With stricter border restrictions going forward into the year, more hoteliers are looking to attract ‘staycation’ guests from across the country once hospitality venues are allowed to reopen.
Former tourist hotspots have decimated during the pandemic. Research by VisitBritain showed that consumer spending in central London by overseas tourists was £7.4bn lower throughout 2020, while domestic tourists will have spent £3.5 billion less.
Many hotels in the heart of the country’s capital, such as The Hari in Belgravia, are having to navigate the industry’s new normal, while also preparing for the future. Hotel Owner sat down with Andrew Coney, general manager at The Hari, to discuss team wellbeing, the rise of the staycation and hotel life post-Covid.
Can you tell me just more about your role as general manager of The Hari?
As a leader of a team, you’re there to energise them, strategise for the future and maintain the high standards brought yourself to.
In the last year, my role has become almost entirely people focused. For me, whether it’s good times or tough times, you have to be aware of the people that work for you are incredibly anxious. They don’t know what the future holds. Therefore, it’s probably been the first time I’ve really woken up to the mental wellbeing of the people in the team.
Right now, my role as general manager is checking in with my people frequently, making sure that they’ve got that security and keeping them stimulated as well. Whether that’s online training, doing a zoom call, I need to make sure no one sitting at home twiddling their thumbs.
I think the worst thing about these lockdowns is that we all assume that our people can just cope with being switched on and off from one day to the next. One day, they’re working in the hotel and providing exemplary, imaginative service. The next day, they’re sitting at home with no understanding about when they’re coming back. So it’s for me to keep them stimulated, and keep them encouraged and optimistic about the future.
How do you plan ahead and manage a team under these circumstances?
During the original lockdown, everybody was making very strict and clear preparations for opening during a pandemic. Therefore, we were going through the process of understanding that. We brought in a health and safety consultant, who really held our hand through the whole process.
It was a case of getting everybody’s heads around how your department operates and what is their journey around the hotel to keep it safe and secure. Every hotel in our sector should have the conviction that they’re clean enough and we have some additional processes specifically around coronavirus, so are pretty secure.
What we have learned is that when we opened people, people didn’t want social distancing rammed down their throats. People wanted to get away from coronavirus. They wanted to feel safe and secure. They wanted honesty from the hotel that they were taking the measures seriously, but they just didn’t want it in their face. They didn’t want luxury to diminish in any way whatsoever.
As far as guests were concerned, this was their one holiday in the year, and it might just end up being a weekend in London. If that was the case, we had to get our team’s heads around that you’ve got to be very clear that there are rules and measures in place, but the luxury experience isn’t diminished in any way.
What sets The Hari apart from other hotels you’ve worked with in the past?
We’re very lucky because we’re small and independent. When you’re in that position, right now, you’ve got the opportunity to be very agile about your response to something like the pandemic. We as a group have been pretty nimble about quickly contacting our suppliers, coming to agreements with them, so costs are brought right down.
We’ve been very spontaneous about making sure that if decisions are gonna be taken on the day, we do it quickly. But I think most importantly, for the team and for our guests, we’ve been able to communicate very quickly. In other organisations that I’ve been in, the decision making chain of command is sometimes quite cumbersome.
That degree of spontaneity really personalised our guest experience. I’ve not worked in the hotel where we’ve ever had this sort of relationship with our guests. We know so much about them – borderline stalking in a very nice way – where we know what they’re like. We know what their hobbies and interests are, and we always try to personalise experiences around that.
Has it been difficult to keep that personal touch with guests?
I think it’s really key because whenever we do an open for good, we can’t take for granted that the people who were staying with us a year ago are just suddenly going to come back.
You have to keep them engaged, you have to keep them communicated and just keep them very clear and honest communication about, unfortunately, we have had to shut the doors again, we really disappointed that we’re not able to welcome you back for the time being. But we’ve got exciting plans for when we do reopen, you can always feel that you can engage with us.
How many times has The Hari opened and closed during the pandemic? What services have you been able to offer?
We had the long lockdown from March to August, then reopened from September to October. From there, we had to close again outside of a couple of weeks in December when we were allowed to reopen.
It’s been a very soft stop and start. Our attitude in lockdown has been we’re not allowed to have food and beverage, therefore we’re unable to open the restaurant or a bar. Subsequently, we don’t think it’s right to reopen The Hari, we have to have the whole package.
It’s a bold decision. We’re not even doing takeaway, because we just don’t think that represents our level of service.
Will The Hari be looking to attract more ‘staycation’ tourists this year due to border restrictions?
For the short time we were open last year, all the business that we took in was from the UK and it’s been a real eye opener for us because it presents new challenges. For example, the vast majority of people came in their cars and we don’t have a car park.
It just suddenly ended up that we were having to assist with a lot more car parking, because people just didn’t want to use public transport.
Staycations are pretty much the way forward, at least certainly through the summer. You’ve got to just be creative about your business. We’ve gone into partnership with Harvey Nichols, for example. I think its hooks like that, promoting something that is unique which adds an additional aspect to our space, makes people think excited.
Do you have any predictions for the hotel industry post-Covid?
Let’s start with what I would think is the really positive outlook, which is I think that we have a boom ahead. Whether it’s domestic to start with and then International, I think people feel so caged at the moment. From what I gather, there’s a lot of savings accumulating because people just don’t have the opportunity to spend money.
Come the summer, we’ll get to see a real surge of people out there. People are talking about the boom in the 1920s. This is a new roaring 20s. I think we should encourage that.
Andrew Coney is the general manager at The Hari in Belgravia, London