As the eighth week of lockdown concludes, we look at what operators are doing to maintain and improve properties, manage staff and prepare to reopen in a world with different challenges and opportunities. Rosalind Mullen reports
By the time government finally shut down hospitality businesses and announced a furlough package for staff in March, emotions in the industry were running high.
As Peter Banks, managing director at Rudding Park hotel, spa and golf in Harrogate, says: "That week, when the government left us hanging out to dry, telling people ‘don't go to the pub', but [the chancellor] hadn't set out plans to furlough staff, was probably the worst in my career."
Now, of course, there's the uncertainty of when and how lockdown will end – plus the headache of maintaining your property while it lies dormant so that you meet insurance requirements and are eventually ready to do business. But there is also room for optimism.
We spoke to several operators to find out what their maintenance and reopening strategies are and how they are turning a problem into an opportunity, so that they are ready to operate in a very different world.
Farncombe Estate, the Cotswolds
The independently owned Farncombe Estate in the Cotswolds arguably has a bigger headache than many when it comes to maintenance, with three boutique hotels – Dormy House, the Fish and Foxhill Manor – sitting in 400 acres of grounds. To prevent its hotels, grounds and facilities from falling into disrepair and neglect, a number of fundamental procedures have been implemented:
- The hyper-chlorinated circulation in the swimming pool has been turned off, but air-handling in the pool areas has been left on to prevent damage caused by condensation.
- All boilers have been switched off.
- Water has been isolated.
- All circulation pumps turned off.
- All air-conditioning units turned off.
- In the rooms, TVs, radios and coffee machines have been unplugged, so no standby energy is being consumed.
- All buildings have been secured and additional CCTV has been added, plus the security presence has been increased.
- All vehicles have been secured.
- Tenant farmers are mowing the grounds.
- Contractors are undertaking essential drainage works.
- Weekly intensive site checks are taking place.
"Regular contact with our insurer has helped guide us in our actions to ensure the estate stays fully covered," says estate director Neil Mackenzie.
He adds that lockdown is also proving to be a good opportunity to start projects without disrupting guests. These include the installation of a new flotation room at Dormy's award-winning House Spa, landscaping works at the Fish, and redecoration at the arts and crafts property Foxhill Manor.
"We're focused on the time when we can welcome our guests back, and we want to emerge as an even better estate than before," says Mackenzie. "As well as the essential estate maintenance and conservation measures we've implemented, we have a plan in-hand to unfurlough some of the maintenance team in order to complete these key projects during closure. We will also be ensuring that any contractors on site adhere to the social distancing guidelines."
As part of Mackenzie's restart plan, contractors are booked to service all the air-conditioning, refrigeration and calorifiers, drain, clean and refill all cold-water tanks, and descale all shower heads and pipework.
"This will ensure we are fully prepped and ready to welcome our guests back to a slick operation when it's safe to do so," says Mackenzie.
His tips for smaller family-run operations is to prioritise the most important maintenance tasks. "At a minimum, ensure all compliance safety checks continue, such as fire alarm testing and gas testing; have all the kitchen extraction ductwork cleaned; and plan to have the air- conditioning serviced and water pipework flushed and descaled ahead of your reopening to ensure smooth operations when you press go."
Richard Cowell-Oakes, head of operations at the eight-strong Hawksmoor steakhouse group, says nothing has been left to chance: "We made it a priority to do a proper shutdown [of water, gas and electricity] from source. Lockdown may be for months and we need to avoid gas, water leaks or electrical issues to avoid added expense."
This has enabled all equipment to be switched off and cleaned down. The contents of the refrigerators were donated to a charity and they have been left open and aerating.
Cowell-Oakes is one of the few employees not furloughed. He is working from home, but an important part of his remit is to regularly inspect the six London restaurants – not least for insurance and health and safety reasons.
To this end, he insisted that key suppliers were retained. "When a finance director says ‘stop spending money', you have to say there are key things you need to keep going, such as a fire and security package, including CCTV and alarms. Not least, opportunists might target the equipment. Or they may see a restaurant as a place to squat."
Another key supplier retained by Cowell- Oakes is pest control. Part of the company's breakdown strategy, aside from a thorough clean, was to make sure the bait boxes were replenished. "Once a place lies dormant for a while, you never know, so I also turn on lights and walk around to create motion," he says.
His plans for the relaunch programme, dubbed "bounce-back", include checking all systems as soon as he gets the green light to open.
"Our contractors are mothballed at the moment, so we can't do the regular services and you can guarantee that when we turn this kit on again half of it won't work. Engineers and contractors will be inundated with calls and we don't want to be on the back of that list. We will need two weeks to test the kit, get the refrigerators down to temperature, run the water and get the electricity on. We need to find out which kit has failed on us."
Once open, Cowell-Oakes is looking at the logistics of social distancing both front and back of house for staff and customers.
"Hawksmoor won't come back where it was pre-Covid, but we have big restaurants that can seat around 100 covers, so we are able to seat guests at every second or third table," he says.
"We'll have to build confidence with customers. We will check the health of staff and suppliers. There will be changes. Will face-masks be the norm for chefs or waiting staff? It will be interesting to see in the new world."
Rudding Park, Harrogate
Only eight staff are left on-site at Rudding Park's 300-acre estate, which comprises the 90-bedroom hotel, golf course and spa, a holiday park and lodges. These include one maintenance worker, one gardener, two security managers, two greenkeepers, a holiday park warden and a manager.
Managing director Peter Banks, who works from home, goes in every other day to meet with them. "I don't go into the hotel," he says. "I'm working a strict lockdown to prevent the virus coming into the park, so I have car park meetings with the staff. We don't allow taxis in. We are so strict that I have separate work clothes and home clothes."
While most staff are furloughed, two employees from the HR and accounts departments are working from home, plus four in reservations and events.
Banks, who has taken a 50% pay cut, stayed at the hotel for a week to oversee the shutdown, helping to man the duty phone and get a feel for what was going on. "It was spent getting our head around furlough, redirecting all direct-dial phones and packing the business up. It took us a week just to empty all the freezers across the site and to find out, for instance, where the underfloor heating was on."
For instance, in the spa, which took home the AA's inaugural Spa of the Year award last year, everything has been turned off except the CHP (combined heat and power unit), which is providing a trickle of heat into the hydrotherapy pool.
"We are deep-cleaning areas that are difficult to do when you are running a seven-day operation. We've emptied the spa bath and polished it to a mirror polish, which we haven't been able to do in the three years since we opened."
As for the grounds, he says: "Two people are cutting grass and keeping the greens going. One gardener is looking after the flowers and kitchen gardens and it is just starting to look beautiful."
Fewer staff and no guests has meant the team have adapted their work practices, some of which have been for the better. Cutting the golf course in the afternoon, for example, when the grass is drier, has resulted in a better cut and a faster job.
"There are usually fewer golfers out in the afternoon, so why not introduce that going forward, rather than cutting the grass first thing in the morning when golfers are out?" says Banks.
The shutdown has given him time to notice other inefficiencies, too.
"It is an opportunity for us to re-evaluate all of our processes: to go cashless, all memberships on direct debit, virtual check-in and out, apps for ordering in the restaurant, a central production kitchen and much more commonality between menus across our five kitchens. This could be the kick that we've needed as an industry to find efficiencies and reset our profitability for the next 20 years. Our margins have been ridiculously small as an industry – maybe it's time we changed that," says Banks.
He adds: "I've been going on about efficiency and this will enforce efficiency on us. Those businesses that survive will come out a lot leaner and a lot more profitable, I think."
This could be the kick that we've needed as an industry to find efficiencies and reset our profitability for the next 20 years
Banks knows it will take time to get the business back up to speed when it opens, but he's optimistic. "Guests are still ringing to rebook their cancellations, or giving us a hard time because we are closed and wanting to know when we're going to open," he says.
"We've had 20 enquiries for weddings next year as people are sitting at home sorting out their lives. And people are rebooking functions that they'd booked for this year, so there's quite a bit of work."
The Maids Head hotel, Norwich
This 84-bedroom independent hotel had its Covid prevention strategy uploaded onto its website even before lockdown. This reassured guests, among other things, that all public areas were being sanitised every two hours; there was safe seating in the restaurant and sanitised tables; an option for knock-and-drop room service; and that the hotel had invested in an ionising spray gun.
Unsurprisingly then, since lockdown all of the bedrooms, which were given a multimillion-pound refurbishment last year, have been thoroughly cleaned. Beds have been pulled out for a thorough vacuum, shower heads and extraction fans have been descaled and cleaned, all linen has been covered and net curtains have been washed. On a weekly basis, maintenance staff flush the toilets, turn on taps and showers and take a note of snagging issues that can't immediately be dealt with.
"We will need to clean all the rooms again before we open, but this will be done gradually as we don't expect to be 100% full. We may wait 48 hours between checking a new guest into a room," says sales manager Georgina Postlethwaite.
In the public areas of the hotel, which was named Best Independent Hotel in Norfolk and Suffolk in the EDP Tourism Awards last year, the skeleton maintenance team is also busy freshening paintwork, cleaning carpets and chair upholstery and generally tackling wear and tear.
"It's amazing what you can get done when the hotel is empty. This is an opportunity to freshen up the public areas, which is not possible in a seven-day-a-week operation," says Postlethwaite.
Aside from the maintenance team, there is a night manager and day manager on-site 24 hours a day to ensure the safety of the medieval building and to carry out fire walks and safety checks in line with insurance requirements.
Postlethwaite is one of a couple of sales and administration staff still working in the hotel – all with separate offices for safeguarding purposes – to field enquiries and make plans for reopening.
"In addition to looking into automatic opening of toilet doors and lifts and remote check-in, we are also considering installing glass booths in our two-AA-rosette WinePress restaurant to support social distancing," says Postlethwaite.
The team is also maintaining relationships with guests through the website, emails and social media. But more importantly, they are engaging with the furloughed staff.
"In hospitality, the team is like family, so we need to keep in touch with each other," says Postlethwaite. "We've just had a Zoom chat with our team to keep them up to date with events at the hotel. They also have their own staff Facebook page where they have started a Star Baker challenge. There's also a Houseparty Quiz once a week. This has been great to keep the team together."
Maintaining staff wellbeing during lockdown
As well as looking after your property, it's important to communicate and reassure your furloughed staff.
Sally Beck, general manager at the Royal Lancaster London, says giving staff something to focus on is key. "The mental health of the furloughed team is very important. We do regular Zoom calls, which are basically check-in calls. There is a raft of measures we are doing for team engagement, including state-of-the-nation emails."
Beck, who closed the hotel on 1 April, oversees a team of 400, with 85% now furloughed and the remaining involved in proactive jobs such as maintenance or sales. The company is also topping up the furlough rate to 100%, which she says has removed a lot of anxiety.
While communication is important, however, she warns that it is important to understand what you can and can't do during the furlough period. The government's advice is that anyone on furlough can't do anything that delivers value to the business, but they can, for instance, choose to improve their personal skills through online training.
Beck has touched on this in the state-of-the-nation emails – which were sent to private email addresses, via the payroll system. "As we get more settled, people can volunteer to take training to upgrade their skills. There are a lot of webinars, such as the Institute of Hospitality or our LQA programme."
The first emails explained the furlough system to staff and provided details of future bookings to reassure them the hotel was going to be fine, despite media hysteria. "They knew they were being cared for," says Beck.
Other emails have urged them to get in touch with HR if they are struggling and to reiterate that they have Hospitality Action employee assistance and access to the Assist Helpline.
To maintain community spirit, the staff Facebook page has been reinvigorated, with 85% of the team sharing stories about their activities – from baking cakes to fundraising. Each division head also hosts a weekly Zoom event, such as tea parties or quizzes.
The staff book club has also been refreshed via Zoom. Members read a chapter of Time to Think by Nancy Kline about the thinking environment, and then discuss it.
"None of this provides service, but it maintains their mental health and keeps them up to speed with the idea that it is a matter of time before we get back together," says Beck.
Beck is also using this time to plan the reopening: "The future we are entering is not where we closed," she says. "But I have a busy autumn of bookings."
Hotel consultant Melvin Gold believes there will be opportunities for new ways of working when we emerge from lockdown.
"One of the things that will change on the other side of this is that there are jobs in hospitality that can be done from home. Their technology, accounting, back office people have been working from home using email, video conferencing, phone calls and other means. They will have earned trust – and employers may realise that people can have a better work-life balance."
When should you reopen?
Hotel consultant Melvin Gold doesn't think it will be in the interest of all businesses to open as soon as lockdown ends.
"First, there needs to be the customers, and second, hotels need to know they can be both safe environments and profitable," he says. "At the moment, staff are being paid by government and costs are minimal, so there is an equation in terms of cash flow as to whether it is better to open or close. I think some hotels will wait and see. There is no point opening their doors and losing money."
Some hotels, for instance, may not be able to offer their core business of meetings and events because of restrictions on large gatherings. Others may need to offer new services. "Business people, for instance, may prefer to have room service or food delivery rather than sit in a restaurant with other people and in an environment that is now strange because of social distancing," he says.
Companies may also be doing their own risk assessments before sending employees on business trips. "It will be interesting to see what hoops companies will want suppliers [such as hotels] to jump through," says Gold.
Certainly, hotels will need to find a way of reassuring guests. Marriott International has been in the news because of the introduction of its new Global Cleanliness Council and electrostatic sprayers in the US, while Accor is rallying for the introduction of a safety and cleaning standards certificate in France.
"All of these in terms of cleaning your rooms add cost to the hotel and [impact] that equation as to whether it is worth reopening," says Gold. "Hoteliers need to understand how long the virus can exist. If your hotel has been closed for two months and unoccupied, it may be easier than for those hotels that have had homeless people or NHS guests."
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