Donna McBurnie CA, FD at Cameron House discusses the hotel's recovery from crisis
As luxury Scottish hotel resort Cameron House celebrates its 200th anniversary, Director of Finance Donna McBurnie CA talks to Lysanne Currie about renovation and reopening...
Donna McBurnie CA is in the Cameron House library. The floor-to-ceiling picture windows frame a breathtaking vista: a snow-capped Ben Lomond in the distance and, in the foreground, the placid waters of Loch Lomond. A seaplane begins its ascent, flying hotel guests on a discovery tour of the loch and west Scotland’s islands. Families walk from their lodges to the swimming pool complex. To the side and in the gardens in front of the Auld House, a corporate team is being put through its paces.
Donna, sitting in front of exquisite Timorous Beasties wallpaper, glances up at the cornicing on the ceiling. “So many artisans and specialist craftspeople worked on the renovation,” she says. As its Director of Finance, Donna oversaw the extensive renovation of Cameron House which included the build of the just-opened Lomond wing, which added 68 new bedrooms and suites, a 700-sq-metre ballroom and a new loch-facing terrace to the hotel’s already impressive facilities.
“Some of the amounts were just eye-watering,” says Donna. “The renovations here [the Auld House] were £46m and then there was the extension project, which was another £22m. The biggest thing for me was working with the project managers, the builders and everyone, making sure everything was on track and the costs were under control.”
This summer the hotel, which has been a popular destination for statesmen such as Sir Winston Churchill and royals including Empress Eugenie of France, is finally finished and will enjoy its first “complete” summer. It’s a remarkable feat considering that, not long ago, the future of this luxury Scottish resort hung in the balance following the double whammy of the pandemic and a devastating and tragic fire the week before Christmas 2017.
Although its bicentennial is this year, Cameron House actually dates from the 15th century, when it was a family home. Thomas Smollett – “Scotland’s best novelist”, according to George Orwell – lived there in the 18th century. It was transformed into a grand baronial mansion in 1823, before opening as a hotel in 1990. Today, along with its 208 rooms, it offers everything from an award-winning spa to an 18-hole championship golf course, a ballroom and a private cinema.
After the fire, Cameron House was forced to rebuild. Donna oversaw every step of the operation, working with builders and construction specialists to ensure everything was on track for the reopening. However, little did they know then that another, and vastly different, crisis was just around the corner, further delaying its relaunch. (It eventually reopened in September 2021, with the new Lomond wing welcoming its first guests late the following year.)
When Covid hit, Donna again used her accountancy skills to explore a multitude of scenarios and move fast as the situation demanded. “We had the furlough scheme to fall back on but we still needed to think about different scenarios. ‘If this happens, what will our revenues be? What impact will it have on cashflow? If we open on that date, what funding will we have? Will people be ready to come back to stay in hotels? What are the extra costs of the pandemic, such as PPE?’ I was constantly meeting with the resort director and our investors KSL, looking at the many different scenarios. We were very agile – we had to be.”
Donna doesn’t play down the challenge of crisis management the pandemic posed. “A lot of accountancy is quite prescriptive and there are rules – but here, I was learning as I was going along, there was no rulebook,” she says. “My resort director was just fantastic. He was the glue that kept everything together and we could bounce ideas around. And my husband is also a CA, so he understood the challenges and he was good to turn to for emotional support.”
The biggest business lesson she learnt during this time? “You can look at the profit and loss on your balance sheet, but without cashflow, it’s nothing.”
Donna is a local. She grew up in Dumbarton, just a few miles away, and had always wanted to be an accountant, taking business studies at 13 years old. Her first job was at Arthur Andersen: “Studying for your CA but still doing 50–70 hours a week working on clients! I was working with them every day while doing my exams. It was an early lesson in switching quickly from one subject to another. That’s been a great help.”
From there, she was catapulted into the world of hospitality via a client who owned an exclusive golf club. “I audited that for two to three years and really enjoyed it,” she says. After this, she worked with MacDonald Hotels, which was integrating several new properties acquired from Forte, followed by Marriott in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Scotland’s north-east cluster.
In 2010, her husband’s job with PwC relocated him to Beijing, so the couple and their daughters, aged 18 months and two-and-a-half, decamped to China for two years. “One of the best experiences of my life,” she remembers. “We were trepidatious initially, but we were welcomed and didn’t feel out of place.”
China was a massive cultural shift for Donna, but she found the experience of being in a communist country very interesting. “There’s a big divide between rich and poor,” she says. “You’d have the big cities and then you’d have the hutongs where people are told when they can have their heating on. It would be switched on by the state in October and get switched off again in March, even if it was -10°C outside.”
The family was on the comfortable side of that divide, with a cook, a driver – “as foreigners, we weren’t allowed to drive” – and the girls attending a British school. The expat community meant they didn’t feel isolated. “We were living across from the US Embassy, and in the first week I made around 10 or 11 friends whose own husbands were all working away too. That was my network that carried me through,” she says.
By the end of her stay, Donna had learned enough Mandarin to enable her to buy food from the wet markets. “We were using sign language in the beginning but we could communicate through the language by the end. It’s something I’ve not really kept up, although if I hear Mandarin now I can still understand some of the words.”
On the family’s return to Scotland, Donna secured a role at Cameron House where she looks after “anything to do with money… I’m involved in the strategic side. I’m in commercial meetings to work closely with our revenue, sales leader and resort director, and with all aspects of the business, paying suppliers, our 500 staff, and chasing debt,” she says. She also produces monthly management accounting, manages cashflow and forecasting, and handles the statutory accounts. She works closely with the owners KSL, and the management company, Davidson.
For any CAs, qualified or aspiring, considering a career in hospitality, her advice is to take the leap. “The sector gives such a great experience because you are looking at so many different revenue streams, all of which are very tangible and easy to understand. And the perks – fine dining and spas, to name just two – are great!”
Donna loves the theatre of hospitality. “No two days are the same. And there’s nothing nicer than when we are hosting a big wedding. I come out of my office, the hotel is decorated beautifully and you can hear bagpipes,” she says.
Now, she’s looking ahead to the first full year of the newest chapter of this grand and much-storied building: “We’re fully reopened and we’re going from strength to strength.”
Read our feature on the hotel and travel sectors during the pandemic