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Inntelligence: A people-focused and positive approach to Covid

After a tumultuous 12 months, the industry is now starting to reflect on the year behind us, and ready itself for the year ahead. We spoke to Angela Germain, who runs the branding for Inntelligence and oversees the sales and marketing approach for iconic sites such as Burgh Island, about her experience of the past year

Inntelligence is a small, boutique management company that looks after a number of properties of various sizes and locations, nationally and internationally. A group of four directors oversee operations across its eclectic sites, while Angela Germain oversees the brand for all. The past year has been a difficult one, but positivity and a people-focused approach has, in her opinion, seen the group through.

“In our own disciplines, we’ve all been affected by the pandemic in our own different ways”, says Germain. “I suppose probably the most interesting for us is that each of our clients have had very different requirements based on their locations, or on what kind of hotel they are.” She notes that Burgh Island, a seaside hotel located on the Devon coast, has “in some ways been the success story of all of it”, in part due to its coastal location, it’s ‘escape out of time’ brand, and the activities on offer. “We’ve been able to play up to that and they’ve recovered really well when we first came out of lockdown. Our city hotels haven’t been as lucky, however, and we’ve had to really adapt to that.”

She says: “The situation with the hotel market in London has been dreadful. None of our properties have reopened at all in London over the last 12 months, whereas our Edinburgh and York sites have had some opportunity to recoup some of the income that was lost during lockdown. We’ve had to be really light on our feet and responsive to the different needs of our hotels and looking at the markets that they’re in. It has definitely made us much quicker in terms of analysing situations and moving as quickly as possible. If I looked for a silver lining, it’s that we’ve all learned a great deal and become more adaptable. But that has really been the big challenge for us, considering the mix of businesses that we have.”

Branding across different markets

As brand director, Germain says there “hasn’t necessarily been a challenge in that regard, because really the last 12 months has given us the ability to really drive home the key messages out about how special our properties are, and to really drive embed those ideas about travel, escape and great service – it’s really what all of our individual properties are about”.

“We’re very fortunate in that the hotels that we have are all really special places, and feel very safe,” she says. “They’re all quite unique, so we’ve been able to do a lot with that in terms of branding. I guess the challenge we have is that we’ve had to make our marketing investments work extra hard during a time when there’s no income into our properties. Hotel owners who are more open to adapting and investing in their websites and brand enhancements during lockdown will definitely be more successful coming out of this.”

She says: “If we take London as a particular case, the International and corporate markets have gone, the events market had gone, and even the domestic market had lost its confidence to go into these big cities. Added into that, last year we had the curfew, which meant people thought rather than go to a city for an overnight stay, why not go to a hotel that has grounds, and a spa, for example. We then had to consider the substantial meal rule, all of these things stacked up against the city break market from even a domestic point of view.”

In light of these restrictions easing, Germain hopes that guests will “feel that they can go somewhere, feel that they can go out for dinner and then go to a wine bar to have a drink”. “More than anything else, I do think people are really desperate to get back into a city,” she says, “and see beautiful architecture, and take time to wander around and enjoy all of the things that there are to do. I’m hoping that, come autumn, we will be in a much stronger situation with our city sites.”

Going forward, are city breaks here to stay? “I think that people will be factoring in a city break, and one of the good things about the international market not being back yet is that these city breaks will take place in the UK, which is fantastic,” she says. “I think all of us, in various ways, have rediscovered our communities and surroundings. There has definitely been a change in mindset for us all, and while going abroad is fantastic and we can’t wait to do it again, we realise our cities, our countryside, our coastal areas have so much to offer us. I think if you really maximise that narrative in marketing for hotels and tourism generally, we will definitely see that stay for years to come.”

A notable theme across Inntelligence sites is not only the uniqueness of the hotel itself, but the activities that build up the experience around them. “One of the things that we’re starting to talk about a lot more in all of our marketing is that we’re becoming less hotel-specific but talking more in our marketing about the activities that there are to do outside,” says Germain. “I think we’ve all become a lot more outdoor-focused as a nation, as people. For example, all of our hotels are dog-friendly, so we’re now highlighting great walks to do near the site.

The group has recently engaged with a property in the Surrey Hills named Gatton Manor, where they are now discussing the possibility of outdoor spa experiences, bike rides and outdoor exercise classes. “I think we’ve all enjoyed that change in mindset of taking activities outside, and it is so good for your mental state” says Germain. “At Burgh Island for example, we’re looking at adding wild swimming in around the island, where you can look at the wildlife in the rocks on display. Across many of our sites I think it’s very much about connecting people back to nature.”

Supporting staff in the ‘new normal’

As an organisation, Germain notes that Intelligence is “very people-focused”, and upon reopening next month, the safety of customers and staff in hotels will be “first and foremost” in terms of importance. “Our team feels safe, and they feel confident enough to go out and deliver the service that we want them to,” she says. “Our apprehension for reopening this time around is that our team has been in lockdown for such a long time this time. We’re very focused on making sure they have the support that they need and want to be supportive of mental health issues that some people might be facing.” To help support its staff, the group has a helpline that allows staff to “talk about any worries that they have”. “From our point of view, this is our main concern,” she says. “It’s less about operational worries – it’s more about making people feel reassured and safe.”

Commenting on other hotel group’s approaches to reopening, Germain says she is “absolutely certain that most hotel management companies or leaders in hospitality would say that it’s a people-led business first”. She adds: “Now is the time to invest in some great people support, systems, independent support. And while we know we have some fantastic support for our teams internally, there are lots of ways that other organisations can help to, and really add on to the help that we want to give to people when they’re coming back into work.”

After the first lockdown, Germain and the Inntelligence team invested time in visiting their sites and speaking to the people there in order to check up on their mental health. “I definitely noticed people wanted to talk more, and wanted to talk about their experiences of lockdown,” she says. “Creating that environment where people feel that it’s alright to talk about their feelings and concerns is important and signposting them to the right mental health first aid for that person.”

She adds: “We all have anxiety about returning to a new normal after this lockdown, but our teams have to come back and immediately put on a show and face customers, which is even more anxiety-driving. We want to help them as much as possible with that, because we feel it ourselves, and wouldn’t ask anybody to do something that we wouldn’t feel comfortable doing ourselves. For any organisation dealing with people, this understanding is going to be key for the next few months.”

Bringing the team together

In a bid to unify the Inntelligence teams during lockdown, Germain launched an Inntelligence-specific fund called the Hospitality Positivity Fund last year, a campaign that would raise money for Hospitality Action. She says: “As our hotels span from Edinburgh all the way down to Burgh Island, we wanted some way of reconnecting everyone, so they didn’t feel like they were on their own. We all collectively walked or ran or cycled a certain distance, and everyone took part in their own way and we raised some good money. It was a really lovely way to bring everyone together, and so many people said it was just nice to have a reason to leave the house. I think for everyone, connection is the thing most people have been missing.”

She says: “As a career choice, we go into hospitality because we love people. We love hearing people’s stories; we love being around people – that’s what makes us tick. I think that’s one of the ways our sector has been hardest hit, because apart from the odd exception, we haven’t been able to do that. And when we have been able to do it, it’s been behind a mask, and that’s also been difficult because it’s hard to feel that real connection with people until you can see a smile.”

Government Support

Regarding government support throughout the pandemic, Germain says it is “absolutely true” that without the furlough scheme, many more redundancies would have happened. However, she believes that in some ways, Inntelligence “fell through the cracks” of government support over the last 12 months. “Our difficulty has been that we aren’t a hotel, we aren’t a restaurant or bar. So, we’re hospitality-linked, but have fallen between the cracks with some of the funding. Ultimately, we would have liked to have seen more funding for hospitality-related businesses.”

In her opinion, is the roadmap out of lockdown moving at the correct pace? “I think that none of us want to be in this situation again. We have done our very best to work with whatever the rules have been, so if what we’re being told now is the right thing is to open on 17 May, then that’s what we will do, and that’s what we will be happy to do if that means we don’t have to go back to this again.”

The road to recovery

Germain believes that ultimately, for businesses that have maintained good messaging throughout the pandemic and invested in the right safety measures for reopening will bounce back. She says: “The public are desperate to get out and do all the things that make us who we are, whether that’s going away for a weekend or visiting friends.  So, I think the market will be ripe, but I think the key to it this year is to make sure you grab as much market share as you possibly can.”

“And you can already see that happening,” she says. “Brands who do it really well are ones that focus on escapism. I think those locations where people feel like they’ve come away from the normal will do very well. I think even when we see international travel come back, people have been so long without a break or a holiday or a city visit, I think it will almost be like the housing market in the sense there will be a backlog of activity. While people will want to go on an international holiday when they can, I think there will be strong demand for coastal locations, as well as city breaks.”

Looking ahead

At the end of the day, Germain says Inntelligence feels “extremely fortunate” to still be standing after the past year. “We’re still working really hard for all our hotels after this because a lot of hotel management companies haven’t been so fortunate,” she says. “We believe the reason we are still here is because we have the right approach, we’re very people focussed and we have good values.”

The group’s plan for the coming year is to continue its growth, and work alongside hotels that share its values and are also “people-focused, family-orientated and creative”. She says: “We want to create really exciting hotel brands, places we would go to ourselves. That’s what we love doing. And I think all four of us are really looking forward to getting back to doing what we love, which is people, which is exciting hotels, and creating those for owners who want to have something in their portfolio that is iconic.”

She concludes: “We have a month now until we open the doors, and life is extremely busy trying to get these sites back to life. But I think we’re very lucky, and we’ve got very excited teams in all our hotels that are eager to get back. Ultimately, we are a very positive, forward-thinking company, and we work with positive and forward-thinking owners, and I think that’s the only way forward this year.”

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