It has been four months since the floods in Cockermouth, Cumbria, which caused extensive damage to more than 1,000 homes and businesses. Janet Harmer talks to the local hoteliers to find out out how they are rebuilding their businesses.
After enjoying its highest ever turnover - against the trend of the recession - and celebrating being upgraded by the AA from a three to a four-star property, 2009 came to an abrupt end for the Trout Hotel in Cockermouth on 19 November.
That was the date that England's wettest day on record was recorded in Cumbria with rainfall of more than 300mm. In Cockermouth, where the rivers Derwent and Cocker converge, the result was catastrophic. A torrent of water nearly 3m deep poured through the town's Main Street, causing extensive damage to more than 1,000 homes and businesses.
The 49-bedroom Trout Hotel was among them. Four months after the floods, the property, parts of which date back to 1670, is still closed and will not reopen until the end of May.
Walking through the hotel, where up to 30 builders are on site, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, the colossal impact of the flood waters is clear to see. After the property was dried out for six weeks, every element of the ground floor, where the water rose at its highest point to 2.5m, has been stripped back to its bare bones. The upstairs, too, is undergoing a total refurbishment as a result of the building settlement caused by the excessive amount of water which poured through the hotel.
"The repair work is mammoth, but we are using the opportunity to completely review the entire business, which is something we wouldn't normally be able to do," says the hotel's managing director, Sue Eccles.
The Trout is one of several hotels throughout Cumbria that are still closed following the floods. Most, like the Trout, are working hard at turning a negative into a positive by using the period of closure to improve their properties.
BACK IN BUSINESS
At the Lakeside Hotel, Lake Windermere, the owners David Snowden and Neville Talbot have used their four-month refurbishment "to return the hotel not merely to its former glory, but to something even more glorious".
The four-star, 75-bedroom property reopened for business on 15 March with a Christmas in March event at which guests who had their bookings cancelled were invited for a complimentary dinner and overnight stay.
The attitude of Snowden and Talbot is typical of many hoteliers throughout the Lake District who want to assure visitors that the region is almost 100% open for business again.
In the weeks following the flooding, hotels and guesthouses throughout Cumbria received huge numbers of cancellations as a result of the widespread TV coverage showing flooded properties, closed roads and collapsed bridges - many of which were not directly affected by the flooding.
The 14-bedroom Howe Keld guesthouse in Keswick was one such property. Although the flood waters reached neighbours four doors away, Howe Keld was safe. Business, however, was wiped out for the two weekends following the floods. Turnover was down by 25% in December and 20% in January.
"Bookings didn't really return to normal until the February half-term break," says owner David Fisher, who has run the business with his wife Valerie for 16 years. "The impact was on a par with the initial effects of foot and mouth disease in 2001."
At the three-star, 29-bedroom Langdale Chase hotel on Lake Windermere, which was not affected by the floods, business fell by 25% between November and January, with a loss of around £60,000 of gross turnover. However, the property has been boosted enormously by playing a starring role in the 12-part series of The Lakes, currently being screened on ITV.
"We've received one million hits on our website as a result of the programme - a 95% increase in the normal traffic to the site," says Thomas Noblett, managing director of the Langdale Chase.
Cumbria Tourism has regularly surveyed its members to gauge the level of damage to the area and 72% have said their business has been affected, either directly or indirectly by the floods.
"From our findings, we have deducted that estimated loss of bookings through cancellations and closures was around £2.5m," says Katie Read, tourism partnership director for West Cumbria Tourism.
"However, bookings have again started to pick up and although January was a particularly difficult month and the problems were exacerbated by the snow that affected the whole country, confidence is rising again and we are cautiously optimistic about the year ahead.
"Realistically, the recovery from the floods will take many months but tourism businesses, particularly those in the Western Lake District, have a strong sense of community spirit and are stepping up to the mark to work together for the benefit of the area."
Eccles and her team of 60 staff are certainly doing everything they can to ensure that the Trout Hotel will be operational for the summer season, with a freshly decorated property run more efficiently than ever before.
There was nothing they could have done to prevent the extent of the damage as the rain poured incessantly on 19 November following several weeks of exceptionally wet weather.
"I came into work that day and although the River Derwent was high, I was not overly concerned," says Eccles.
However, by 4.30pm the water was up to the front of the hotel. Surprisingly, it wasn't the nearby River Derwent, which runs behind the property, that was the problem. It was the River Cocker, just over a quarter of a mile away, which had burst its bank and was rapidly approaching.
"We started stacking furniture on tables and managed to get all the computer servers and booking files upstairs," recalls Eccles. "However, our attempt at mopping up water with our entire stock of 1,500 towels was a complete waste of time."
Once the water came into the hotel, it rose so quickly that there was no time to get any of the furniture upstairs - everything was lost.
"We had 10 guests staying that night and 19 staff in the hotel," explains Eccles. "We all took refuge upstairs and kept in contact throughout the evening and night with the police and mountain rescue team.
"We were told to stay where we were - to try and leave would have been too dangerous as the current of the water was so strong that it was overturning cars. We had a tiler working in the hotel at the time and his van was eventually found two and a half miles downriver. There was also the danger of being sucked through lifted manhole covers."
While everyone was comfortable upstairs with plenty of bedding and food, the middle of the night was difficult.
"We lost electricity at around 9pm and being in the pitch dark and feeling trapped, with the sound of running water all around us was very frightening," says Eccles.
The staff and guests were eventually rescued by boat the following morning. On that same day, a Friday, the first contact was made with the insurance company, AXA, and the assessors arrived at the hotel on the following Monday.
THE INSURANCE CLAIM
From the outset, the insurance claim - which amounts to £3.5m and covers business interruption for up to three years and the full payroll - has run smoothly.
"From our point of view, we want to get the hotel up and running again as soon as possible, and the insurance company wants to minimise the claim," says Eccles.
It was a big blow that the floods happened at a time when the hotel was enjoying its best year since Eccles took over 15 years ago as managing director of the Trout, owned by Nigel Mills, managing director of the Mills Group, a 85-strong chain of supermarkets and newsagent stores in the north of England and the Midlands.
"We had broken our turnover target of £2m, had achieved an annual occupancy of 81% and were set to have a bumper Christmas and New Year," says Eccles. "We were lucky enough not to have been affected by the recession and were enjoying good corporate business from Monday to Thursday, with many regular clients from the Sellafield sites, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and PricewaterhouseCoopers, and busy leisure trade at the weekends. We had a fantastic local food and beverage trade and on a busy day could serve around 350 meals throughout the hotel, split between the fine dining restaurant, brasserie and lounge."
The hotel was also benefiting from being upgraded from three to four stars in August 2009, which followed improvements to service standards throughout the hotel and, ironically, a refurbishment of the ground floor public area at a cost of £350,000 in 2006 and a £25,000 redecoration of the terrace bar and bistro in early 2009.
A loyal customer base and an ongoing communication between the hotel and regular guests and customers has ensured that many people who were due to stay at the hotel over the past four months have already rebooked for later this year. It is also the first time that all the Christmas packages have been fully booked 10 months in advance of the festivities.
The closure of the hotel has enabled Eccles and her team to renew standard procedures and policies and enhance their skills. A £10,000 grant from Business Link for businesses directly affected by the floods has been put into staff training with courses on health and safety, first aid, food hygiene, leadership and Welcome Host being undertaken.
The refurbishment - coordinated by Architects Plus of Carlisle and Stobbarts builders of Workington - is also enabling the hotel to redesign certain areas to improve efficiency, such as the introduction of a glass wash area in the bar, out of the sight of customers. The kitchen in particular will be vastly improved following a total redesign by CNG Foodservice Equipment of Gateshead, at a cost of £152,000, with the inclusion of three cold rooms and enhanced ventilation.
"We are taking the positive out of what has been a very difficult experience and will end up with an even better hotel," says Eccles.
THE EFFECT OF THE FLOODS ON CUMBRIA'S HOTELS
SHEPHERD'S HOTEL, COCKERMOUTH
The three-star, 26-bedroom Shepherd's hotel, which escaped the flood waters because of its position at the top of the town of Cockermouth, was converted into a rescue centre on the night of 19 November.
"The secondary school was initially chosen to take people evacuated by the floods, but then it became cut off by the rising waters," says hotel owner Roy Shepherd.
On the first night of the floods, more than 120 people who had been evacuated from their homes were accommodated in the hotel's bedrooms and in temporary beds set up in the hotel's adjacent gift shop. Some of the evacuees stayed for nearly a week before being found more permanent accommodation.
LAKESIDE HOTEL, LAKE WINDERMERE
The ground floor of the Lakeside hotel, now open again, has been extensively refurbished after nearby Lake Windermere burst its bank and rose by 3m. New wooden flooring has been laid, bespoke carpets have been rewoven in the original design, and new luxury wallpapers have been hung. An original 17th century cobbled floor discovered in the bar is now on show under a glass panel.
All furniture on the ground floor was moved upstairs and saved, except for the grand piano, which has undergone a full restoration.
The spa and swimming pool, which were unaffected by the floods, were opened to local residents and the emergency services on a complimentary basis while the hotel was closed.
"We wanted to give something back to the community," said a hotel spokesman.
The closure of the hotel also provided an opportunity for staff to undertake work placements at other hotels in the Lake District and further afield. Reception manager Katie Roberts and food and beverage operations manager Kelly Marshall were among several employees who spent useful periods of time at the Landmark hotel in London.
ARMATHWAITE HOTEL, BASSENTHWAITE LAKE
Initially, the four-star, 42-bedroom Armathwaite Hall hotel, which stands on a hill overlooking Bassenthwaite Lake, benefited from the floods, with bookings from journalists and camera crews covering the story for Sky News and GMTV. But after one or two weeks, the TV crews disappeared.
Although the majority of room bookings have been maintained, there has been a loss of local bookings for the newly opened £5m spa, new brasserie and conference facilities as a result of the damage and closure of the nearby Ouse Bridge.
The usual journey from Cockermouth to Armathwaite Hall is six miles and takes around 12 minutes. Now, with the bridge closed, it involves a 22-mile drive via Keswick, which takes 40 minutes.
"It is difficult to quantify exactly how much business we have lost, but six people have told me directly that they won't be joining the spa until the bridge opens, and I wonder how many more people are thinking the same thing," said general manager, Simon Steele.
WATEREDGE INN, AMBLESIDE
The Cowap family, which owns and runs the four-star, 22-bedroom Wateredge Inn, had previous experience of being flooded when Lake Windermere, 50m away, burst its banks on the night of 19 November.
In October 2008 the bar in the 17th century lower part of the building had flooded, but the floods of 2009 were far more extensive, with water covering 90% of the ground floor, causing damage to the kitchens, lounges and restaurants, as well as the bar.
As a result the inn has been closed throughout the winter and will reopen on 1 April. The business interruption claim is for around £250,000, with the insurance claim for the repair work standing at approximately £400,000.
"Following the first flood we laid Lakeland slate in the bar and moved all the electric sockets higher up the walls - so the damage there this time was not so bad," said Mark Cowap, who runs the business with his siblings Scott and Louis and his parents, Pamela and Derek.
"However, the flood barriers we put on the doors didn't work, as the water just poured through the windows."
With all the ground floor carpets now ripped out, Lakeland slate laid throughout, and the old oak bar remade in stone and stainless steel, any future flooding should be easier to clear up.
Four months after the floods, the Trout hotel is still closed and will not reopen until the end of May. After the property was dried out for six weeks, every element of the ground floor, where the water rose at its highest point to 2.5m, has been stripped back to its bare bones. The upstairs, too, is undergoing a total refurbishment