I don’t remember when I first asked Chris to marry me. But it was some considerable time before she said yes. Considerable as in years. Two at least.
When she finally did so it was in a middle seat in coach on a late afternoon flight from LAX to Chicago. As settings go it was less than romantic. A shortcoming that our wedding more than made up for.
Four months after we first walked up the stairs of Rossdhu House, we made the journey again.
This time as bride and groom.
Accompanied by falling rose petals and the sound of bagpipes.
Both were a surprise.
In a day of blurred memories, this moment stands out. In part because it was the culmination of so much and I've never felt more present. In part because the thoughtfulness of the Club's management to provide two touches we had not asked for, framed the moment and made it a memory.
A lesson that big value can be built on small things.
Rossdhu is the ancestral home of the Clan Colquhoun. Built in the 16th Century, it is regarded locally as the ‘new’ house, and sits proudly and gracefully in the most prominent position within 1000 acres.
The ruins of the stark, defensively positioned castle it replaced still exist behind what is now the 18th green. Dramatic contrast of the values of the times in which each was built.
The transformation of the Colquhoun estate from fortress to playground happened as a tango. Periods of peace and calm interspersed by betrayal, black magic, murder and tragedy. Mary Queen of Scots visited twice, Queen Victoria once. As did Bill Clinton.
When the former President came to stay, he was given lodging at the Bed and Breakfast down the road in Luss, the rooms at Loch Lomond all being occupied by members, and the Club’s management being unwilling to dislocate any of us for a non-member.
Value is the foundation of any business that succeeds over the long term. People spend money based on a complex series of personal equations that we use to determine what something is worth.
Those equations are fluid, and some are more elastic than others. Aspiration, scarcity, social esteem, personal esteem, and need all play a role. As you move up the value chain (or perhaps down - a debate in and of itself), exclusivity quickly becomes an essential component of a pricing philosophy. And a Club that values my residence over that of a former President of the United States is winning the exclusivity equation.
Our wedding reception was held in the Green and White Dining room. It is one of my favorite rooms in the world, in both design and personal context, and we had thought carefully about how to set it up for the evening’s festivities. On the morning of our wedding three hours of intensive work by several members of staff ensured the room was prepared exactly as we had asked.
They spent three more hours that afternoon entirely re-doing it at the suggestion of the Club’s management, who came to us with what they thought was a better plan.
To care as much as your customers about the quality of their experience is the goal of every service business. To deliver that requires a set of values and a view of the big picture that are very rare.
The Club did what we asked. They did it perfectly. And then they wanted to do it better. There are books and theses on building customer loyalty. None taught me as much as that afternoon.
For the next six years we came back to Loch Lomond every Spring and every Fall. There are one hundred year old rhododendron bushes throughout the grounds. Many as tall as trees. I would live in Scotland for a lot of reasons. The people and the scenery being the first two. In that order. Fish and chips would come a close third. But a rhododendron the size of a small house in late May takes some beating.
At first we came alone, as though inviting the outside world would somehow burst the magical bubble that surrounded every visit. But over time we started to bring guests. Sitting over dinner in Chicago as we extended the invitation, we would wax lyrical about the Club. In every case, we were told later, our friends were certain there was no possibility that our description could be matched by the reality. In every case, within a day or arrival, we were told we had failed to do it justice.
Describing physical beauty or capability is much easier than describing experience. And experience, the application of beauty or benefit, is what determines value.
In the case of Loch Lomond, what defined the experience was the people. People who genuinely cared as much about your experience as you did. Mark, Ian, Keith, Trish, Donald, Colin, Jamie, Scott, Pat, Jim, Jim, Jane, Gemma, Damian, Willie, Willie, Alison and Billy. Billy was the head chef who made it a point to make me an apple pie whenever he heard I was coming, and whose staff was so well trained that at my first breakfast after arrival, and every meal thereafter, soy butter replaced the dairy butter to which I am allergic. No request. No reminder. Every time. Which was sometimes seven months since the last time.
There is a rattan carpet on the back stairs at Rossdhu that took us from our room, past reception and down into the locker room and Spike’s Bar. I can feel the carpet under my golf shoes as I write, on my way down to breakfast before teeing off. Bacon, sausage, grilled tomatoes and black tea. And the Times.
It was like coming home. Better than home. We were made to feel like Lords of the Estate of Luss. And we tried to honor that by being benevolent ones. Grateful ones. And we counted the days between visits.
At some point during each stay, conversation between us and our guests turned to wondering about the business practicalities of all this. The rooms were expensive, and I had to keep reminding Chris that the five full bottles of Moulton Brown products that we were encouraged to take on our departure, and the complimentary bottle of Port that met us on our arrival were not ‘free.’ Quickly, however, they became part of the value expectation of each stay and a point of reference of the Club’s commitment to quality.
But the $5,000 initiation fee had begun to worry us in a different way. And as we came to experience the Club’s commitment to quality throughout the facilities and the world class golf course that had first attracted us, we began to speculate how the Club's owners could pay for all this.
It turns out, we weren’t the only ones doing those calculations.