Since we purchased the castle on 27/10/2000 we have spent over £3m on repairs and improvements. There is still much to do as the top two floors are derelict, and various projects remain in a half-completed state, such as the Blue Bar, while there are some areas crying out for an overhaul, such as the main loos beside the theatre and the upper terrraces and upper paths at the rear of the castle.
While discussions have taken place with every government body imaginable regarding grants, none have been forthcoming for the castle. A couple of grant consultants collected a fat fee off us, gushing promising sounds, and departed, never to be seen again.
We did have some funding for an options appraisal on the theatre which concluded we should sell out to an opera company! Having learnt our lesson, we no longer waste time with grant bodies and just get on with it ourselves.
So we progress slowly, using income from the London cleaning agency and castle functions. In quiet periods, work is scaled down, while in good economic periods, more can be achieved.
The more events we hold, the more we can work on the property.
Up to 2008 we grew castle events income steadily, with expanding B&B and wedding bookings. In 2008 we peaked at 83 weddings, dropped in 2009, then had another good year in 2010. We maintained a good income from a London Domestic Cleaning agency franchise which contributed much of the £300k a year spent on capital works at the castle. However we saw a drop in cleaning agency business from 2006/7.
The banking crisis in 2008 affected castle wedding and B&B bookings from 2009 and we reduced the pace of our renovation work.
2010 recovered (83 weddings), funding more redecorating in Spring 2011. 2011 saw a drop (51 weddings). We had the castle up for sale briefly, but took it off the market when we realised how much property values had dropped in Wales. We still have our farmhouse up for sale, if I get the right offer - see Craig y Nos Farmhouse - though this is because I wish to invest in a house in Sussex (where kids are due to go to school).
2011/12 was devoted to paying off the overdraft, cutting our cloth to match our means and scaling down.
Fortunately in 2012 we achieved a surge in wedding sales (up to 78 for 2013) and weddings in 2013 returned to previous peak levels thanks to a 'Special Offer Wedding Deal' which placed the cost of the wedding on the wedding guests.
Instead of the bride and groom paying for the venue, the venue fee was loaded on to the B&B costs for their guests, and so the wedding was part paid for by guests attending the wedding. The low cost deal for brides boosted wedding bookings – see Craig y Nos Castle Weddings for details of the wedding offer. So we now have very full weekends and good summer seasons.
B&B bookings are too quiet in the off-season to be sustainable. We realised it was uneconomic to service low volume Dinner and B&B guests in the mid-week and winter period. The question was whether to close completely in the winter, or alter our service so we could receive profitable income rather than make a loss whenever we were quiet.
Initially we economised by offering continental breakfasts only mid-week, and no evening meals - which did not affect many as midweek guest numbers were low anyway. By 2011, we resumed full breakfasts and evening meals in the summer only, while semi-closing during winter months to save on staff costs, when we offer B&B only.
We now semi-close for 140 days of the year – offering a B&B only service.
This we call our 'Winter Trading' period and applies to half of October, all November, January, February and March, plus first half of December. We only open fully when we have large once-off events and weddings. We added up all the income lost by not opening fully in these slacker periods, against all the staffing and heating and lighting costs of staying open, and we found we achieved a substantial saving during those 140 days!
We still offer B&B Breaks during these months, but not D,B&B breaks. With three good local pubs to choose from for evening meals, and half price deals on accommodation for stays of 2-3 days or more, guests are happy to stay at the castle and dine out when our restaurant is closed. We also offer self-catering options both at the farmhouse and in a new apartment at the Castle.
During the recession we've cut down from 7-8 building and maintenance staff and a number of sub-contracted projects on the go at any one time, to employing only occasional sub-contractors, one maintenance man, and two builders (while for two years much of the gardening was done by the owner who became a hobby/gardener).
Good staff savings and some very hard work by the remaining tight-knit team enabled us to move into profit in 2010/11, but the wedding business seems to go in fits and starts, a pattern we hear being experienced by other hoteliers locally.
We seem to have one good year followed by one quieter year.
2008; good (83 weddings),
2009; weaker (69 weddings),
2010 good (back up to 83 weddings),
2011 (51) and 2012 (57) both weak,
2013 good (78), and 2014 looking quieter again.
Yet when I mentioned to another hotelier we were 'only' doing 50 weddings, he was envious!
One expense I would have preferred to avoid was a legal action over an uncompleted installation of a guest bedrooms phone system, which we should have won. We lost the case even though, as guests will observe, many rooms still do not have phones! This was very much our own fault as we presented our evidence badly, even though, technically, our argument that the phones are not physically in all the rooms, cannot be disputed. Cost: about £120,000. Some rooms DO have phones today but still, not all of them.
There is clearly a lot more work that needs to be done at the castle and had the economy continued bubbling away, we would have continued at a reasonable speed. Though we are now going along in what to us feels slow motion compared to pre-recession, guests who only re-visit every two or three years, commonly remark on 'all the changes' since they were last here.
Recently I met one couple I recognised who said they'd been here before and how much had changed. I asked, 'how long was it since you were last here'? They replied, '2004'. Well, for anyone visiting after a decade, yes, they would see a huge amount of development.
We still add an en-suite or two or re-furbish one or two small rooms a year, in addition to routine maintenance, including staff accommodation which guests have not seen. Some maintenance issues such as painting of walls and skirtings, or patching up the odd leak, can remain outstanding for months (and the resultant damp patches and peeling paint may be commented on by several guests) before we can schedule in the relevant works.
This year (2013) we have had painters in to paint ALL the windows. They are fast and good value (albeit not as 'perfectionist' as we would prefer) but despite their prodigious work ethic and speed, it's rather like the Forth Bridge: two men have been painting all summer and they still haven't done half of it. It helps having the chairlift as there is no need for scaffolding and they can move quickly from window to window.
Evidence of unfinished projects can be found if you look closely: an incomplete 'blue bar' can be observed if you peer through a back door's dusty windows, the old loos by the theatre should have been upgraded a decade ago, terracing outside the spa area got removed to provide the terracing for the Conservatory and we still need to get replacement slabs down, and the rear of castle has unfinished terraces and walls.
Quite a few gutters need replacing, including a replacement gutter on order for the external wall of a corridor (which is now damp internally) leading to some of the bedrooms. A persistent leak in the Music Room needs correcting and that room could do with a lick of paint having not been redecorated since Camilla and Charles got married - when it was done in the pale blue colours of her dress at the wedding.
We have yet to build a three storey en-suite apartment 13 (currently a ground floor only wood store), while en-suite rooms 17 and 18 (currently a workshop) will be tackled this winter, five years after they were supposed to have been started.
The front entrance, having been widened ready for a new gate and internal wall, still awaits a start date.
We know some new emergency will come up, a new leak somewhere, that will take up resources and so delay some of the proactive tasks above.
Ideally we need about 100 weddings a year to fully fund our refurbishment ambitions.
Meanwhile I am trying those new £10 scratchcards. It's such a pleasure imagining how I'd spend the winnings on finishing the project here!