With 27 years' experience of opening hotels, Robin Hutson had thought he had seen it all – until coronavirus added a new hurdle to overcome.
Opening a new hotel tests every component of a hotelier's skillset. Over the past 27 years of the entrepreneurial part of my hospitality career, I've experienced a fair few hotel openings, and had thought that I had come across every opening challenge known to man – completing the project on time, trying not to blow the budget, assembling a new team, dealing with the last-minute mechanical failures and then, finally, selling the rooms and tables as quickly as possible to try to reverse the outflow of cash.
This past weekend we opened the 30-bedroom Pig at Harlyn Bay, a Cornish stone farmhouse close to Padstow on the North Cornwall coast. The building, which dates back to the 16th century, had previously been in private ownership, but hadn't been continuously lived in for the past 35 years. Parts of the building were close to derelict. But from first sight, Judy and I knew a building like this, with its wealth of original features and walled garden, could make a unique addition to the well-established Cornwall hotel and restaurant scene.
The building wasn't big enough, but after some careful negotiations with Historic England and the local conservation officers, we came up with a renovation and extension plan that was historically sensitive and economically viable.
I had previously vowed that I would never create a hotel in Cornwall. "It's too far from London, too seasonal," I would say. But, this particular area of the country is a well-established foodie golden triangle, with the ‘hard yards' being done over several decades by Rick and Jill Stein, Paul Ainsworth, Nathan Outlaw and their many disciples.
If we needed further convincing, the wonderful farm shops in the area demonstrated the abundant supply chain and quality local producers. Their existence is not only perfect for the Pig's 25-mile philosophy, but it also confirmed that the area attracts a clientele interested in quality and provenance.
The opening has indeed tested us, but not just because of the renovation. We were a few weeks away from opening when our world was locked down in March, the project 95% finished.
Our excited yet nervous crew needed reassurance every step of the way, and now we are open, so do our clientele. While eager to try our latest outpost, guests are naturally nervous as they venture out for the first time. This complicated situation has called for a deft hand from the team, a balance of reassurance and safety, while trying to maintain a friendly, confident and relaxed atmosphere, with one eye on maximising business levels at the same time.
The Covid situation and the nervousness around travelling abroad appear to be playing into our hands at the moment. Some of our original fears for this post-lockdown period have proven unfounded, with demand being strong for staycations and all things country-based.
So, while my heart goes out to all of those hospitality businesses in more metropolitan areas, who are yet to see anything close to normal trading levels return, we are witnessing strong demand at all our hotels, the older ones and the newest, with summer room occupancy levels close to 100%.
One particularly pleasing observation of the post-lockdown guest is a genuine gratitude to be out and about, enjoying our hospitality
One particularly pleasing observation of the post-lockdown guest is a genuine gratitude to be out and about, enjoying our hospitality and a good-humoured determination that minor Covid safety inconveniences won't spoil the experience. Likewise, our team who have endured the 100-plus days of home imprisonment, seem very pleased to be back at work doing what they do best.
Photograph: Jake Eastham
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