It's impossible to predict what business will be like this festive season, but it's certain to be a Christmas like no other. Rosalind Mullen speaks to seven operators who have come up with unique ways to make the most of whatever winter brings.
The Lygon Arms: wrapping up cosy and country
Marcus O'Leary, general manager at the 86-bedroom Lygon Arms in Broadway, Worcestershire, says the cold weather may be drawing in, but he predicts guests will develop a ‘ski resort attitude'. "We've seen little drop-off as we enter the colder season. I feel guests will be more tolerant about using the outdoor seating area," adding that he is introducing more outdoor heating and features such as fire-pits.
He has had to rethink how the luxurious property can balance the lack of Christmas parties. "The good thing is that even with the Covid restrictions, we believe we can still ‘conceptually' offer Christmas celebratory events, but safely," he says.
Christmas week packages, priced from £345 for two nights, have been redesigned to be more "self-facilitated". So, for example, where in previous years the hotel encouraged guests to socialise around the Christmas trees in one of the public areas, this year, families booking a suite can order a tree and decorations (from £125) for their own room.
O'Leary has also been working on Lygon's first quarter strategy for 2021, which includes forging partnerships and packages with country pursuit companies such as GunsOnPegs.
"Here in the Cotswolds, the British country pursuits have fewer restrictions, so this market continues to be stable," he says.
So how much business does O'Leary realistically expect in light of social distancing rules? "We feel confident our fourth quarter of 2020 will be in line with our forecast assumptions," he says. "However, the segmentation has clearly changed. Fortunately the leisure market and those who enjoy those lifestyle breaks are helping to balance our fourth-quarter levels of business."
The Hoxton: delivering for diners
"We'll remain agile and implement our ideas fast," is the message from Jules Pearson, F&B creative development director at Ennismore, which owns the Hoxton brand, including its three London hotels in Shoreditch, Southwark and Holborn.
We'll remain agile and implement our ideas fast
During lockdown, the Hoxton switched all its kitchens to delivery-only and launched two brands, Pecking Order and Tandoor Tacos.
"We've kept this model in Albie, our restaurant in Hoxton Southwark, which now has four brands in the kitchen available to eat-in and for delivery," says Pearson.
The recent 10pm curfew has prompted the company to launch two new express 9pm dinners at the Hoxton Southwark's rooftop Seabird restaurant and Holborn's Rondo, as well as a sliding discount for earlier bookings.
Pearson is also thinking of ways to encourage long lunches. Seabird has just launched Afternoon Sea, starting from £30 for a platter of native oysters and rising to £245 for a Full Afternoon Sea, which is a three-tiered platter of oysters, seafood, crab, langoustines and so on.
Over Christmas, Pearson believes the hotel rooms will help keep the festive party going. "We'll be selling restaurant packages that include a room. We also have a Hox Shop at reception that sells drinks and food at the same price you pay at the supermarket, so guests can buy from there and have a post-dinner drink in the safety of their own bedroom."
As yet, however, she has no idea how Christmas business will pan out. "We haven't seen cancellations, because we haven't seen bookings," says Pearson. "People are scared to book in case they need to change and another lockdown happens. I think we'll have more last-minute business than ever before, whereas usually people get in early to secure their party places."
The Royal Lancaster London: tapping into events technology
As a large residential conference and events hotel in central London, the 411-bedroom Royal Lancaster is dependent on the international market who, as we all know, are not travelling.
Alexander Henskens, hotel manager, says: "Without the overseas markets we are beginning to struggle. We need restrictions to be lifted and international confidence to be restored. Putting visitors in quarantine is not confidence-building."
We need restrictions to be lifted and international confidence to be restored
To meet the needs of its corporate customer base, the hotel repurposed its Westbourne Suite and has launched an XR mixed-reality production studio and event space, which companies can book to create virtual, live and hybrid conferences and events.
The studio features a 20 sq m extended reality (XR) stage with LED backdrop and floor, audio, broadcast cameras and TV-ready lighting. Other hotels already have TV studios, but not XR technology capabilities, believed to be the first of its kind in a hotel.
Event technology company Smart AV has invested in the equipment and charges for usage, while the hotel charges a room hire fee.
General manager Sally Beck says: "Since opening we've had the studio booked for two large events, where chief executives have been able to communicate with their worldwide teams. One held a Q&A session with 14,000 team members globally."
Twr Y Felin: Winter in Wales
Winter holds little fear for Paula Ellis, group general manager of the Retreats Group, which operates three boutique hotels in Pembrokeshire – the four-silver-AA-star 21-bedroom Twr y Felin hotel, six-bedroom Roch Castle and eight-bedroom Penrhiw Priory.
None of the properties have function rooms and have never relied on outdoor dining.
Twr Y Felin, designed to showcase a 150-strong contemporary art collection by owner-architect Keith Griffiths, is selling itself as a destination for art lovers. St David's is an artistic hub with resident artists and the legacy of artist Graham Sutherland, as well as the National Museum Wales at Oriel Y Parc and other galleries open through winter.
"It's a great winter activity so we're promoting that heavily. Maybe guests would have gone to see the art in Florence or London, but they get some satisfaction from coming here," says Ellis.
As confidence has grown in Covid procedures, Ellis is also slowly reintroducing dining and wellness packages that were put on hold on reopening. In particular, the hotel is making the most of its remote location on the Pembrokeshire Coastal National Park.
"People want open space, the countryside and the coast, and this is the only coastal national park in the UK, so it is sought after," says Ellis.
People want open space, the countryside and the coast
The Coastal Adventure, for instance, offers a two-night stay from £200 per room per night and a 10% reduction on activities booked with partner TYF Adventure, ranging from kayaking to abseiling to climbing.
Or there is Coastal Foraging (£80-£120 per person) where a local expert guides guests to forage for mussels, plants and crabs and then cook their feast on the beach on a Solva Stove.
"We mostly do this in summer but we've got a microclimate, so it works in winter," says Ellis.
Despite increased demand for rural coastal hideaways, the Retreats Group has not raised prices. This has worked well. Not only have guests been prepared to pay the full published rates, but since July, average stay has risen from 2.1 nights in previous years to 3.6 nights.
The Spread Eagle: from pub to restaurant
Luke McLaughlin, owner of the Spread Eagle, a vegan pub in London's Homerton, has shown particular agility to keep his business moving.
"We've lost 70% of drinks revenue on Fridays and Saturdays due to the one-metre rule, table service and 10pm curfew," he says. "People were shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar and now nobody is."
In line with the one-metre spacing rule, he increased the table covers from 60 to 100 by repurposing the party room, getting rid of the pool table and weather-proofing the garden with outdoor heaters to make it a year-round space.
The extra 40 seats have helped boost food sales by 30%, reflecting the change from a pub to more of a restaurant.
With the winter drawing in, McLaughlin is preparing to launch a Sunday roast menu on 11 October. This will be a reduced choice of three vegan roasts plus desserts, so that they can turn tables – he reckons most people won't linger on a Sunday. Main courses, all priced at £16, include beet Wellington, walnut and cashew nut roast, or pot-roast celeriac and potato crackling, served with vegetables, Yorkshires and gravy.
The Christmas menu will offer the same mains, but the price will include starters and puddings for £35 a head. He is also working on the drinks menu to introduce vegan eggnog and mulled wines.
"There is always a big Christmas display of decorations," says McLaughlin. "In past years, we've had oversized presents and candies dangling from the ceiling. We also had an oversized tree, but this year we need to optimise space for tables."
Quiz nights have continued and brought fun and a sense of occasion to the venue. "They are fully booked with a quizmaster in full drag and a mask. Everyone sits in a table of six, so we are working around it."
The Gallivant: setting up for wellness and memberships
The 20-bedroom Gallivant on Camber Sands, East Sussex, was positioning itself for winter as far back as July. As well as completing the refurbishment of the Summer House – the place for events such as yoga retreats, visiting chef dinners and inspirational speakers – owner Harry Cragoe launched a new brand identity and website, which has stimulated an increase in direct bookings.
A particular change is that all bookings at the chic retreat are now an inclusive rate that includes breakfast, dinner, elevenses, English wine at 5pm and free classes. It's working well, with occupancy in August at 99% compared with 98% in August 2019; average room rate up by £29; and dinner average spend up by £16. And Cragoe says bookings for October to December are in line with budgets, with a much shorter lead time of two to six weeks for individual leisure travellers.
The hotel is now only open to members and overnight guests. The new social membership package introduced in August from £25 a month has attracted more than 50 members, who get access to booking the hotel and restaurant as well as early notice of events. Full membership will launch in October.
Cragoe adds: "This is an exciting new revenue stream and, while it is in its infancy, membership subscriptions from the sign-ups to date will deliver £25,000 annually and it is growing by the day."
Over Christmas, at 6pm every night, the Gallivant will become an exclusive club, closing the door to everyone but overnight guests to again ensure numbers are comfortable. The three-night Christmas package, priced £2,155 for two, includes dinner, bed, breakfast and optional events such as yoga, guided wild swims, film nights and a stargazing beach walk.
Guests will also be given the chance to dress up, with a black-tie dinner followed by fireworks and Champagne overlooking the dunes.
As part of its wellness series, the hotel offers a three-day yoga retreat to small groups, starting at £440. It is being marketed at guests who want to replenish energy levels and will include menus of locally sourced food, meditation and sunset walks on the beach.
Rockliffe Hall: satisfying demand for indulgence
The new trend for staycationing served the 61-bedroom Rockliffe Hall Golf & Spa resort in Hurworth, County Durham, well this summer. In August, business was up 49% on the previous year and has remained solid over the past three months, boosted by the fact guests have been staying longer, dining in-house, indulging in afternoon tea and booking activities.
And managing director Jason Adams predicts winter sales will be the same as last year. "We're still experiencing an incredible demand for dining," he says. "Compared with hotels in London, where many attractions are not open, we have 375 acres of golf, spa and spaces such as Mischmasch [an Alice in Wonderland-inspired play area in 1.5 acres of woodland], so we are lucky."
Before The Caterer went to press, however, Rockliffe announced it was closing until 12 October because several back of house staff had been contacted by NHS Track and Trace. The hotel has focused on its Covid-safe accreditations and become much more flexible on cancellation policies.
"We know guests will change their booking, but we will also give them their deposit back," says Adams.
He has, however, noticed a dip in consumer confidence following recent government updates. "There seems to be a sense of nervousness around booking at the moment," he says. "Our lead times are very short and it is incredibly difficult to forecast for the winter period. And we've had to make the decision to cancel a number of our Christmas and New Year events, including any with live music or entertainment," says Adams.
We've had to make the decision to cancel a number of our Christmas and New Year events
One such event is afternoon tea with carols which, without the added value, has meant reducing the afternoon tea price back to the usual tariff. Festive dining packages such as Christmas Day lunches remain in place, though restricted to six guests.
An obvious casualty of the 10pm curfew will be New Year's Eve. "We'll deliver a special dinner that night and give guests a bottle of Champagne to go back to in their room," he says.
The team are looking into streaming a virtual event through the in-room TV.
You need to be a premium member to view this. Subscribe from just 99p per week.
Already subscribed? Log In