Viewpoint: Brace yourself, it's the new normal, says Matt Shiells-Jones

04 March 2021 by

Hotel manager of Novum Hotels UK Matt Shiells-Jones brings dispatches as the sole survivor of the Niu Loom hotel, Manchester

Coronageddon. An apt word as the 2020/21 financial year has seen hospitality mostly closed. One whole year for my hotel – excluding one month that was an expensive attempt at sustainment. I'm the sole survivor of our UK operation, filing my own monthly furlough claim from an empty hotel, flushing taps in a choreography of muscle memory.

But with encouraging reports of tiers and curfew ending and returns to normality, I'm scared. Not for the industry, but for its people. Hospitality is essential for recovery. We welcome 3am renditions of ‘Sweet Caroline', half-eaten kebabs and night staff negotiating how much pepperoni guests can order on a pizza.

But surfacing trends frighten me. It feels many want too much too soon; for the country to restart like a scene from The Truman Show. Boris shouts action and everyone parties like it's 1999. Yet we won't be like Australia for several months, with miraculous crowds unlikely. Some bank on corporate trade booming, neglecting the changed landscape. Training and events were forced online, where they will remain for months.

Yes, humans are social animals, but the prospect of killing Greg from accounting by sending him to a meeting in Llandudno will be too much for most to risk. Budget pressure on companies with significantly reduced trade means less money to send sales teams on an overnight jolly; maybe they'll get a chip butty on the A6 on the midnight drive home. But that is only for now. It will improve.

As always in hospitality, prices will lower. The scrabble for customers will see desperate revenue teams drop rates below cost in efforts to stimulate demand. But the UK is not a market where you can force demand, less so post-Covid. A buyers' market is dangerous; those who cannot afford to cut prices will be squeezed out; those who can create a market appealing only to voucher site aficionados. All your methodology tells you to drop prices, but these are revolutionary times. Cutting prices devalues the industry and your brand. Cheapening your offering will cheapen your brand, so offer value, not discounts or freebies. You are worth more than a cheap deal.

I shudder at staff recontracted at 80% of wages, with benefits slashed. I could rant for hours, but if someone was worth £10 an hour in 2019, they are worth at least that now. And stop with six-day-a-week contracts. You are the reason the industry is seen as low-paid and low-skilled, pulling us backwards, undoing decades of working condition advancements. This applies to other costs. Yes, we have all had the ‘can we leave it until we reopen' chat, but some things you can't, and saving now could mean a big maintenance bill later.

It's clear that the times ahead are hard but exciting, and no one adapts and innovates like hospitality. I, for one, cannot wait to see what the future brings. Just beware the traps of recovery.

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