Professor Charles Skene OBE has been owning and running various businesses for 50 years. His main business in Aberdeen is Skene House Hotel Suites and Conference Suites, which he started developing some 35 years ago to satisfy a need for incoming oil-related families working for North Sea oil & gas. Over the last 15 years they have extended their customer base to accommodate the business and leisure traveller.
As a serial entrepreneur, he has also been heavily involved in education, being a Governor of The Robert Gordon University for 12 years, President of the Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce and the longest serving elected member of CBI Scotland. He has also been a visiting Professor of Entrepreneurship at The Robert Gordon University since 1996. In his spare time he writes a quirky blog about his beloved bulldog Humphrey, and his adventures as the community care assistant at Inchmarlo Retirement Village.
What is it that you do exactly?
I believe in management by walking about, so most days I visit our three Skene Houses and our business centres to speak to the managers and receptionists and watch their reaction when dealing with customers. I note anything that needs to be adjusted, corrected or clarified. My main responsibility over the years has been business development and extending our range of activities. We are now involved in providing three different types of quality hospitality: business and leisure tourism, care of the elderly and the provision of serviced offices.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I enjoy seeing satisfied customers. It is only by satisfying your customers that you can reasonably assume that your business will continue to prosper. For example, Skene House Whitehall has been number 1 on TripAdvisor in Aberdeen for well over a year, Skene House Holburn is voted number 2 and Skene House Rosemount is number 4, which makes me very proud of our staff and the service we provide. The biggest thrill for any entrepreneur is to think of an idea – especially one that has not been tried before – developing it and seeing it work. Professor Jeffrey Timmons provides my favourite definition of entrepreneurship: “a behavioural process involving the pursuit of opportunity without regard to the resources currently controlled”.
What would you say are the 3 best places you’ve ever stayed?
Zurserhof Hotel in Zurs in the Arlberg, Austria
I have stayed in many five star hotels in Austria and Switzerland, but this is by far the best for hospitality, ease of access to wonderful skiing and the quality of the food. The hotel is almost unique in that you could only book full board. This meant that my family and I would start skiing early in the morning, ski back for a 3 course lunch and ski in the afternoon before going to the spa, and then a wonderful 4 course dinner. As a person who enjoys desserts, Wednesday nights featured a dessert buffet with up to 30 different desserts. My son and I had a competition one night to see how many desserts we could sample and I managed to sample 20!
The Breakers in Palm Beach, USA
This is a fantastic hotel on its own private beach with a wide variety of eating facilities, a number of golf courses, and is within walking distance of Worth Avenue, which is one of the most attractive shopping areas in America. For the quality of the shops, it rivals Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills.
The Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai
We have stayed in this hotel on four occasions; it is an oasis of calm in a city with over 18 million inhabitants. It is opposite the famous Gateway of India and, unlike almost all the hotels in Mumbai, it boasts an extremely large swimming pool in a beautiful garden with trees and shrubs. On our third visit we left the hotel one month before the terrorist attack. The hotel has been completely refurbished and is back to its pristine glory. In November 2012 I met Boris Johnson who was also staying in the hotel.
What’s been your most memorable dining experience to date?
One of my hobbies is eating gourmet food in interesting restaurants. My wife and I have eaten in the majority of Michelin star restaurants in Paris and around Lyon. Our favourite remains Paul Bocuse near Lyon. I remember the meal particularly well because I ordered one of his specialties which is Soupe de Truffes Moires VGE. This was a consommé made with black truffles and a pastry topping, cooked in the oven so that the steam in the soup caused the pastry to rise. It looks like a bowl with a chef’s hat on top, and when you pierce the pastry with your spoon the aroma of the truffles is overpowering. I also enjoyed his Tourte a la Rhubarbe.
Another favourite chef is Pierre Gagnaire, who, in addition to his restaurants in Paris, Tokyo and other countries is the consultant Chef in Sketch in Conduit Street, London. We have met him on two occasions and he has taken me into the kitchen. His food is particularly wonderful, especially if you have the seven course Menu Degustation in the Lecture Room and Gallery on the top floor. The six course menu includes five different desserts in the last course. In my opinion it is the best value for gourmet food in London.
Have you rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous, either through your work or your travels?
I have been privileged over the years to have been invited to 10 Downing Street twice, once by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and once by Prime Minister John Major. I have been invited to Buckingham Palace on three occasions. It is also very pleasant to get in to a taxi and say to the driver “Buckingham Palace please!”
25 years or so ago, six of us went to Midland, Texas to consider investing in Limited Oil Partnerships. We spent the day with George W. Bush, and that night had dinner with George and Laura in the Oilman’s Country Club. The next day we flew to Dallas, and were met at the airport by one of the grandsons of H.L. Hunt, and then had a meeting with one of his sons and a grandson. The Hunt family is unbelievably famous in Texas. Many years ago Paul Getty was asked by a reporter “What is it like to be the richest man in the world?” to which he apparently replied “You’ll have to ask H.L. Hunt”.
My wife and I go cruising regularly’ on one particular cruise we got friendly with a couple who lived in Naples, Florida. When we were next at the Breakers, AJKS’ home, they joined us for lunch. In one of the discussions she mentioned that she had been brought up in Chicago and that she called her best friend’s father Uncle Al. It turned out later in the conversation that Uncle Al was Al Capone! On another cruise we became friendly with an extraordinarily glamorous lady who lived in Palm Springs. We mentioned that we had also been in Palm Springs, did a tour of the film stars’ houses, saw where Frank Sinatra lived, saw one of Bob Hope’s many houses and spoke to Carol Baker. Our new friend then told us that she had been married to Brad Dexter who appeared in a number of films with Frank Sinatra and who lived with Frank for a few years. She told us a story I have never read anywhere before; when they were making a film set on a beach, a freak wave came in and took Sinatra and the Producer’s wife out to sea. Brad Dexter, a very strong swimmer, noticed that Sinatra and the lady were drowning, so jumped in, swam out and helped them back on shore. Sinatra then said to Brad Dexter “I am going to look after you from now on”. And Sinatra did so until Brad Dexter had a row with Sinatra over his forthcoming marriage to Mia Farrow.
What currently ranks highest on your travel wish list?
What remains high on my travel wish list is a long sea voyage (not a cruise) to a different port every day. The ship should have high quality food, interesting people to meet in the dining room and open seating to provide the opportunity and pleasure of meeting new people every night. On a recent cruise around Australia and New Zealand, we became friendly with Dick & Ginny Thornburgh. Dick had been Governor of Pennsylvania on 2 occasions, then Attorney General to President George H.W. Bush. Dick was a very knowledgeable movie buff and we had movie quizzes over dinner and even one in the Palm Restaurant when we next visited them in Washington.
Thank you for taking part in our interview, Charles. It has been a pleasure to hear a wide array snippets from your extensive travel experiences as well as tales from your many fascinating encounters along the way.