Search
The Caterer

After the flood: operators describe how they've recovered from disasters and what they've learnt

16 March 2011 by
After the flood: operators describe how they've recovered from disasters and what they've learnt

When foot and mouth disease was discovered on the farm next door to the eight-bedroom Prince Hall Hotel in Dartmoor in 2001, the property was shut down immediately, cut off from the rest of the world, had a police cordon placed around it and a guard on the shared driveway for the next month.

The lives of hoteliers Adam and Carrie Southwell were turned upside down. Within three days their idyllic property was covered in MAFF's (now Defra) heavy machinery and they witnessed the mass culling of cattle and sheep.

"It was very traumatic, we were thrown in completely at the deep end. My wife - who was pregnant - and I were there stuck on site with our one-year-old," recalls Adam.

The Southwells had to make all staff redundant with immediate effect. They were given the option of leaving the hotel but because they had some chickens and other animals on site - and had nowhere else to go - they stayed. The family moved into the empty hotel and spent four days cancelling all advance reservations, not knowing when they would be able to reopen. Adam estimates the loss of business amounted to around £25,000.

After a couple of weeks of closure and no answers from the government, Adam admits he "got angry" and started fighting. "We literally had no income. I needed to stand up and be counted and fight my corner," he says.

He became the director of the Dartmoor Tourist Association and with the support of the local MP, Adam took a petition to 10 Downing Street, calling for the reopening of Dartmoor, had meetings all over the county, in London and even a face-to-face meeting with the prime minister at the time, Tony Blair.

"I really told him what I felt." says Adam. "I was polite but firm and stated my case. I wasn't going to let the opportunity slip away without making the most of it. I don't think it went down too well, but all these guys making the decisions were on a salary. We were getting diddly squat. We were backed into a corner."

In the end, they were shut for nearly five months. They found insurance companies had a specific clause excluding foot and mouth. In the whole country only Paignton Zoo had taken out the extra cover. There were no government financial handouts, but the Southwells found banks were a bit more lenient and deferred payment. Rates were returned and Adam's landlord, the Duchy of Cornwall, returned rent.

They did get a little help - a local grant of £15,000 - but it came with strict stipulations that the money be used on improving or upgrading the property, despite the fact the Southwells had accrued an overdraft of £16,000 during their enforced closure.

Before the outbreak, the couple had been thinking of moving, as the imminent arrival of their second child had made them want to be less remotely situated. But after the closure they had to stay on for a further 18 months to recoup their losses and get the books back to pre-foot and mouth levels.

They didn't move or leave directly because of foot and mouth, but Adam admits the incident had highlighted how exposed they could be and it reinforced their decision not to be as cut off in their next venture.

They sold Prince Hall in 2004 and were planning to take a couple of months off but then Adam was diagnosed with ME. "It was like falling out of a plane with no parachute, I think it was the result of having worked so hard, having so much stress and then just stopping," he says.

Fairwater Head Hotel
Fairwater Head Hotel
His illness knocked him out for a couple of years but he slowly recovered. He began doing shifts for friends to "get his hand back in and stamina back up". They subsequently bought Fairwater Head hotel in Axminster in 2007.

So what have they done differently this time? "We haven't done any specific crisis planning and we still don't have the foot and mouth clause but we just hope it never happens again," admits Adam.

The Southwells have had the confidence, however, to buy at the top of the market and spent around £100,000 on improving the Fairwater Head so that when the recession ends they'll be sitting pretty, with a good product that's ready to grow and get repeat business.

Adam adds: "I've also realised that you should never assume people know what they're doing. We put our hope and faith in government as they were the ones supposed to be good at crisis management. They weren't."

And if the unthinkable should ever happen again? "I would fight harder, faster and be much quicker if something like foot and mouth happened again," he says.

Adam also reflects that his shoulders are broader now. He has more confidence and is stronger, having chaired meetings of up to 500 angry people, been interviewed by journalists and been part of the plain speaking delegation to Tony Blair.

"We got the moor reopened three weeks before the government would have otherwise done," he recalls. "We took positive action to produce a positive reaction. I'd do it again."

10 tips on managing a crisis

1 Hope for the best, plan for the worst. Plan a communications strategy for crisis management in advance and be prepared to activate it

2 Get the facts as quickly as possible and take a decision based on those - full/partial closure, mea culpa/apology, plan for operational changes if needed. Move quickly

3 Prioritise minimising danger and threats to human life

4 Use social media/database to stay in touch with customers and keep them informed of progress with clear information

5 Keep staff in the loop with regular updates, be honest about project reopening schedules, hitches or changes to expectations. Open communication channels with them to enable them to express fears or worries and get answers

6 Have a single point of contact for media enquiries, be accessible to the press and deliver a clear message. If necessary hold daily meetings

7 Have a pre-nominated crisis team. If you are in charge, delegate all other responsibilities so you can focus on managing the crisis

8 Look at ways to turn your crisis into an opportunity

9 Use common sense and instinct. If you feel you don't have enough insurance or are underprepared seek advice or adjust your strategies, don't bury your head in the sand and hope it won't happen

10 If the worst does happen, tell the truth, be sincere and caring if loss of life is involved

Floods spring improvements in processes and trade: The Manor House hotel, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire

Flooded Manor House Hotel
Flooded Manor House Hotel
"It started while guests were having lunch. I knew we were really in trouble when I saw water spring up from a crack in the flagstone floor. It took us totally by surprise," admits general manager Simon Stanbrook of the 2007 floods - the worst in a century - which forced the Manor House hotel in Moreton-in-Marsh to close for nearly a year.

Staff and around 15 stranded guests camped out upstairs at the hotel while the floods reached four feet on the ground floor, comforted only by a few bottles of salvaged Champagne and cold sandwiches. "Furniture was just floating around in the water. I spent the night going round to guests profusely apologising and offering bottles of Champagne and beer," recalls Stanbrook.

The water had receded by the next morning but it was over 10 months before the hotel could reopen. Reservations, including 50 weddings, were cancelled or postponed. Many staff were kept on and found positions at other hotels within the group or opted to help out with clearing and rebuilding tasks at the Manor House.

Stanbrook himself spent the first couple of months sorting the £1.5m insurance claim. "It was the worst two months of my life. It was a phenomenal task itemising everything from paperclips to antiques, finding receipts, explaining that the paint on the walls wasn't Dulux it was Farrow and Ball and therefore much more expensive."

While the hotel dried out - taking a frustrating five months - the executive team used the enforced closure to improve the hotel's bedrooms and rethink the ground floor layout, designing a new conservatory for a brasserie and adding an extra function room.

When the flood hit, the group had no strategy in place for such a huge disaster. Now everyone has dedicated roles. "We didn't make mistakes but we learnt so much and made a few improvements in case it happens again. No one knew or realised the scale of what we had to do when it hit. Now we'd draft in more staff from sister hotels to help out. Cancelling 1,500 bookings was a mammoth task and took a good few weeks," says Stanbrook.

The experience has made the team, many of whom still work at the Manor House, much stronger. Stanbrook oversaw the refurb, and many staff helped out. He says: "We made it so operationally it is the best it can be. Staff feel part of the hotel and the hotel is part of them now."

Many of the cancelled weddings rebooked, having postponed their big day until the hotel reopened. "Doing wedding show rounds in a building site was one of the hardest jobs but they could see the vision." He was amazed at the speed the trade came back. The hotel reopened in May 2008 and was back to pre-flood trading by June. Within three months they were trading better than a year before the flood. "And we thought business had been good before."

The hotel was awarded its fourth AA star within the year - the icing on the cake for Stanbrook. "It was emotionally a really hard year and we had a massive desire to push the hotel and make it better. It was great to have such recognition," he says.

Fact file The Manor House hotel is part of Cotswolds Inns & Hotels Group (CIHG), which has six other hotels. Colliers International sold the Manor House to CIHG in 2000.

After the fire: The East Room and Sosho, East London

When London's East Room and Sosho were razed to the ground in a devastating fire in March 2010, owner of the Rushmore Group Jonathan Downey said it would be at least 18 months before the site could reopen.

A year later, he is taking the insurance company Royal Sun Alliance to court and it is unclear how long it will be before the property is rebuilt.

"It was total destruction, like a smart bomb had hit it," Downey says. "We lost millions of pounds of turnover and profit in a matter of hours. The scale of what we'd lost only really hit us in August and this last year has easily been the worst in my life. I live with constant distraction and anxiety and am really pissed off at the way the insurance company has behaved after over a decade of paying premiums to them. They owe me millions."

But in a way he is lucky. His company has kept going and he has added six new businesses in four new sites. "We've survived because of a strong brand, good core business and the work and dedication of some really key people. Membership is the core financial pillar of my business and I need to protect that and our members' loyalty to us."

Downey and his team have learnt a lot from the experience. "We're prioritising essential skills such as cost control and we can open new sites very quickly and cheaply without compromising on design or service," he says.

Fact file The group is made up of Giant Robot Match Bar, The Player, Milk & Honey, Trailer Happiness, Tiny Robot, The Clubhouse, Match Bar & Grill, Redhook, Danger of Death, The Starland Social Club and Super Pizza. The business currently employs over 350 staff and has an annual turnover in excess of £25m.

How to be prepared for the worst

1 Get professional advice to identify your business's specific risk. Try the British Insurance Brokers Association (www.biba.org.uk).

2 Legally you must have: a) Employers Liability Insurance (normally up to £5 million) in case employees are injured or become ill because of work.b) Motor insurance if any motor vehicles are used for work purposes, whether owned by the company or employees.

3 Look at other risks, which are not a legal requirement but which you may still need cover for, including damage to, or loss of, fixtures and fittings, fire, theft and bad weather, such as flooding.

4 Public Liability insurance will protect a business from third party claims (anyone who is not an employee) causing injury, death or damage to their property which happens as a direct result of your negligence. It also covers legal fees, costs and expenses.

Source Association of British Insurers

sailing again after the floods: The Ship Inn at Mevagissey and The Ship Inn at Pentewan

Kim Barker runs two pubs: the Ship Inn at Mevagissey and the Ship Inn at Pentewan in Cornwall. Both pubs were hit by the floods last November but it was the Mevagissey site, which Barker had only had for six weeks, that was worst hit.

"Only the bottom lounge of the Pentewan pub was ruined," she recalls, but at the Mevagissey pub, the water was waist-high. Although the pub was used to shallow tidal flooding, the level that November was unprecedented. Beer barrels were floating in the cellar, the ice machine, beer fridges, glasswasher were all completely ruined.

Despite the chaos, the clean-up began that afternoon after the water subsided and Barker opened the pub to provide free food and drinks for locals, many of whom had lost everything.

"We opened with dehumidifiers all over the place as we just wanted to be there for anyone who needed us. They stayed for two weeks, we borrowed everything we could to keep going but it did have a big effect on trade as Christmas would have been our busy time."

Barker was unlucky with insurance. Pentewan's policy had a clause excluding flood damage, and despite having paid premiums for three years got nothing. She now has insurance covering flood damage but it has a £2,500 excess. She replaced the floor with slate so if it ever happens again, there'll be minimal damage.

In Mevagissey, Barker lost over £1,000 of stock. The damage was covered but not the loss of business. "We only got everything sorted out and feeling lovely again in February," she says.

The Caterer Breakfast Briefing Email

Start the working day with The Caterer’s free breakfast briefing email

Sign Up and manage your preferences below

Thank you

You have successfully signed up for the Caterer Breakfast Briefing Email and will hear from us soon!