Hotels and restaurants are creeping back into action, but meetings and events are set for a slower path to normality. So how will this usually lucrative part of a hotel's business fare in the next few months? Rosalind Mullen reports
Lockdown is easing at last. Hoteliers have been whipping the dustsheets off bedroom furniture and breathing life back into their now socially distanced restaurants. But they face significant challenges, with constraints on gatherings meaning weddings, meetings and events won't look the same for a long time.
Under the latest government guidelines, for instance, weddings are limited to 30 people in England, including those performing the ceremony. Wedding receptions will be allowed from 1 August, but with the same constraints on the number of guests. Add to the mix masks, screens and hand sanitiser and subtract the usual wedding breakfast, singing and dancing, and it's clear the dream wedding is now compromised. No wonder brides are postponing their big day.
"These are very uncertain times," says John Robinson, owner of Headlam Hall near Darlington. "Most of our wedding bookings for this summer have been postponed to later dates, though some have cancelled and had their deposits refunded. Other large events and conferences are postponed and will be reviewed at the end of September."
Over in Jersey, which relies on inbound tourism, David Seymour, managing director of Seymour Hotels, says: "A lot of events business has gone by-the-by. On the island we have a maximum for gatherings of 40 people, but not everyone wants to meet. People prefer to use Zoom for safety reasons. We've had a number of enquiries for small weddings in August and September, but many have deferred to next year. Corporate events usually start to happen in September."
Mallory Court, Leamington Spa
Taking an optimistic stance, Nick Hanson, general manager at 43-bedroom Mallory Court Country House Hotel & Spa near Leamington Spa, describes bookings for September and October as "quite strong". The four-red-AA-star hotel, which reopened on 17 July, has versatile wedding and meeting spaces that can cater for intimate gatherings of up to 150 people. He says several clients have rearranged bookings following their cancellation during lockdown in April and May.
Last week the government gave a tentative date of 1 October for resuming conferences and events, but the constraints under which this could happen are still being considered.
With the new restrictions, it might seem reasonable for hoteliers to regard hosting events even in the medium-term as unfeasible. While Hanson is not undermining the challenges, his strategy is to stay positive and flexible. "We are not at the point of cancelling these events as yet, as we would rather await the next set of updates and guidance. We remain flexible about rearranging them, but we would rather stay positive for now."
We remain flexible about rearranging events, but we would rather stay positive for now
For example, Mallory Court is hosting a civil ceremony, but the couple will then book the wedding party later in the year or even next year. "For the time being weddings seem a long way off," says Hanson. "We've been contacted by guests who have conjured up ingenious ways that may appear to get around the directives, but we are absolutely set on not abusing the Covid legislation."
The nature of family parties means that enforcing social distancing at weddings will be particularly hard – made even more difficult as bookers and venues struggle to interpret the guidelines. "Event organisers do not seem to have the in-depth knowledge that we as hosts do and this is leading to some confusion," says Hanson.
Looking ahead to when meetings might be allowed, Hanson says: "We have stringent but sensible plans in place that will enable us to host conferences – although at a rather reduced capacity – as and when government guidelines allow."
The hotel has flexible meeting spaces that can normally hold up to three separate gatherings. There is, therefore, scope to hold no more than two meetings at one time, with numbers capped in line with government guidelines. As the space is flexible, each meeting will be given more floor space and be able to spread out.
Meals would be individually packaged, more like healthy street food as opposed to the usual opulent buffet. Delegates will be offered a choice, with orders taken in advance or on the day.
To make sure he is in a position to attract events and meetings bookers, Hanson is investing. Quotes are coming in to upgrade in-room technology to ensure the hotel can offer the latest connectivity and displays for the needs of Zoom and Teams meetings.
"We absolutely see this as a trend and not a fad," says Hanson.
But won't the cost of managing these events safely eat into profit and therefore make it necessary to raise prices?
"Absolutely not," says Hanson. "We are keen to absorb any operational costs and not pass these down the chain. We have many long-standing relationships and we are taking a long-term view on this."
Seaham Hall, Durham
The 21-suite Seaham Hall in Durham, a member of Pride of Britain Hotels, reopened on 7 July with 60% occupancy in the first week, which, as managing director Ross Grieve says, is "not bad".
He also points out the Georgian manor's location in 37 acres of grounds on Durham's Heritage Coast should make it easier to manage weddings post-Covid.
"The hotel is blessed to be able to accommodate groups of 30 due to the space, although really that means around 25 guests when taking into account the registrar, photographer, bride and groom, and the hotel can't do wedding breakfasts unless all guests are from the two families."
Most weddings at the hotel have moved to 2021 and Grieve says he can't see the situation changing: "We have still got three weddings in the diary, but they may not happen. One bride has moved her wedding to October and may move it again to December. It is such an unknown at this time," says Grieve. "We've been honest. It's easy to handle social distancing here, but for a wedding distancing is much more difficult. The brides are clinging on, but they're aware that they may have to postpone."
For a wedding distancing is much more difficult. The brides are clinging on, but they're aware that they may have to postpone
In the meantime, he's trying to extend the average two-night stay at the five-red-AA-star hotel by offering guests seven nights for the price of five and four nights for the price of three, with dinner, bed and breakfast, starting at £1,215, as well as investing in the spa in preparation for its reopening tomorrow (25 July).
"The challenge of air bridges and opportunity for staycations means we're representing great value," says Grieve.
Seaham is also offering creative experiences that may equally appeal to honeymooners. These include Secret Cinema evenings in the grounds, where couples can watch movies from hooded pod beds and order snacks such as popcorn, nacho hotdogs and Prosecco. The pods will also be in use around the grounds during the day. Other ideas include gourmet picnics to eat in the grounds or to take on a bike ride, and alfresco candle-lit dinners delivered to the garden suites, which also have private hot tubs.
"It's that confidence factor," says Grieve. "We have 37 acres of grounds, which we have exploited. We've created Byron's Beach Huts with hammocks outside. We've opened up more lounges so people can feel comfortable in the space. Whatever we are allowed to do, we will make it happen."
While PPE is potentially a passion-killer, Seaham has made the best of it. "We've used glass screens, not Perspex, where required in reception and in host stands," says Grieve. "We've adapted a two-metre distance because we can. We are blessed with massive corridors and have a one-way system. Staff have been reinducted and are not required to wear a mask, but they can.
"We haven't gone for sterile. Hospitality is about people. A simply worded email is sent to guests with what to expect on arrival. It's business as usual, but in a new-normal way."
Like many operators, Grieve, who is used to hosting weddings of 80-100 guests, is concerned about the short- to medium-term future. "The guidance is inconclusive – how long will it go on for? A wedding takes a long time to plan. Some brides have moved the date because they have a loved one who is shielding. A big challenge is finding a registrar. We are allowed to host two households but it is an unlikely scenario, so a wedding breakfast is difficult."
While meetings are not core business at Seaham, they are usually a welcome source of revenue. "We are taking enquiries for next year with accommodation, but nothing big. There is so much greyness about," says Grieve.
Meetings: how and when will they recover from Covid-19?
Meetings Industry Association (MIA) chief executive Jane Longhurst outlines the immediate future for the meetings industry
What is the current status of business meetings and events?
These are currently unable to take place, but the MIA is continuing to highlight to government that, unlike mass gatherings, a number of control measures can be put in place to easily and safely manage small business meetings, seminars and training events – including track and trace for delegates.
If they are given the go-ahead, they will help to build buyer confidence and pave the way for well-managed and safe conferences. The government can learn lessons from reinstating business meetings. For instance, they can provide insight and learnings for larger activities, such as major sporting, leisure or cultural events.
Many hotels rely on meetings and events space for revenue. How hard will this sector of business be hit?
Our research has helped inform the government's Visitor Economy Working Group, highlighting that our sector, which provides £70b to the UK economy and supports 700,000 highly skilled jobs, has been one of the biggest casualties, as all booked meetings have had to be either cancelled or postponed and, unlike the wider hospitality industry, we are still not able to open for business.
Do you have any tips on how hoteliers can reassure potential clients?
The MIA's Roadmap to Reopening and Operating Safely has been signposted as a key resource in both the government's Visitor Economy Guidance and UKHospitality's advice to the sector.
In addition, we have enhanced our nationally recognised quality accreditation to include infection prevention and control protocols. More than 50 hotels and venues have already achieved the rigorous new AIM Secure standard, and another 75 are going through the process.
How can hoteliers use meeting rooms more creatively?
Many are revising room capacities to meet social distancing guidelines, while some are providing a range of virtual and hybrid interactive online events to limit contact. Others have been getting creative with how to direct the flow of delegates or offering grab-and-go food.
So it's not all doom and gloom. What other opportunities have opened up?
There's a whole new emerging market that could be picked up by hoteliers wanting to fill meeting spaces. For many organisations, Covid-19 has been an experiment in the effectiveness of staff working from home. It's proved to be so successful that the reliance on traditional office space to house the whole organisation just won't be there. What will be there, however, is the need to meet regularly with teams. Hotels can pick this business up easily by offering rates on safe meeting spaces for organisations that only require space for a few hours every couple of weeks.
Vince Johnson, general manager, Redworth Hall
Where Redworth, County Durham, close to Darlington and Newton Aycliffe Business Park
The brand A four-star property in the Cairn Collection, part of family-run Cairn Group's portfolio of 33 hotels and 28 bars
The details A 143-bedroom Jacobean manor house set in 26 acres of landscaped grounds, offering fitness and beauty rooms and nine function spaces with capacity for 300 people
Redworth is a popular venue for meetings, events and weddings, but what is the outlook for this year?
We've been working with clients since lockdown. This would have been a record year following substantial investment in our events rooms. It looks now as if 2021 could be great instead, depending on restrictions.
How will you make clients and bookers feel confident?
The challenge is the lack of clear guidance, but we believe there are ways we can safely operate events. Our Stay with Confidence, Stay with Cairn video on our website shows guests the safety measures we have in place, such as lift etiquette protocols and a grab-and-go F&B service. Our programme, Connect with Confidence, developed in line with WHO guidelines, is primarily a preparation for an expected return of meetings but also forms the basis of how we service key worker meetings.
What is the future for events?
There will be lower capacities and one-way systems and individual catering, but everything can still be achieved, albeit in a slightly different way. Having got used to the ‘new normal' in other parts of our lives, we have certain clients who can adapt enough to enable events to restart. Social distancing is the greatest challenge, but we have reasonable capacity, so events are viable.
Having got used to the ‘new normal' in other parts of our lives, we are certain clients can adapt enough to enable events to restart
Will weddings be the hardest to host?
Yes. Every bridal party has an idea of their magical day and it mostly involves close proximity with loved ones. In the new reality a bride and groom will have to sanitise hands before exchanging rings, guests will be distanced, there won't be a father-daughter dance, and some of the more vulnerable guests won't even take the risk of attending.
Do you have any innovative ideas to offset the rather unromantic guidance?
There will be a move towards playing pre-recorded clips and speeches from those who can't attend. These, along with recorded readings and messages from the day, can be kept with photographs. More precedence will be given to giving guests small mementoes, and presentations about the bride and groom's courtship could be played.
I don't think face visors are a problem. They offer positive protection for both parties and are well-received by hotel guests. We'll also use them for events while distancing and restrictions remain.
How are you setting yourself apart from the crowd?
We show we care about their event. We have a set of guidelines and plans to reassure them, but what really helps is that we can offer suggestions and guidance, especially with weddings. Online and automated systems have advanced during this time, but when it comes to important events, people buy from people they feel happy with.
Will the cost of putting these events on affect your prices?
It's inevitable there may be extra costs – not least the sheer quantity of hand-sanitiser and wipes we'll go through – but I believe we can keep pricing broadly similar. It's in everyone's interests to encourage the events market, but numbers need to stay at manageable levels to prevent coronavirus. By operating events safely, and with clients playing their part, I'm confident we'll get to see profit again.
Featured photo: Shutterstock
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