Lockdown diaries: how operators are coping with the coronavirus crisis

17 April 2020

Once the finances are dealt with, lockdown is a time for maintenance, marketing and maintaining relationships. We ask hospitality leaders how they're filling their days and keeping their properties safe and secure while empty – and how they are coping with video calls

Who knew so many hotel leaders would need tuition in Zoom?

Danny Pecorelli, managing director, Exclusive Collection

Week one and two have been about technological learning. Who knew so many senior leaders in a hotel business would need tuition on how to hold a Zoom conference call, setting a background and ensuring the rest of the family don't make unwanted guest appearances?

It has been about using the time to strengthen client relationships. So many of our clients have been sending messages of support and goodwill, so taking the time to reply, getting into dialogue about how they are coping and sharing stories will cement these relationships well into the future.

Having a clear social media plan will also be key. Like never before people want engaging content around food, wellness and exercise, and if you run hotels, restaurants, cookery schools, pubs or spas, what an opportunity. It's also been a time to strengthen your relationship with your teams, not just by looking after them, but also through good, clear communication, even if they are furloughed. It's difficult because the government legislation is slow on the detail, but that doesn't mean you can't reassure and help. As with clients, we are sending out engaging content.

With the property it's been about cleaning. Our properties were spotless before, but we need a new post-Covid adjective to describe the state of the properties – gleaming doesn't do it justice.

There have been a lot of maintenance conversations surrounding shutdowns, such as pools to be drained and lifts to be turned off, but all with an eye to reopening in a safe and secure way, such as ensuring the basics like legionella flushing is still happening. A lot of our on-property teams are working on maintenance and grounds. Our golf course at the Manor house has never looked so good, with no footfall and essential maintenance like aeration (with good social distancing) still progressing. Our kitchen gardens are going to have a bumper season.

On a personal level, it has been about sharing with other hoteliers. I've never been prouder to be a hotelier. Our community has been so giving, sharing ideas, sharing interpretations of the legalities, sharing shutdown tips and, most of all, just being supportive of each other. So, if you haven't yet, reach out to industry colleagues.

Trying to keep the fun high.

Meg Ellis, commercial director, Honest Burgers

Meg Ellis
Meg Ellis

These are unusual times, no doubt, but it's also been powerful and humbling as we've felt the spirit of our teams driving our brand truths over this rough terrain. In the heat of change, the deep-rooted humanity in our business has been the compass for our decisions. This has meant customer and team safety came first, and figuring out a way to retain everyone in the Honest ‘army' (only to be supported by the chancellor two days later). Closing our restaurants in line with government guidance was painful, but the attitude, effort and community support shown by our team during that experience will stay in our hearts and minds forever.

Our brilliant people team has given staff options in furlough, including partnering with businesses that need staff or want volunteers as a redeployment scheme for those in the team that want more earnings or to volunteer in a safe way. They've also facilitated a #stayconnected programme using Workplace by Facebook (our internal platform). What makes this special is that it is created by everyone that works at Honest.

We're hosting our own online sessions showcasing skills. For example an aspiring drag queen posting his own ‘how to style wigs' sessions; our co-founder Tom [Barton] hosts twice-weekly HIIT classes from his front room; guitar lessons; nutritional advice; gardening expertise – it's brilliant!

Our people director Chantal Wilson describes it as "trying to keep the fun high, be a shoulder to lean on for everyone and remember the importance of social, physical and mental health". There's never a dull moment if you choose to engage with it each day (last week 96% of the team participated).

This collaborative and collegiate approach is core to us coming out stronger and more determined. Collaboration is part of our DNA and investing in local communities is a big part of how we roll day to day. There was a drive around this initially as we didn't let anything go to waste – we made lasagnes, cottage pies and bologneses using all our fresh ingredients that would have otherwise been wasted. Around 4,000 Honest Kitchen meals were made and delivered via City Harvest to those in greater need.

We're now moving into a phase, reflective of our #stayconnected programme – but for customers. We're sharing recipes, isolation ‘entertainment' including bespoke playlists, advice on windowsill gardening, and hosting live founder Q&As. The brand growth team has enjoyed the chance to develop the conversations and there's more to come – it's been really fun at times – which doesn't go amiss just now!

Keeping people active and engaged is crucial

Simon Houston, director, Houston & Hawkes

Simon Houston
Simon Houston

It's important to keep motivated during this time, particularly as us hospitality lot are social butterflies and love being around people. Working or being at home doesn't come naturally to most people who work in hospitality, so people are missing their colleagues and work mates.

We're doing our very best to keep spirits up with the help of video calls. It's been great seeing so many friends of the industry posting team updates on social media. It really does show how we all pull together and adapt so well in challenging times.

We have a lot going on to make sure we're staying in touch – weekly recipe challenges where the teams recreate one of [director of food] David Steel's recipes and share their photos; virtual team drinks every other week; celebrating birthdays; and we've had an Easter foodie quiz as well. Keeping the team informed and in the loop is really important to us.

Keeping people active and engaged is crucial right now, and having recently digitised the majority of our training, our teams are taking part in stacks of great new and refresher training courses. We'll be drip-feeding various sessions to the teams over the coming weeks and months to make sure we're match fit and raring to go when we're all back.

We recently launched our Employee Assistance Programme with Hospitality Action. Timing is everything, and we're really pleased our entire business has access to the valuable services they offer. Reminding the team of this and making sure they know how to benefit from the programme has been a priority of ours.

On Hospitality Action, we also have people supporting the Golden Friends initiatives by scheduling regular calls with people who need a little extra support during this challenging time.

Maintaining morale is vital

Knut Wylde, general manager, the Berkeley

Knut Wylde
Knut Wylde

Who would have thought a few weeks ago that we would temporarily stop the operation of the Berkeley?

When business started declining, I was in Beverly Hills working on the transition of our new LA property. It was very hard not being with my team and only being able to communicate via conference calls. I managed to get out of the US just in time and when I returned to London on 16 March, it was really starting to hit home that something extraordinary was taking place, which none of us could have ever imagined.

Since we temporarily closed our doors, the main focus has been to stay in touch with our teams and keeping their morale high. We have three teams working in the hotel as our lockdown team on a four-day rotation and I make it a point to visit them every time a new team is coming on duty. With my senior team I have regular calls so we can keep each other updated on what is happening and plan for the weeks ahead.

One of the first actions we took was to build a Berkeley team website to keep our staff informed. We have several mini masterclasses on the website where we have uploaded short videos, created by team members, giving practical tips from how to clean a u-bend, how to poach an egg and, of course, some mini workout sessions from our personal trainer. This week we are hosting an all team members meeting via Zoom, and for next week we are planning a Zoom Quiz Night.

Further, across all three of our hotels, we have felt the need to do our part and help in this crisis. We have made rooms available at Claridge's and we're also cooking and delivering 500 meals a day to the NHS. Volunteers from across Claridge's, the Connaught, the Berkeley and our head office are working together to look after our NHS guests and cooking and delivering meals.

Little gestures give us purpose and help us keep going

Ian Thomas, chief executive, Bartlett Mitchell

Ian Thomas
Ian Thomas

This has been a challenging time to say the least, but I'm really inspired by what I've seen from so many people. Like most caterers, the vast majority of our restaurants and coffee shops are closed. In normal circumstances, I'd be spending this week visiting our sites and enjoying the hustle and bustle of a busy restaurant. Instead, I've been enjoying the hustle and bustle of a variety of Zoom calls with members of the BM family and our clients. We live in really strange times.

They say that adversity often brings out the best in people. This is very much what we are seeing across the country and BM is responding too. As our client sites closed at the beginning of the lockdown, we have been delighted (with the support of our amazing clients) to donate all of our remaining near-dated fresh produce to a number of local projects supporting the homeless and vulnerable across London, including the Felix Project and City Harvest.

This week we've also been discussing how, with BM chefs volunteering across London, we can support some of the many incredible projects where people are cooking delicious meals for key workers or the homeless. It's a great way for us all to do our bit.

We also have dozens of examples of team members (not just chefs) cooking for others in their communities and volunteering – one of my favourite initiatives includes seeing one of our chefs at a law firm offer online cooking lessons for the employees' children.

Finally, we were delighted to receive confirmation that our Thirsty Planet bottled water initiative has now funded our 100th Pump Aid water pumps in rural Malawi. Sales of water in our client sites have enabled us to provide clean, safe drinking water to 11,000 people in rural Africa.

An amazing achievement and stark reminder that many in the world are living without the most basic of provisions. There's no doubt that our sector is struggling right now, but these little gestures help give us purpose and keep us all going. I know that, despite the issues that this is bringing, we will all get through this and come out much stronger at the other end.

Resilience and adaptability is wonderful to see

Oliver Crumpton, head of sales, Belazu

Oliver Crumpton
Oliver Crumpton

For 29 years we've been a proud supplier of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern ingredients to the hospitality industry yet, a few weeks ago, it was very hard to see that slice of the business – which is 85% of what we do – dry up overnight. So the past few weeks have been busy and occasionally draining for everyone here at Belazu, and it's been all hands on deck to help each other to find solutions to sustain the business.

Almost from the outset of the pandemic, our main focus has been to encourage people to buy online. To diversify the stock that we can deliver to people's homes, we've already added Parmesan, dried chickpeas, and rice and pasta, including fresh pasta via a new collaboration with our neighbours, La Tua.

Interestingly we've been running our Belazu Foundation for years, but our CSR manager says she has never had as many donation requests as this past month. But I'm pleased that of the 25 social projects and charities who have approached us for food donations to provide food for the NHS and local communities, including Made in Hackney, Chefs in Schools, Berber & You (previously our customer Berber & Q), we've been able to support them all.

We've put a huge amount of focus on transparency and keeping people safe and well. While we have sadly had to furlough a number of staff, we've had an incredible crack team of volunteers from across marketing, production, innovation and CSR who have created a variety of activities and support for all our colleagues.

We have five mental health first aiders and two occupational therapists, and we are running twice-weekly online yoga and meditation sessions, and even an online quiz. Perhaps loveliest of all is seeing how our internal Belazu Cooking Club has now gone public and has nearly 800 members on Facebook, each sharing ideas daily.

A lot of people are loving our Umbrian lentils at the moment!

This was not in my playbook

Douglas Waddell, operations director, Hand Picked Hotels

Douglas Waddel
Douglas Waddel

As an experienced business leader with more than 30 years in the hotel and leisure industry, these past two months have been, without doubt, the most challenging I have ever faced.

Neither myself, nor any one of our incredibly experienced team, had an epidemic or pandemic response in their playbook.

When we were first alerted to the threat of the virus after a guest fell ill two months ago and was transferred to isolation in hospitality (they subsequently tested negative), it heralded the start of daily conference calls about the subject. The group of attendees got bigger, the agenda longer and the growing list of actions were carried out as needed, any time of day.

Now our skeleton teams are adapting to what has fast become the ‘new normal' and they have been very supportive in what we all know is a truly difficult and unprecedented situation. I'm immensely proud.

We have a small team still in place who are working remotely to support the hotels. They are doing great under pressure and so far our planning has worked. Our central reservations office team has moved to a predominately email response operation, but they remain very much in touch with our guests to answer any queries or questions. Though, like many companies, the loss of business has been significant, I am delighted that with the support of our guests we have worked together to find so many alternative dates for them to rebook.

For many of those guests, they were visiting for a special occasion – a treat, a birthday, a wedding or just some R&R – so it was important to us, and to them, that we took every possible step to ensure their experience was not lost and it was all still to look forward to!

I should also mention our wonderful colleagues in our hotels and support offices who are now furloughed, as they too have demonstrated unwavering support as they understand their part in protecting the future of the group.

During an epidemic or a pandemic in the most unimaginable circumstances, best practice principles still aid our navigation, and we remain resilient and committed to overcoming this.

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