Lessons from lockdown: the life of a hotel owner during Covid

As the full human and economic impact of the pandemic unfolds, the lessons we take from this current crisis will inform everything that comes next – providing us with a unique opportunity to build resilience and flexibility.

Such a widespread and comprehensively global threat is a stark reminder that our health is a truly collaborative effort – just as my health is dependent on your health, yours is dependent on mine.  

It’s all about people 

Within hospitality, we exist to look after people.  The nature of our industry, our warm welcome and “always available” culture means that our organisations are rather like families.  In hospitality, we give up time with our own families to serve others – and we do this because it’s our passion.  As soon as you remove the people from this equation – the people who bring our places and spaces to life – it simply doesn’t work.  

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As an industry, we take care of the health and safety of our employees, customers and partners because we want to – because health, security, wellbeing and safe enjoyment are fundamental to us.  It’s not only about complying with government directives – it’s about complimenting them, and even helping to shape them.  We have been very much on the front line in terms of understanding what works and what doesn’t – defining policy and procedure to help our industry – and others – navigate the crisis.  If we have learnt anything, it’s that hospitality acts as a barometer: we have a lot to give when it comes to sharing those learnings across other sectors.  

Something to fall back on

Before coronavirus, none of us could have imagined the speed at which the world could shut down – and the immediacy of the impact.  From the outset of the current crisis, we built on our own pre-existing emergency procedures manual, investing significant time and effort to define clear new policy and process to support decision-making throughout this period.  That investment has paid dividends, providing clarity and consistency whilst operating within a very uncertain world – and is something that we will continue to develop to mitigate the impact of future risk to our business.

We are all different 

Although we are all experiencing the same pandemic, our individual experiences are different.  Being able to deal with ambiguity – whilst also being tolerant of others – has proven to be a real strength.  Whether interacting with colleagues or managing customer expectations, patience and kindness have been more important than ever.

In terms of skills and experience, making the most of the differences between us has proven invaluable.  Building a broad set of skills is one of the most important things that you can do – in any industry.  Having built our family business from the ground-up, we have an incredibly talented team of people, many of whom can turn their hand to almost any job.  Being adaptable in this way provided us with agility when we needed it most, particularly during lockdown whilst operating with a skeleton crew across a 700 acre estate.

Agility matters

The hyper-dynamic supply and demand that we are experiencing is likely to continue to fluctuate in an unpredictable way for the medium term, so making better use of data is will support fast and informed decision-making and revenue optimisation.

Mobilising operations to respond to huge, last-minute swings in demand is also a learning curve; flexing between 0% and 50% occupancy – overnight – is becoming a data-driven art form.  Managing the costs of being open – no matter what the occupancy – whilst maintaining service levels and implementing new safety protocols is a careful balancing act.

An accelerated digital transformation 

Ongoing customer experience digital projects have reached maturity more quickly than planned, as social-distancing has changed the way that we interact.  

For example, our new facility for low-touch F&B ordering allows the customer to browse, choose and pay when they are ready using their phones – without queueing.  This has been ideal for golfers who are now able to tee up a cold beer and quick bite at the end of the game while still out on the course.  We are building on the positive aspects of contactless processes to further enhance the customer experience.

We are not designed to be closed

Whether as an industry or across our individual venues, we are absolutely not designed to be closed.  Zero occupancy generates its own unique set of daily tasks, from turning on every single one of 1500 taps to prevent the build-up of bacteria, to flushing toilets or monitoring alarms for fire and pool chlorine – no education in hospitality is complete without a lesson in the wonders of the U-bend.  By going back to basics, and being forced to operate with only a very small team during lockdown, existing process inefficiencies were exposed and new efficiencies have been achieved.

Hospitality – re-imagined

It’s clear that every business within our sector has demonstrated varying degrees of vulnerability to the impact of the pandemic and that protecting cash and resource reserves have been critical.

Building a more diversified portfolio can help stand every business in better stead for years – and generations – to come.  By reducing reliance on just one or two segments, and building multiple income streams, it has been possible to spread our risk. 

Originally a diversified farm, we have developed a multi-segmented business over the past 30 years – and will continue to build on that legacy.  At Whittlebury Park, we have the benefit of space and scale combined with an entrepreneurial approach – making us adaptable and flexible when it comes to defining new markets.  As demand shifts between corporate and consumer markets, we redeploy space and facilities to meet those demands.  For instance, we are developing luxury apartments for staycations and broadening our camping offering.  We are also currently developing serviced offices and concepts to help share overhead burden – whereby we absorb head office tasks to assist smaller venues within the industry.  

Some aspects of our business at Whittlebury Park – and our industry – might change forever, but to start to re-imagine our business, and our industry, we need to look forward and keep learning. 

By Charles Sargeant, Managing Director at Whittlebury Park

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