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by Pádraic Gilligan, Founder SoolNua & Chief Marketing Officer, SITE

Gleneagles – an incentive travel classic

As July unfolds in Ireland and the weather gods continue to think it’s March, I’m left wondering whether it’s still raining in Gleneagles, that “glorious playground” that my son Colm and I visited earlier this year?

Despite my decades in the incentive travel industry, prior to our visit in March, I’d never been to Gleneagles. I’d been many times to Scotland, to both Edinburgh and Glasgow, I’d visited Turnberry, St Andrews and Cameron House but until this “leisure” visit with Colm, Gleneagles remained on that bucket list of places that I really wanted to visit.

In the world of incentive travel, as we know, Gleneagles has legendary status. Opened in 1924, and now in its hundredth year, it’s a hotel that’s a complete destination experience in its own right, often the principal reason you’d choose Scotland for your reward trip, the Gleneagles brand so utterly, compellingly, appealing. And that, pretty much, was our experience there. Along with incessant rain.

We arrived late on a Wednesday evening, too late to dine at Dormy Clubhouse, where a dinner reservation had been held for us. Fatigued after our annoying travel delays, we took little notice of our surroundings, had room service and an early night, while full of anticipation for what lay in the days ahead.

24 hours at GleneaglesBreakfast

The heavy patterned drapes in our voluminous guest room blocked any cracks of light that might have penetrated into our darkened haven but, it turns out, it didn’t matter as it was a dark, dank, dismal day with rain general over the entire area, the darkness in the room matched by the darkness outside, despite the fact that it was 8am. It was to remain so for days on end. For us, however, breakfast beckoned.

At Gleneagles, the first meal of the day, is a major deal, served in the Strathearn, a statement dining room in the “grand” hotel tradition, decorated sumptuously in creams, browns and golds with ionic columns, lavish stucco work and customised chandeliers. Tables are double dressed with white overlays and rich linens trailing to the floor and are set with substantial, leaf patterned upholstered armchairs. Service staff are uniformed, the ladies at breakfast in off-pink tunics, designed by Studio 104.

You can order traditional Scottish Porridge (with whiskey soaked raspberries!), French toast, pancakes, eggs etc from the kitchen, or you can browse in the capacious pantry where there’s a delectable display of hot and cold delights including a “create your own” caprese salad station (I hadn’t previously seen such a thing at a breakfast buffet). Our challenge was balancing the appeal of an expansive, multi-course breakfast with a busy schedule of activities, the first of which was booked for 11am.

24 hours at Gleneagles – Falconry + Golf + 5km run + Shooting + Spa

The line up of activities in the “glorious playground” didn’t leave time for lunch but our hail and hearty breakfast plus the delicious shortbread from our guest room kept us going for the duration of the day, the leitmotiv of which was intermittent pelting rain, punctuated by lighter sprays of misty rain. In Icelandic there are 100 names for snow. I wonder about rain in Scots Gaelic?

Falconry at Gleneagles, like breakfast, is taken very seriously and your “lesson” immerses you in a fascinating sport, the “sport of kings”, in continuous practice for over 5000 years. The School of Falconry at the resort has an extensive collection of birds, some decades old, all meticulously weighted each morning as if they were elite athletes (which, when you see them fly, you realise they are!). We donned the leather gloves and flew a beautiful Harris Hawk while also viewing the aviary which contained some massive eagles.

There were no eagles on the Wee Course (but I seem to recall there were a few birdies) which we managed to get out on without a reservation. I guess it helps if you’re willing to play in a downpour. And playing the Wee Course (a 9 hole par 3) legitimately allows you say you “played golf at Gleneagles” without the challenge of getting a last minute tee time on the championship courses, not to mention the time and the golf game required to play it.

Our next activity was all jazz free-style as we set off on a 5km run which, truth be known, was more like 7km or 8km as the estate map didn’t quite match the terrain that we found ourselves on. At one stage, knowing we were lost, we turned and retraced our steps arriving back to the hotel entrance just as our shooting guide was arriving to pick us up.

Shooting, like falconry and breakfast and definitely golf, is taken very seriously at Gleneagles. What used to be the Jackie Stewart Shooting School (founded in 1985) is now the Gleneagles Shooting Club. We enjoyed a brilliant session during which Colm (who hadn’t shot clays before) proved to be a crack shot.

We were dropped back to the hotel about 4:30 and headed immediately to the pool where all manner of rituals and treatments awaited us – wet and dry saunas, steam rooms, plunge pools, swimming pools.

24 hours at Gleneagles – drinks and dinner

Once showered we donned our jackets and headed to the Century bar for pre-prandial drinks. A larger-than-life bearded barman from Lithuania talked us through some options eventually suggesting a whiskey sour which we accepted. Located adjacent to reception, the Century Bar has an appealing 1920s art deco vibe with velvet sofas, leather armchairs, decorative stained glass and magnificent light fitting, made in Scotland by Dernier & Hamlyn. It was the perfect pre-dinner location.

Dinner was booked at the Strathearn which, when we entered, had assumed its evening look with service staff in evening attire and all the pomp, ceremony and theatre of formal dining in play. Soon we were visited by the champagne cart and, needless to say, couldn’t resist the offer of bubbles to start with: somehow it would have been churlish to decline. At a nearby table, a server was hand-carving different kinds of smoked salmon – we had that too – and, for our main course, went for the Beef Wellington, another dish finished table-side with histrionics aplenty.

We retired to our spacious guest room by 10:30, and felt like guests returning to their rooms after an elaborate meal at Downton Abbey. It was an extraordinary day in the glorious Gleneagles playground and despite the rain that continued to beat against our guest room window, we had thoroughly enjoyed our outdoor activities.

Gleneagles for Incentive Travel Qualifiers

While a father and son get away to Gleneagles is not a blue print for an incentive travel experience, it’s clear to me that Gleneagles fully deserves its reputation as a perfect destination for incentive qualifiers.

The “glorious playground” tagline, which is deployed frequently across the estate and, obviously, across all its marketing collateral, is fully merited and, in a simple phrase, really sets out its core value proposition for group incentives.

Everything is there, on hand and on site – from championship golf to high level equestrian pursuits – but everything, too, is inextricably linked with the landscape and location. Gleneagles offers all the convenience of a cruise ship or a theme park but it’s not sanitised, fake or ersatz.

Scottish tradition and culture are infused into everything that you see, hear, smell, feel and taste in Gleneagles whether its the strange sight of men in skirts, the mighty noise of the bagpipes, the rich aroma of peaty smoke, the sinewy texture of the tweed, the buttery notes of the shortbread.

And, yes, there will be rain. But with rain comes rainbows!


Pádraic Gilligan is founder of SoolNua and Chief Marketing Officer at the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence


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