Opening during adversity

Billy Hughes, UK Area Manager at The Ascott Limited, talks to Hotel Owner about the challenges of opening a new hotel during a pandemic, adjusting to a new way of working, and his view of the industry for the future as we exit lockdown

Billy Hughes is the UK Area Manager at The Ascott Limited (Ascott). He oversees Ascott’s UK properties which include The Cavendish London, located in the heart of Mayfair, Citadines Apart’hotels in London which include Citadines Barbican, Citadines Holborn-Covent Garden, Citadines South Kensington, Citadines Trafalgar Square, as well as Quest Liverpool City Centre. 

In August 2020, Ascott opened their newest site, The Citadines Islington London. With a long lockdown set to follow in October, Hughes outlines the challenges the hotel faced operating a new hotel during a pandemic, and tells us why he believes there is cause for optimism for the future of the industry. 

What were the challenges the hotel industry has faced as a collective during the pandemic?

It has been and continues to be a challenging time for the industry; the pandemic hit the hotel and serviced apartment industry particularly hard. One of the biggest challenges was to ensure we retained talent despite the commercial loss. By diversifying our channel mix and attracting new markets that historically we may not have considered, we were able to keep our London Citadines properties open throughout, keep revenue coming in and as many staff members as possible working full time. We also continued to provide a safe haven to many long stay and relocating guests, as well as key workers. 

Staffing levels were, and continue to be, a challenge to ensure we could service the rooms and deliver high levels of service to all guests. A combination of furloughing staff during lockdowns and the lack of hospitality talent in the capital has led to recruiting challenges across the industry. However, I am very proud of our teams who have ensured that we are constantly adapting to meet the needs of our guests, government guidance and the ever-evolving industry. Everyone had to adjust to a new way of working very quickly and everyone ensured that our guests remained at the heart of everything we did. 

Safety of our guests and staff was also a concern for us. We had to interpret government announcements and react quickly to changes, which is why we launched Ascott Cares. Ascott Cares is Ascott’s commitment to cleanliness and distancing to continue providing safe homes for guests, and a safe working environment for staff. The initiative ensures we offer high and consistent standards across all properties. 

Looking after the wellbeing and health of our staff is always a priority for us and this was even more important during such a challenging period, so we made sure to regularly check in with each other to help boost morale and motivate teams. During the lockdown periods, we arranged virtual socials to celebrate birthdays, shared tips with staff, such as exercise routines to try at home, and recommended books and movies through our internal communications platform called WorkPlace. This is a great tool for everyone to connect with each other.

What was your experience of opening the Citadines Islington London during the pandemic?

In August 2020, we opened the doors to Citadines Islington London – a 108-unit serviced residence in London’s exciting new Islington Square neighbourhood and the newest addition to our Citadines Apart’hotel portfolio in Europe.

Despite having to be more flexible with our suppliers and partners due to staff being on furlough or isolating, we were very fortunate that the pandemic had a minimal impact on the opening of the property. We talked with our partners daily to ensure there was little to no negative impact on the opening of the property or the quality of the product and offering. Ascott has clear opening processes which we followed, and this resulted in a smooth opening.

Ahead of opening we made some changes and additions to our public spaces to ensure the safety of our guests and staff. This included the implementation of physical distancing and one-way routes around the property, additional hand sanitising stations and the creation of QR codes to reduce the amount of printed and disposable material on site.

Of course, it was disappointing that we couldn’t go ahead with the launch events we had planned with the press, local businesses, and our clients. Despite this, we still received a very positive response from everyone, including in the media, following the opening. 

What has the recovery been like since tourism reopened?

Regional and coastal areas are recovering more quickly than London. Although we are currently seeing a strong recovery from the UK domestic leisure market, we do not anticipate international travel stays in the capital until the last quarter of 2021 and early 2022. Occupancy across the board is continuing to rise and in many areas is high – with many of our properties being fully booked on some dates. Our average daily rate is recovering due to key events coming back to the capital and we are seeing the return of group business.

We are also seeing a lot of first-time stayers in London – guests who wouldn’t normally choose London for a summer break, so it is great to see that as tourism has reopened, we are seeing a new demographic of customers at our properties. 

Are there plans to open further properties?

In August we opened Citadines Eurometropole Strasbourg located just outside of the centre of Strasbourg. This property allows guests to enjoy all the comforts of a private apartment with the services of a four-star hotel as it is home to a fine-dining restaurant and Sothys Spa. 

Ascott has recently signed two new properties in Morocco as part of its Middle East, Africa, and Turkey (MEAT) portfolio. This includes Citadines Racine Casablanca and Citadines Connect Belvedere Casablanca which will add 183 rooms to Ascott’s existing MEAT portfolio, in line with the group’s ambitious expansion plans in the region.

Ascott has also signed an agreement to manage Citadines Danube City Vienna, Ascott’s first serviced residence in Austria. The 223-unit property is scheduled to open towards the end of 2022 and will be in the 22nd district, a fast-growing area of the capital. 

What are the long term challenges the industry faces, and Is there cause for optimism?

It has been a tough time for the industry and there are still challenges ahead, but of course there’s plenty to be optimistic about. 

The apart’hotel industry has shown resilience throughout and has been the perfect solution for those looking for accommodation with extra space, flexibility, and kitchen facilities. Our apart’hotels are self-contained so they make a safe and secure option for accommodation and can cater for extended stays. 

In the long term, I believe corporate travel will evolve with a balance of working from home, as people continue to work remotely as well as working from the office and travelling for business. Corporates are seeing the financial and environmental benefits of working from home, however, corporate travel will bounce back with employers’ keen to get back to face-to-face meetings and conferences as restrictions around the world begin to ease, and they recognise the importance of in-person meetings to build long-term trust and strong client relationships.

Since the pandemic started, the hospitality sector has faced recruitment and staff retention challenges. The hospitality industry as a whole needs to evaluate training and development opportunities to encourage employees to learn new skills in order to progress. At Ascott, we offer fantastic development opportunities, working conditions and employee benefits.

The need for new tech has accelerated as a result of the pandemic. In response to this, Ascott has invested in technology within our properties to offer a more digital experience for guests, this includes going cashless and paperless as much as possible with QR codes to reduce paper waste. Last year we launched our Discover ASR mobile app Ascott Star Reward scheme. Through the mobile app, guests can search for deals, manage their membership, redeem ASR points, perform mobile check-in and check-out, and make contactless payments to make booking easier and more flexible for our guests. This year we launched a new website, discoverasr.com, which unifies our separate brand websites on one single global online travel booking platform.

We’ve learned a lot and we are coming back stronger and better than ever.

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