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Feature

Your next holiday Handpicked

Kisten Blackburn
5th Aug. '17

Two women with a passion for beautiful property and world-class customer service are delivering a new kind of self-catering experience for their guests in the outdoor playground of the Cairngorms National Park.

Judith Thurlow and Tanja Hughes both relocated to the Cairngorms National Park from the city with their partners; Tanja from London in 2010 and Judith from Edinburgh in 2011. After a few years of running successful businesses, together they founded their self-catering management company Handpicked Lodges in May 2016. The idea was born out of the combination of their two respective career backgrounds – property management (Tanja) and customer service coaching (Judith). After researching other properties and management agencies in the area, they realised that nowhere provided the sort of levels of service that they believe customers should receive – owners as well as guests.

What the two women have in common is a real passion for providing the very best customer service for guests and owners, whatever it takes. “We both live within 15 minutes drive of all the Handpicked Lodges and between us we have a real insider’s knowledge of everything going on in the area. We are our guests’ one point of contact before, during and after their stay. So whether they’re looking for a great day spa, the best place to hire telemark skids or a venue for a romantic dinner a deux, we can act almost as their concierge. For owners, when we say we care for your lodges as if it was our own, we really mean it! If you live in Glasgow and own a holiday lodge in the Highlands, the last thing you need is a query from the cleaners about linen whilst you’re at work, or a phonecall at 1am telling you the burglar alarm is going off. We’ve taken all the hassle away from the owners and made their experience stress-free.”

“We wanted to really add value for our guests so we looked at what else we could provide within the traditional self-catering framework. Yes you’re going self-catered, but what about having a night off and ordering in locally made, fresh oven-ready meals, or getting an in-house chef for a day or two? What about instead of having to drive to the bike hire shop in Aviemore, we arrange to have your mountain bikes and all the extra equipment ready and waiting at your lodge? And when you’re done, they’ll be picked up for you – and cleaned! We’ve partnered with some amazing local businesses to add these and other little extras to the range of services guests can tap into.”

The speed at which the business has grown has surprised even them. “Our target was to have 4 lodges on our books by October 2017, the end of our first trading year. By May we had already launched our 5th Handpicked Lodge, with 4 more in the pipeline”, says Tanja.

The key to their popularity and success is in the name; the lodges are truly handpicked. “We’ve had to turn down many more lodges than we’ve taken on”, says Judith. “Our vision was never to create a bland portfolio of similar properties. Each of our lodges has its own unique look and feel, little quirks that our guests love.”

One has a little bespoke dog-house under the kitchen stairs (all the lodges are pet-friendly); others have riverside benches and firepits, games rooms and whisky bars; some are newly built with a very clean, modern feel, whilst others are steeped in history. “Guests appreciate the difference – we’ve already had lots of repeat bookings and someone recently referred to their next “Handpicked holiday”, which is very flattering.”

But it is more than the rewards of running a successful business that keeps Tanja and Judith here. “This is where we have chosen to start our families and put down roots – it’s the perfect place for a pretty idyllic, outdoorsy childhood”. Both women have an evangelical enthusiasm for the beauty of the area and the opportunities and activities it offers for families and children. And they love being able to share the best of the Cairngorms both with first-time visitors and regular tourists. The lochs and beaches of the park provide some of their favourite days out. Loch Morlich comes into its own in the summer months when locals and tourists take to the water for swimming or paddling in Canadian canoes, stand up paddle boards and kayaks, setting off from its gently sloping sandy shore. Loch Insh (5 miles from Aviemore) runs all kinds of water-based courses from age 5 up, whilst in the wider Spey Valley area there is every sort of activity available that an active family could wish for – from archery to zip-wiring. There is even a forest adventure park in sleepy Carrbridge with its own rollercoaster. And of course the Cairngorm Mountain itself, despite the somewhat forgettable season just gone, remains a huge draw in the winter for families who love to ski.

It seems as if Judith and Tanja have picked the perfect time to enter the market, with 2017 set to be the best year yet for Highlands tourism. Overseas holiday bookings to the UK have more than doubled since last summer, with Scotland second only to London on the destinations wish list.* Meanwhile almost a third of UK holidaymakers are planning to holiday in the UK this year, owing mainly to the weaker pound.

It was not so long ago that a self-catering holiday in Scotland was seen as a budget option. Aviemore itself was for a long time the favourite location for stag and hen weekends, and cheap family breaks during the school holidays for those living in Scotland’s cities. Now however its combination of stunning scenery and the increasing accessibility of once “extreme” sports such as downhill mountain biking is proving an irresistible draw for domestic and international tourists alike.

In 2016 the Cairngorms became even easier to get to. By air via Inverness Airport they are now connected to the world via flights to two of the world’s busiest air passenger hubs. In May 2016, BA launched a daily, year-round flight between Inverness and Heathrow, and KLM launched daily flights to and from Schiphol, Amsterdam. The dualling of the A9 has begun just south of Aviemore, and the entire road will be completed by 2020, cutting road journey times from Edinburgh, Glasgow and the central belt. Meanwhile those who prefer a slower, more romantic mode of transport can still take the Caledonian Sleeper direct from London Kings Cross to Aviemore.

Judith and Tanja however, are determined to remain true their founding vision, despite the impressive growth and the bright future of the company. “Whether we manage one lodge or twenty, it’s vital that our original concept of providing truly outstanding service in unique and beautiful properties to all our customers stays at the very heart of what we do. We want our guests’ holidays to be as unique and extraordinary as this amazing place that we’re lucky enough to be able to call home.”

Sources: *The Barclays Corporate Banking report, Destination UK: driving growth in the UK hospitality and leisure sector reveals the 2017 holiday and leisure preferences of almost 10,000 guests from the UK, continental Europe, the US, Middle East, Asia and Australia. http://www.cntraveller.com/recommended/uk/how-triggering-article-50-will-affect-us

Head over to Hanspicked Lodges website to see more amazing properties on their books.

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