be ‘if there are plenty of empty rooms’
          Missing the EDIT option!

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

          Lundavra December 14, 2015 3:33 pm Reply
    • I’d agree with most of your comments, but Oban seriously lacks affordable single room availability. Even with two months’ notice of day surgery, I could not get a single room in Oban for under £55 and no discount for the missed breakfast (hostels had no room, even a dorm bed) because I had to catch the silly o’clock first bus out to get to the hospital in time – despite the Vale of Leven’s staff’s best efforts on timing.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

      Jade December 13, 2015 11:54 pm Reply
      • You may have been able to claim most of that back on expenses, Jade.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

        Lowry December 14, 2015 9:05 am Reply
  • perhaps the community leader as you call this person should get their facts right before spouting of to press about a subject she doesn’t realy seem to know much about.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

    Gerry December 13, 2015 6:50 pm Reply
  • As an occasional visitor to Oban I don’t think there is much wrong with it. I suggest that it should play to its strength being a wonderful amphitheatre and glorious haven for the sailing community.

    A marina would seem a good idea but also a multi use conference/ theatre venue like Inverness would add another dimension to its appeal.

    On the visual side time to address the poor looking 1960s buildings on the front. They are so out of proportion with the gracious sandstone neighbours. Owners of the offending sites could surely consider a redevelopment with an inspiring building with upper floor flats enjoying the elevated breathtaking views. Such flats would attract premium rates

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2

    Graeme McCormick December 13, 2015 7:55 pm Reply
    • I can think of several very noticeable things wrong with Oban – the astonishing absence of proper pavements on stretches of street immediately north and south of the centre of town, unbelievable lack of a road link from the roundabout on the south side of town across to the area of the ferry access road – and, lastly, the lack of a credible ring road to syphon off through traffic and relieve the load on the one and only road through town.
      A lot of the trouble seems to stem from the natural growth in car ownership over the years being immensely aggravated in Oban by the planned development of supermarkets and commercial & industrial zones with little or no thought for the traffic that they’d generate.

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 14 Thumb down 1

      Robert Wakeham December 13, 2015 8:21 pm Reply
      • Why do you want lots of cheap hotel rooms? £55 for a room is cheap compared to most other places.
        Oban probably has lots of cheap hotel rooms, as it attracts a vast number of tour busses ferrying pensioners around on cheap holidays. They’ll be paying a heavy discount on published rates. The rooms that are available to book are where the hoteliers need to make the money.
        Add to that a short season and the hotels need to make their money from April to October. Premier Inns tend to be in more ‘year round’ destinations like cities so can guarantee occupancy for a much longer period.
        Add in RET for the ferries that will make Oban a car park from next summer, and the room prices are not the reason I’d choose not to visit Oban.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2

        Jerry McIver December 14, 2015 6:53 am Reply
        • The hotels accomodating tour buses normally don’t take bookings in advance (some are owned by the bus companies). I remember years ago someone telling me that they were meeting some friends / relatives when they stopped overnight at Tyndrum on a bus tour. It took some time to even be able to get through to the hotel and they could not take an advance booking, I think they had to ring on the day itself to book.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

          Lundavra December 14, 2015 3:40 pm Reply
        • There are a lot of independent travellers these days of a wide range of age groups. Oban most certainly does not have many cheap hotel rooms for singletons. I am not saying Oban is unique in this respect – it is a failing of the UK tourism industry as a whole; an industry I have spent over 25 years working in.

          I’d also like to remind you that many islanders, thanks to the centralisation of medical services, are forced to pay, even with a discount, way over the odds for accommodation (meals are not included in the agreement) because of the lack of public transport cohesion. We also can’t claim for taxi fares if there’s no public transport to get us to an early ferry. £55 may be cheap to you – for someone on a pension or low pay, it’s a fortune.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

          Jade December 16, 2015 1:14 am Reply
  • If your a hotelier in Oban, it’s likely to be the case that you might not welcome such a development which is fair as it’s only natural. I am myself fond of Oban for its lack of national standardised brands and believe it is something worth protecting to an extent.

    This should be a welcome development for the whole market. Extra hotel rooms for high season months and having the side effect of tapping into Premier Inn’s portfolio. You might well see people coming to Oban who have not considered doing so before.

    The tourism market is big enough and Oban has enough going for it, to support this development without it doing harm. (just might mean a few accommodation businesses need to pull their socks up, rather than blame competition)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

    Thought i'd heard it all December 14, 2015 12:13 pm Reply
  • I don’t know about car parking in Bangir, but it does have a large, popular full service Marina with first rate facilities.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

    Longshanks December 14, 2015 3:14 pm Reply
  • Talk of a ‘Waterfront’ project rang alarm bells for me. Fort William wasted many years (and a lot of money) on a Waterfront Project that few people wanted and would have changed the whole town centre, whilst the High Street stagnated. Eventually, as everyone expected, it ran out of money and was abandoned.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

    Lundavra December 14, 2015 3:44 pm Reply
  • Parking & Toilets, Parking & Toilets …..

    Ring road to keep through traffic out of the town centre would be good too.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

    Roy L Bishop December 15, 2015 3:44 am Reply
  • Is the Premier Inn going in Oban?
    I thought it was to be at DunBeg our all year round tourist

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

    obanbay December 17, 2015 6:07 pm Reply
  • I’ve stayed in Oban many, many times over the years and we’ve had mixed experiences with the hotels. On the majority of occasions, I would say that the product or service has not matched the price we have paid and I say this as someone who travels the world very regularly with my job and has been fortunate enough to stay in some very good hotels in major cities where demand is high. (What I mean by that is that I know what major and independent brands offer for a range of different price brands).

    As a family of four, we have struggled to get a family room in Oban hotels over the years and on the times where there has been availability, the prices have been high for a UK regional location (>£140 per room per night) despite booking weeks in advance.

    The Premier Inn will mean some hotels in Oban will see a reduction in business but it means that others will have to up their game. It’s called competition and is a fact of life I’m afraid.

    I do take issue with the point “If Oban hotels are enjoying commercially healthy occupancy rates, whatever they’re charging, they must be getting it right”. An alternative viewpoint is that visitors have paid these rates because there is limited choice / availability across the town and surrounding areas. I suspect Premier Inn have worked this out and there business case will have lots of numbers in it justifying their Oban investment decision.

    In July this year, when arriving late into Oban off the late ferry from Barra (around 23:30), I was trying to arrange overnight accommodation to avoid the drive south that night. Two of the guest houses wanted £50 per room (we needed two rooms) which was OK but then declined our business because we were arriving after 22:00/23:00!! You see my point? I bet you the Premier Inn won’t be turning late arrivals away.

    Surely the Community Council Leader is entitled to voice an opinion on the matter? Whilst the choice of language / words can be debated, some Oban hotels should realise that she may have a point, however unpalatable it might be for some of them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

    Michael Dowds December 17, 2015 6:43 pm Reply
    • All the Premier Inns that I have used, have the reception desk manned through the night. The location outside Oban seems more likely because if they built in Oban itself then there would not likely to be a car park at the hotel. They do build some in town centres with no car park but usually have a large free car park.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

      Lundavra December 18, 2015 9:24 am Reply
  • It can only be good for Oban and the district as a whole.
    We can proudly hold ourselves up as the only LA without a MacDonalds but how many tourists go ‘no MacDonalds, well that’s the place for me’?
    We rightly want to protect our own but we remain in conflict with how society/the world is developing.
    Oban reminds me of how Scarborough or Gt Yarmouth or Skegness was in the past. Wanting to keep hold of their heritage but also recognising they need to modernise and be in a position to accommodate today’s consumer.
    We have a huge marketing tool in who and what we are and Oban should be at the centre of it. Unfortunately we have councillors who are too parochial and LA officers overseeing who have zero business/development experience. Ho-hum!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

    John M December 17, 2015 9:46 pm Reply
  • What about the increase in employment and career opportunities? The Premier Inn hotels that I stay in regularly seem to keep their staff. The new hotel in Oban will offer both full and part-time jobs as well as career opportunities. Surely this will be another improvement on some of the jobs offered by other Oban hotels.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

    Lowry December 17, 2015 9:59 pm Reply

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