Since the hotel industry’s reopening after lockdown, sector operators have adapted to the ‘new normal’ of track and trace, social distancing and regular government updates on what their businesses can and cannot do. With the rise of the ‘staycation’, UK hoteliers in cities and rural areas have been looking to attract business from domestic tourists to compensate for the collapse of international holidaymakers flying in.
But how have hotel operators, in both the nation’s cities and countryside, found the transition to being fully reopened. Hotel Owner caught up with Ben Patrick, owner of the Hux Hotel on Kensington High Street, and Kati Latchford, hotel manager at the Burgh Island Hotel, to discuss how a city and countryside operators have found reopening their businesses
How long have your hotels been fully operational since the end of lockdown? How have operations changed since before the pandemic?
Patrick: We officially opened at the end of August/early September 2020, since then it’s been a mixed bag as we adhered to all the new rules that came into place. As of now we are fully operational and can’t wait to go full-speed-ahead as lockdown continues to ease off.
Latchford: Burgh Island reopened on 19 May, along with much of the hospitality sector in the UK. Although that was several weeks ago now, the hotel has been so busy since then that it feels as if only a few days have passed.
What have been the difficulties of operating a hotel during the past year? Have there been any surprising positives?
Patrick: As with all hotels, the lack of tourism was tough to adjust to, however a huge positive was that we grew popular with domestic travellers looking for something a little different. People looking for short, romantic breaks in particular sought us out to enjoy the unique experience that we offer.
Latchford: We have faced many of the same challenges faced by the rest of the industry since the start of the pandemic, but our unique location on a tidal island made the experience of lockdown all the more isolating. That said, the time staff spent together on the island during the first lockdown was amazing because it really highlighted their camaraderie and closeness, underlining our status as a family business in all but name.
Have your hotels diversified their services or offering to attract guests?
Patrick: Our initial approach was always to offer something fresh and uncommon; through doing that we have maintained regular visitors and continued to draw in new guests. It’s always exciting to hear what they respond to the most when they visit, whether it’s décor, live music etc.
Latchford: Beyond Covid-19, the biggest influence driving changes to our services has been the increasing importance of sustainability to both businesses and consumers. In the kitchens, for example, our executive chef Tim has pioneered several new practices which have reduced the hotel’s impact on the environment.
What are the pros and cons of operating a city/countryside hotel during Covid-19?
Patrick: A major pro is being based in such a central point of London. The city itself will be one of the first to bounce back when the Covid-19 cloud clears. I genuinely believe that we are best placed to deal with what’s happened and time will show that. A major con has been, of course, the significantly lower tourist demand. We have been fortunate to engineer through that with Hux Hotel’s unusual offering.
Latchford: Perhaps the biggest difference is that heightened sense of isolation which has lessened in cities during lockdown simply because hotels there are surrounded by so much other activity. On the other hand, being surrounded by Burgh Island’s stunning natural beauty has been a real highlight of spending time at the hotel during the pandemic.
Many people across the UK have gained a newfound appreciation for green spaces in the wake of lockdown, and we on Burgh Island have been lucky enough to enjoy the blue as well as the green.
Have you noticed a staycation boost to business as the economy reopened or are you reliant on international travel returning to form?
Patrick: Absolutely. The travel limitations have inspired people to search for what gems and experiences can be enjoyed closer to home, which is where we come in. However it will be essential for tourism to remerge in a big way as there’s simply an enormous supply in the luxury market, and boutique establishments will suffer as a result.
Latchford: With the hotel already virtually booked up for the rest of the year, we are definitely back to business, even though travel restrictions have obviously made it more difficult for us to welcome overseas guests since reopening. While we always love welcoming new guests, therefore, the return of the first familiar faces since reopening has provided all of us here with a real boost.
What more needs to be done to support hoteliers at this moment in time?
Patrick: I don’t necessarily feel hoteliers are in need of direct support as I personally believe that It’s more about supporting your team and ensuring job security for my colleagues, which is something I’ve always taken very seriously. This will be gained with the rise of tourism and more regular travelling. When more jobs can be created and kept, that’s when we can collectively continue to grow. Without the furlough scheme, many more jobs would’ve been lost.
Latchford: For me it is at least as important to provide more holistic support for those who work in the industry, including support for their mental health. Burgh Island staff fortunately have free access to private counselling, and implementing similar measures sector-wide would be immensely beneficial for workers’ wellbeing.
Have you learned any major lessons about the hotel business over the past year?
Patrick: Many. We continue to learn every day, it’s been inevitable with the unpredictability of the last year. However I’ve always maintained the certainty that where there’s a will, there’s a way, which may sound like a cliché but it’s true. There really is always light at the end of the tunnel.
Latchford: My biggest takeaway has been a renewed appreciation for the human dimension to what we do. Everyone knows that people, both staff and guests, are central to hospitality, but I think the pandemic has really driven home the importance of those human connections for businesses who provide amazing experiences for so many holidaymakers each year.
I hope that as the situation improves, we remember not to take this for granted, and continue to cultivate the environment which makes hospitality such a great business to be in.