Profiles Interviews

The past six months: Q&A with Jason Carruthers

What type of impact did Covid-19 have on the group’s plans at the start of the year?

When we started the year, none of us envisaged that in the space of just a few weeks, we would be in a place where we would need to take the unprecedented step to protect our teams and guests by closing nearly all of our hotels – albeit temporarily. 

We are collectively living through perhaps the most difficult crisis of our lifetime, and as it began to unfold, global travel, and the hospitality industry as a whole, came to a standstill. As with all businesses in our industry, and beyond, we have been significantly impacted. 

As we begin to assess the new reality, and how to live with COVID-19 in the medium-term, it is important that we take measures to ensure that we are prepared for the challenges ahead. Given the uncertain nature of the trading environment, we will need to respond strategically to meet these challenges. 

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We have worked extremely hard on a plan aimed at protecting our business during this period, and we have a very strong foundation on which to grow once again – supported by some of the best people in the industry. Nonetheless, I have been pleased with how we as a group have been able to adapt to the unprecedented circumstances that we have faced.

In terms of the future, we are still completing renovations to many of our hotels across the group – including the Midland Hotel in Manchester, our Leonardo Royal Hotels in London at St Pauls, Tower Bridge and London City, as well as at Southampton Grand Harbour. We are also in the process of launching new food and beverage concepts across several of those locations.

Our ambitious hotel development projects are still in progress too, and we are currently looking forward to the launch of our new NYX Hotel London Holborn shortly. We hope to have more to announce on this front soon. 

How was the process of getting through the lockdown period and looking after the hotels and staff?

Of course, making sure that our colleagues, guests, and wider communities were kept safe throughout the lockdown period was our number one priority. However, we were delighted to be in a position  to begin a phased reopening of our locations in June and July following updates to government guidance across the UK and Ireland, and following the development of a new customer commitment charter outlining enhanced measures to ensure the health and safety of all of our team members and guests. 

In terms of keeping in touch with our people during the closure, our app-based internal social network LEEAP became an indispensable tool. As well as providing official announcements on issues such as health and safety, and allowing our colleagues to ask important questions, it gave us the opportunity to stay in contact as a team on a more personal level. 

With streams on the app related to everything from learning and development to food and fitness, it was really encouraging to see that the positive culture we’ve created within the business was able to live on even when our teams weren’t able to be physically together.

What was the biggest challenge? And how important to you was it to reassure staff and guests? 

Our greatest challenge was to assess what our business and industry would look like once the phased reopening was under way, and how we were going to meet that challenge. Obviously, providing our team members with a safe place to work, and ensuring that our guests have confidence in us to secure their wellbeing was crucial, and that led to the development of the customer commitment charter. 

What was the reopening process like?

The safety of our guests and team members was always our top priority, so we had been planning the safe reopening of our hotels for several weeks. We launched our new customer commitment charter entitled ‘Stay Safe, Stay Happy’, which was a five-point plan outlining the enhanced measures we undertook to ensure the safety of guests, employees, and across each of the communities in which we operate. The charter covers: Hygiene, Social Distancing, Cashless Operations, Food & Beverage Delivery, and Training. 

We worked closely with the Environmental Health Organisation, as well as implementing the guidance issued by the World Health Organisation to ensure health and safety measures are in line with the highest possible standards. The new measures were rigorously applied across all of our 48 hotels and corporate offices in the UK and Ireland. 

We also worked in partnership with supplier Ecolab to introduce the recommended deep cleaning products and processes.  As a group we have always had very high cleanliness scores, so we were able to build on these foundations to ensure we implemented industry leading standards right across every hotel.  

Team members across all of our hotels and operations buildings have adapted admirably to the new mindset and environment that we find ourselves in. Now that all of our hotels are open and operating, we are working hard to provide the same exceptional level of guest experience that we have always prided ourselves on, as we continue through this new environment.

How has the performance of your properties been since reopening? And any trends re occupancy in countryside v cities?

Our group usually runs at over 90% occupancy over the Summer period. However, upon reopening, occupancy rates were less than 30% as people took cautious steps. Thankfully, we are seeing those numbers increase gradually – with occupancy at around the 50% mark. We have also been benefiting from an increase in domestic holidays this year, as people choose to avoid travelling abroad. However, we expect it will be 14 -18 months at least before we see it return to the previous normal.

Speaking generally, coastal and holiday locations appear to have bounced back the quickest. Our hotels in Brighton, Southampton, and Exeter, for instance, have seen positive growth as people enjoyed the relaxation of lockdown rules to book staycations in the UK. Similarly, in Ireland, bookings for Galway have been amongst the strongest in the group, and we are also seeing encouraging performance in parts of Scotland.

City centre locations, generally, have been the slowest to rebound, although we have started to see that segment improve as more and more people return to offices, corporate travel, and shopping. In September, we have already started to see an uptick in corporate customers, so we hope that is an indicator of positive things to come.

How do you see the sector recovering over the remainder of the year?

Given the scale of the impact of COVID-19 on our industry, it is more important than ever that we all work to the best of our ability and, where necessary, continue to go the extra mile – an attitude that is a hallmark of our Group. We all have a responsibility to protect the health of our people, provide them with new opportunities, fulfil the needs of our guests, and play our part in supporting and responding to government and health authorities in meeting the wider community challenges ahead.

We are all adjusting to the new landscape and altering our mindset as we do so. Particularly in light of the UK government’s tightening of restrictions this week, we continue to forecast a challenging trading environment in the months ahead, and  it will likely be some time before the industry is back to pre-Covid-19 levels.  There will continue to be some differences in how things are done, as we ensure the highest safety and hygiene standards are strictly adhered to. 

We continue to work hard on a plan aimed at protecting our business during this unprecedented period, and to help ensure our business can navigate the significant, and uncertain, challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. These include plans to meet the rising demand for what the future business traveller might require, but also focusing on refining some of our new developments, such as our new NYX Hotel in London Holborn, and Food and Beverage offerings such as Sabine, a new rooftop bar destination at Leonardo Royal London St Paul’s with views of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

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