Hotels in England may have to wait until at least July to reopen, but many hoteliers are already looking at how they can use their outdoor space to create new socially distanced offerings and tempt guests and diners back. Neil Gerrard reports
"We're not epidemiologists, we're lovely hoteliers," declares an impressively cheerful Andrew McPherson as he takes a break from working out how the five-AA-star Grantley Hall near Ripon in North Yorkshire can adapt to the much-heralded "new normal".
McPherson, like many other hoteliers up and down the country, hasn't been resting on his laurels during lockdown. Instead, he has been planning how to get Grantley Hall – closed since the end of March like thousands of other hospitality businesses – back up and running again safely, with social distancing in place. And a key weapon that the property has in its arsenal is its outdoor space.
Amid suggestions from some scientists that Covid-19 has a less easy time spreading itself al fresco than indoors, businesses have been looking at how to maximise the use of their outdoor areas when they return to operation.
In that respect, Grantley Hall has enjoyed a small stroke of luck: last year, the hotel added a glass canopy to its south-facing Norton Courtyard, with views over the nearby River Skell, to extend the amount of time it could be used each year by a few more months.
Now the hotel is ensuring that the 10 tables of two are spaced out by two metres ahead of opening an outdoor dining service that could run even before the rest of the hotel resumes operations. "We have spaced the tables out a little more and between them we have erected attractive screens that we got from Goodfellows. Of course, in Yorkshire it can get a bit windy, so the screens are a really good idea even without social distancing," says McPherson.
Dishes will be simplified slightly to allow for fewer chefs (who will wear PPE) to adhere to social distancing in the kitchen, while McPherson plans for cutlery to be placed under the sort of UV light that you might find at a dental surgery so guests can see that it is completely clean before it is slipped into a paper envelope for them. Table service will remain but extraneous dishes like sides will be removed so that there are as few visits to the table by staff as possible.
But the ideas don't stop there. McPherson also has plans to change the way guests staying in the hotel are served breakfast. "If you are a hotel user, then you know that breakfast between 9am and 10am is absolute pandemonium. We can't have that anymore.
"Who would have thought as a five-star hotel that we would be doing grab and go? But we will, and we are also going to be doing breakfast picnics. You can have it delivered up to your room and you can take it out and lie in the gardens. When you say it like that, you think to yourself: ‘Why didn't we do this ages ago?"
Meanwhile, spa guests who used to enjoy complimentary yoga sessions inside will now be invited to take part in a sheltered outside area while spaced apart. And McPherson has plans to introduce a new outdoor afternoon tea in the hotel's Japanese gardens, with guests seated under Japanese-style parasols. "It's a beautiful garden. We have to get people coming out, so we need to create something different and exciting and hopefully people will flock here for it," he explains.
When all of these new offerings start, of course, is down to government guidelines but McPherson is hopeful that some sort of external terrace service can begin on 4 July, with the hotel reopening fully on 1 August if all goes according to plan.
Home Grown Hotels
For his part, Robin Hutson, chairman of the Pig collection of hotels, as well as Lime Wood in Hampshire's New Forest, would rather see all parts of his businesses open at once. "I am not too excited about opening up just the outdoor elements of the business. All elements of our offering are intrinsically linked. People come to stay in our hotels to eat with us. Just the outside dining space on its own is a pretty limited part of the overall operation," he says.
Nonetheless, all of the Pigs benefit from outdoor space, ranging from 40 acres in the case of the Pig near Bath, to the smallest plot at the Pig at Combe, which sits on a couple of acres.
Most of the hotels already have spaces that operate as outdoor restaurants with wood-fired ovens during the summer. But Hutson is acutely aware of the vagaries of the British weather. "We are currently investigating whether we can cover these with some sort of canvas in the form of a semi-permanent awning or marquee structure, which would effectively give us the extra capacity if we need to exercise considerable distancing," says Hutson.
Nonetheless, he is hopeful that rules on social distancing may change from the current guidance (at the time of writing) of two metres to one metre, which as he explains is the difference between having 40% occupancy in a trading area (which would not be profitable) and 80% (which would).
But beyond bolstering outdoor dining, he doesn't see much potential for other socially distanced outdoor offerings at the Pigs. "Without some sort of structure, the English weather is challenging. And to incur a whole load of infrastructure costs at this point in time, when everyone is feeling a bit broke, is possibly not the way that many people want to go – us included," he says.
One business that has decided to invest in a permanent change to its premises is the 20-bedroom Tudor Farmhouse in Clearwell, Gloucestershire, owned by Hari and Colin Fell. Its main garden space is directly outside reception and is currently being reconfigured and redesigned so that it can accommodate more covers – 12 tables when everything eventually returns to normal, and six under the current social distancing guidelines of two metres.
"If we can open for any part of the summer, the outdoor space is going to be crucial because it increases the number of covers we can do in total," explains Hari, as Colin busies himself digging up plants in the May sunshine before the landscapers move in.
Meanwhile, they are looking at having no more than two chefs in the kitchen, which will involve making dishes slightly simpler.
Like Hutson, the Fells plan to open the whole business at the same time. "Financially, it probably isn't worth doing it with just the outside space," says Hari. They are also engaging with their local MP in the hope that planning restrictions on putting up temporary outdoor structures can be eased to allow for changeable weather. "I can guarantee that the weather is beautiful now but I bet as soon as we can all open it will rain," predicts Hari – and with the way 2020 has gone so far, few would argue with her.
The Tudor Farmhouse is targeting an opening date at the end of July. "I think when the government says hospitality can open in July, it might start with self-catering but serviced accommodation will be slightly later. We are not anticipating massive demand initially, because I don't think people will be confident travelling or to going out," she says, adding that a flexible furlough scheme will be "crucial" for the industry in this respect.
The Stafford London
Even later to throw its doors open once more will be the Stafford in London. The capital's hotels face a particular problem, explains Stuart Procter, chief operating officer at the Stafford, in that many of them rely on overseas visitors. In the case of the five-red-AA-star Stafford, they make up 85% of the guests. Home secretary Priti Patel's recent confirmation of a 14-day quarantine for anyone flying into the UK means that guests may be thin on the ground for some time.
"I have put a line in the sand to say we would like to open in August," says Procter. "There are lessons to be learned from when the big retailers open in Bond Street, Oxford Street and Regent Street. There is no point rushing to open when we are opening to no clients."
In the longer term though, he is also keen to maximise the use of the Stafford's extensive terrace outside the American Bar. "The terrace is amazing and we invested a significant amount of money in it last year, with beautiful outdoor bars, granite tables and heaters. We also have a barbecue out there and Ben Tish, our culinary director, is a phenomenal barbecue chef, so I think that space is going to thrive when we reopen," he predicts.
Service will of course have to change. "We have probably got 20 tables out there, so we can use a table in between each table for customers to collect their drinks. We are a five-star hotel so we won't change the quality, but we will reduce the service and make it quicker and less fussy," he adds.
At the Stafford Collection's other hotel, Northcote in the Ribble Valley, Lancashire, opening could come earlier. Some 98% of the business there is from within the UK and the majority from a 25-mile radius of the hotel. It also has a large parking area and spacious indoor areas, Procter says. Meanwhile, the boom in home cooking under lockdown has led to an increase in bookings for executive chef Lisa Goodwin-Allen's cookery courses.
Whatever a hotel's circumstances, McPherson thinks it is important that hoteliers don't just "sit and wait for the green light" to reopen. "We have got to make it different and exciting. There are things we can plan for to help us bring staff back off furlough and get them trained," he says. "We need to get people used to coming back out to our properties again."
Golf provides hotels with valuable social distancing experience
One of the changes to the government's lockdown regulations in England in May was to allow golfers to resume their sport, so long as they played in socially distanced pairs only. That has provided some hotels with golf courses to undertake a limited reopening of their facilities – among them Bespoke Hotels' Magnolia Park in Buckinghamshire, which boasts a par 73 championship course, and Coulsdon Manor hotel in Surrey.
Bespoke Hotels is making its own individual plans for reopening, and while Magnolia Park and Coulsdon Manor can't yet offer any sort of food and beverage service – they are open strictly for golf only – it has given staff some valuable experience of putting social distancing measures in place.
"It is a good testing ground. We have all heard about these new distancing measures but this is the first time that hotels have had to specifically put them into practice and it's very positive to see how well received it has been," says Amanda Humble, Bespoke's group sales and marketing director. "There is always that fear that we are going to open the doors and people will not want to come, so it's a bit of a confidence boost to hospitality that the golf has been so well received. We have members who were champing at the bit to get back out there and get back to some sort of normality. It's a glimmer of light."
Late last week Bespoke confirmed Magnolia Park would be closed once again from 31 July for redevelopment.
Updated Scottish guidance causes controversy
In Scotland, outdoor space may not just be useful to hospitality businesses when it comes to reopening, it could be crucial – at least in the short term.
First minister Nicola Sturgeon has indicated that hospitality businesses will be able to open their outdoor spaces earlier than their indoor spaces, as part of the second phase of an easing of the lockdown. Indoor spaces will only be permitted to open from the start of the third phase, scheduled on 11 August.
However UKHospitality has branded the plan "illogical". Executive director for Scotland Willie Macleod said: "The Scottish government's plans rests on whether businesses have an outdoor space or not; not whether they are able to operate safely with social distancing guidelines in place. Subjecting businesses that do not have outdoor spaces but could operate perfectly safely to further forced closure is illogical and will do serious harm."
Featured photo: Shutterstock
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