How the hospitality industry is picking up the pieces to rebuild after the catastrophe of Covid

19 May 2021

Restaurants, pubs and hotels are hoping for customers to return in droves after a harsh winter lockdown, but how are our colleagues feeling about this momentous occasion? We talk to those at the coalface to understand how their roles may have changed during the pandemic and to hear their concerns – and hopes – for a final reopening.

The restaurant manager: Katie Mulliss

Katie Mulliss
Katie Mulliss

Katie Mulliss, restaurant manager, the Hand & Flowers, Marlow, Buckinghamshire

"Up until 5pm on the 23 March, my role never changed. Then within five minutes, I was told we were to close for what we assumed would be weeks. I was placed on furlough indefinitely, along with the majority of the Tom Kerridge team.

"We adapted fluidly and quickly began takeaways and deliveries. I took to managing logistics from our sister pub, the Butcher's Tap, to oversee our ready meal and takeaway operation. Shortly after, I volunteered for our charity, Meals from Marlow, to manage the distribution and logistics to help supply over 100,000 meals for the NHS, the vulnerable and key workers during the pandemic. During all three lockdowns, this was my focus and priority.

"However, as parts of the businesses have adapted to open during the climate, I was tasked with managing those, including the reopening of the Butcher's Tap and Grill.

"We are incredibly fortunate that we've hit the ground running. While it sounds great to be ‘full until Christmas', this is business that has been transposed from the past year. We have encouraged guests to move tables and rooms, rather than cancel, and as a result our reservations team has been on hand seven days a week to ensure we can accommodate every guest.

"The lockdowns have crippled our industry. We haven't traded for almost 10 out of the past 14 months. Our amazing team of staff haven't been honing their skills in this profession that we love. Our brilliant guests, whom we welcome like old friends, haven't been sat with us, eating, drinking and laughing with us.

"My biggest concern is that the public may not rejoin restaurants. I fear it has become ‘the norm' to stay in. As the manager of a special place, re-establishing that feeling of ‘treating yourself' is my ultimate goal.

As the manager of a special place, re-establishing that feeling of ‘treating yourself' is my ultimate goal

"Reopening for the third time, staff training will be key. Guests don't want to walk in thinking the brigade have been off for nearly a year. So, next steps: training, planning and adaptation."

The HR director: Lindsay Southward

Lindsay Southward
Lindsay Southward

Lindsay Southward, director of people and brand development, Village Hotels

"I'm feeling both apprehensive and excited about reopening. I'm excited to get back to some level of normality and, while as a business our online communication over the last year has become phenomenal, people have missed the social interaction. Working from home has been difficult with work-life balance, as the laptop is always there and there's always something to do.

"We've recently introduced a new HR system, which will be the focus for the next year, moving to a full end-to-end platform and integrating a number of different systems into one. And we're using technology to drive the guest experience, but also to help manage things like payroll during recovery. But it's about remembering we are in the business of hospitality, and we have to find a balance in how we use technology to create an engaging atmosphere both for teams and guests. For instance, while we've got an app so guests can order food contactlessly, we know they still want to talk to people, see a smile and hear laughter.

We have to find a balance in how we use technology to create an engaging atmosphere both for teams and guests

"One of my concerns is recruitment, because now things are ramping back up again there is competition for the best people. A lot of people have taken a step out of hospitality for different reasons and we're competing with companies like Amazon. We need to stand out as a preferred employer through our pay strategy, but also through our people strategy, with incentives like our wellbeing programme, as well as training, awards and recognitions. We're currently recruiting for a CTO to drive the whole technology project and the price tag is going up, as everyone wants the same people.

Village Hotels
Village Hotels

"My tip for reopening is use the lessons we've learned over the last year to stay resilient and keep communicating. We got through a year where we didn't know what we were doing, no one knew what furlough was, and we were running our businesses by listening to the news at 5pm every day. If we can do that, we can do anything. But you can only stay strong as a team if you keep talking about the challenges and risks, but also the positives. From the executives through to the team members, we need to remember human contact is really important."

The restaurant manager: Owen Farr

Owen Farr
Owen Farr

Owen Farr, restaurant manager, the Olive Tree restaurant, Bath

"My role managing the restaurant and bar is always evolving, as the business changes and we look to constantly grow what we're doing.

"One great advantage of reopening for the first time last summer was having the time and opportunity to learn and develop many other skills in the business. Until last summer I had never really sanded or painted anything, let alone learned housekeeping and front office! If anything it's made me more keen on learning about the different aspects of the business, and fully appreciate the hard work that every department puts in.

"When we reopen fully I'm expecting to be incredibly busy. But we won't have half the obstacles we faced last time round, with the challenges of the curfew, and the ever-changing guidance on distancing and hygiene, etc. Things are much clearer now, and we've done it all before.

Things are much clearer now, and we've done it all before

"We are seeing a lot of pent-up demand, with guests desperate to get out and stay in hotels again, eat out and have mind-blowing experiences. I can't wait to see our restaurant full again, and we have a super-exciting new menu and wine list that I know our guests will love.

"As for the future, I'll be looking after my team. As an industry we all need to take better care of each other as individuals. Communicate with your people and empower them to be involved in discussions or decision-making. We need to keep our great people in the industry! Most of all, enjoy it. I for one can't wait."

The marketing director: Alix White

Alix White
Alix White

Alix White, director of communications and marketing, the Seren Collection, which comprises the Grove of Narberth hotel in and Coast restaurant in Pembrokeshire and the Beach House restaurant in Oxwich

"People have always been at the heart of our business – both staff and guests. Over the last year we've been trying to connect with our guests with sensitivity, by avoiding commercial messaging and giving our marketing a light touch, because we knew how much our guests had been struggling.

"Without revenue for large chunks of the last year, we removed paid marketing and focused on our newsletter and social media, which was an effective way to stay close to our followers and keep that connection during a difficult time.

"Having been made redundant by a multimillion-pound company last year, I'm proud to be part of an independent business that didn't make a single person redundant. I've even hired a new marketing manager, which will really bolster our team and support the exciting initiatives we're planning. One of the first projects my team and I will work on when we reopen is redeveloping the website and updating the content. We have a lot to say and will share some delightful stories as we go into summer and the gardens burst into life.

Beach House
Beach House

"Bookings are strong and the demand is there, so that's generating confidence for the future. The overriding feeling right now is one of complete excitement, because reopening has been a long time coming and the team are desperate to get back to what they love.

"As well as this, our head chef at Beach House, Hywel Griffith, is representing Wales in the final of this year's Great British Menu. All of this is great for marketing, but it also generates excitement internally.

"My primary tip for marketers as we reopen is to be sensitive. It's important to remember what has happened – hundreds of thousands of people have died in the UK alone and other parts of the world continue to suffer greatly. We need to be gentle, respectful and have people-focused marketing with personal stories that resonate more with guests. The world is a very delicate place, and we just need to be aware of that and work in a way that feels true to your ethos as a business and shape your marketing plans to fit in with that."

We need to be gentle, respectful and have people-focused marketing with personal stories that resonate more with guests

The new opening: Razak Helalat

Raz Helalat
Raz Helalat

Razak Helalat, owner of Brighton restaurants the Coal Shed and Salt Room, and the Coal Shed in London Bridge. Helalat is opening Burnt Orange, a new Brighton restaurant, in June

"In the run-up to reopening I've been so busy with menu planning and tastings, it almost feels like launching three new restaurants.

"We only got hold of the Burnt Orange site six weeks before the first lockdown in March 2020. At one point we wondered if we should dump it, but in December we thought ‘sod it' and we decided to roll the dice.

Burnt Orange
Burnt Orange

"Some people think we're headcases taking on a new venue coming out of a pandemic, but recessions are the best time to be investing. If people are being more careful with money, they'd rather spend £50 on a nice meal as a treat rather than going for a weekly PizzaExpress.

Recessions are the best time to be investing

"We're very excited about what's around the corner and I think everyone wants to get back to normal. The economy is looking more positive, and everyone is going mad building and buying things.

"We're investing heavily in all our restaurants. On 17 May the Salt Room is opening indoors, as well as the Coal Shed in Brighton. We're waiting for the go-ahead from the landlord of our London site to build an outside terrace with permanent umbrellas and heaters that will add around 40 covers. I think landlords are realising there will still be people who prefer outdoor dining and it's here to stay for a while.

Burnt Orange
Burnt Orange

"We could probably have opened Burnt Orange on 17 May, but we need to get the other restaurants settled first, so we are waiting until June. I don't really want to open a new project with restrictions, and the other restaurant teams are older and more experienced.

"Our London Bridge site is potentially a worry, as fewer people are going into offices, which is why we're building the outdoor terrace, so it can be enjoyed during the day. I imagine it will take until September for people to fully return to London."

The revenue director: Karen Tyson-Smith

Karen Tyson-Smith, Rudding Park
Karen Tyson-Smith, Rudding Park

Karen Tyson-Smith, director of commercial, Rudding Park, Harrogate

"As we say in the north, ‘we mustn't grumble', but currently demand is outweighing supply, which is fantastic but a little overwhelming. Everyone is very excited.

"It's like a new opening. During the three lockdowns, we carried out a refurbishment programme in bedrooms, the Clocktower restaurant has been redeveloped and rebranded, and all public areas repainted. It's like we've got an exciting new product.

Rudding Park
Rudding Park

"We've had a bit of a warm-up as the spa has been open, as well as golf and 23 suites with private access.

"Over the past 12 months all of our roles have changed significantly and we've restructured three key functions. We now integrate marketing, sales and revenue to create a ‘funline', which is a combination of a funnel and a pipeline.

"One of our key objectives has been to create confidence with our guests. We had a significant amount of business on the books that was prepaid; that confidence has allowed us to retain the pre-payment for weddings, bedrooms and the spa. It has kept us alive. As a result of that we've now changed our business model and every guest is now prepaid before they arrive, except for non-residential dining.

Rudding Park
Rudding Park

"In terms of pricing and revenue management, anyone who booked with us last year and is redeeming their credit gets the same rate. We have a maximum rate available too, but we haven't increased beyond that, as we don't want to be seen in the market as taking advantage – we want to be fair and we want guests to come back.

"This year isn't a challenge in terms of demand but next year will be. So if guests return we can grow our rate next year rather than looking to make short-term gains."

We can grow our rate next year rather than looking to make short-term gains

The housekeeper: Fernanda Lewis

Fernanda Lewis, the Goring
Fernanda Lewis, the Goring

Fernanda Lewis, executive head housekeeper, the Goring, London

"A lot has changed in the housekeeping world. The chemicals have changed, the risk assessment has changed and all of this has a massive impact on the operation.

"I had to review my contractors and suppliers and prices and try to negotiate a reduced number of visits. I'm training as a florist at the moment – I've never done that before.

"When the hotel was closed, the property needed to be maintained, so I needed to be very adaptable and do things myself like maintenance upkeep, the taps, the water, surface cleaning. We had to be very hands-on, which I loved, and I'm very proud that we now have the building ready to operate as a hotel again for the guests.

"The main thing has been maintaining personal relations with my team. What I heard from some colleagues is that some of the team are not back and they cannot get hold of them. I'm glad it's not the case for me: [my staff] are looking forward to returning, but it's a slow process.

"Day one I met them at the front of the hotel to say hello, but it's not only the arrival – it's almost like holding their hands and helping them again, going very gradually, bit by bit. It's been a long time, so they've forgotten and they're not up to speed.

"Some of my team have got other jobs because they couldn't live on the furlough money alone, so [we have to think about] how we're going to manage around the rotas, changing the shift patterns. We can do it, but my worry is if it gets really busy, would we be able to fit them in, or would we need to recruit and train new members? At the moment we are good with our team of 18.

"I'm looking forward to seeing our staff and guests return. That is the thing we miss the most – the people and the smiles."

That is the thing we miss the most – the people and the smiles

The head of retail: Daniel Wilson

Daniel Wilson
Daniel Wilson

Daniel Wilson, head of retail, BaxterStorey

"My first thought about returning to work was excitement. Like everyone I've been looking forward to returning to some sort of normality, however as the day approached, I was overcome with a mixture of nerves and apprehension.

"What if it was not going to be the same? What if I struggle to interact with other people outside of my bubble? These were all questions and feelings I had before my return. However once I got back, I decided to speak to others, and it became clear I was not the only one thinking this.

"We have all had to take on more responsibility in some ways following the pandemic. While the food on the plate and service has always been important, looking out for each other's wellbeing is going to be crucial given the year we've all had. While we have all been kept apart by the pandemic, it has strangely brought us closer together.

"The biggest challenge in the short term is getting our teams match fit. This has been a big focus for us over the past six months – how we can ensure our teams are not only well in themselves while at home, but also how we can ensure they are match fit for their return to work.

"We have a number of training and support initiatives that have been bubbling away. For example, we have a regular chefs' picnic in the park, where we meet every couple of weeks with a few of our team members. There is no agenda, just a few chefs, some good food and a couple of drinks, and we discuss everything and anything that's been going on. It's amazing how chefs open up when they are surrounded by other chefs and some good food.

"To those chefs who are apprehensive about returning to work, I would just like to say you're not the only one – speak to your friends, family and colleagues and let them know how you feel. You can probably support each other more than you know."

Speak to your friends, family and colleagues and let them know how you feel. You can probably support each other more than you know

The events manager: Rupert Outram

Rupert Outram
Rupert Outram

Rupert Outram, general manager at the RSA (the Royal Society for Arts) for Venues by CH&CO

"My role has changed. I have certainly never had to rewrite our strategy and forecast so many times.

"On the positive side, it's been a great opportunity to look at our offer from start to finish, looking at what we used to do well and where we could do better. Following a team restructure and now, as we find ourselves in a period of trading that is far from consistent, it's a case of ‘all hands-on deck'.

"At the RSA, we are lucky to have such amazing and varied event spaces. This has really helped when focusing on the wedding sector and we've been able to make it a more significant part of our business mix. We're looking forward to a busy summer ahead with some great bookings in the diary. We are anticipating a big uplift in demand from our corporate clients from September onwards.

"However, while we have had to become accustomed to uncertainties and rapid change, there has undoubtedly been an effect on customer confidence, which is having an impact on contracting new business. There's some caution about committing to big events currently, so we must keep communicating well with clients and be ready for last-minute bookings.

We must keep communicating well with clients and be ready for last-minute bookings

"I'm also giving myself and our teams sufficient time to make sure that everything is working as it should be to avoid unnecessary anxieties, such as checking equipment, supply chains, computer systems and so on.

"That said, we, like many venues, have a great team who are all very resourceful and adaptable and are used to working with last-minute challenges – like the fabulous wedding we hosted last summer, which was confirmed with just five days' notice and saw the kitchen and our team remobilise very quickly!

"Good communication with all stakeholders is also important. It's been a tough year and it's natural that returning team members and customers are going to have some anxieties and lots of questions. Regular contact that offers timely and clear information, refresher training and support are key to providing reassurance and confidence."

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