General managers have been rolling up their sleeves and painting, decorating, gardening and plumbing – anything, in fact, that needs to be done to keep a hotel running smoothly while it sleeps during lockdown. David Harris reports.
Managing hotels in the past year has been a curious business. With so many staff furloughed, general managers have found themselves taking on additional roles, including cleaning lavatories, checking plumbing and even painting and decorating.
Part of this is because in lockdown the job is more about safeguarding and preserving a building than looking after guests, but even in the periods between lockdowns, when many hotels opened, occupancy levels have varied sharply and many staff remained on furlough.
Paul Skinner, general manager at Dukes hotel in London, was in good spirits at the beginning of February last year. Dukes had just enjoyed a very good period and takings had been £60,000 up per month on the previous year. Skinner describes one of the main thrusts of his job as "focusing on colleagues' performance and efficiency", a task with which most GMs will be entirely familiar.
By the end of March, that had all changed. "Mild panic" at the start of the month turned to resigned closure by the 23rd. Even then, Skinner had no idea how long everything was to last. His first newsletter posted on the website looked forward to reopening in four weeks. A year later and the hotel finds itself closed again, even if it has been open in between. As Skinner ruefully observes: "I didn't realise when we first shut that we might not properly reopen for more than a year."
A lot has happened in the meantime. Like most hotels, Dukes did reopen after the first wave of the virus abated, but only with a skeleton staff and occupancies often not breaking the 10% barrier. Before that the hotel was completely empty, with only security monitoring and occasional visits by Skinner. Sometimes these visits were "emergencies", such as the time head bartender Alessandro Palazzi gave him an "SOS call" in mid July because he had remembered that the cigar humidor in the bar would need topping up with water. Skinner cycled in 18 miles from his Surrey home and duly topped it up.
The hotel did eventually partially reopen but at first it was just the bar – with its cigars safely preserved. Bar staff returned and, gratifyingly, there was a small queue of regulars keen to return on the first day of opening.
Few other staff came back at that point, so Skinner and some senior staff (including the HR director and the finance director) found themselves doing some unusual things.
It is a while since most GMs have cleaned hotel lavatories, but Skinner found himself doing that in the bar on more than one occasion in late summer and autumn. He remembers the bar staff were impressed that the GM would step in to help with that sort of job.
He says: "It was either me doing it or putting someone on the payroll to do it, so there was no choice. You put on a pair of disposable gloves and get on with it."
Cleaning the loos was not the only thing which Skinner found himself doing. The plants outside the front of the hotel were in sore need of attention and although he did his best, sadly many were beyond saving. They await professional attention when the hotel fully reopens.
The hotel's plumbing system was another challenge. Before the bar opened Skinner found himself going round the hotel regularly running water and flushing toilets in order to ensure that bacteria did not build up. He discovered leaks in the hotel's water tanks which had to be fixed, and although he called in plumbing help for this, he admits he is now much more familiar with the hotel's water systems than he was before.
Skinner says he has got to know the workings of the hotel much better as a result of what he has had to do since last summer and that it might leave him a better GM as a result.
He says: "It's reinforced my understanding of what the team do and I think those staff who have been here have appreciated seeing me and other senior managers being perfectly prepared to roll up our sleeves."
First come, first served
This was also true in September when Dukes reopened some bedrooms as well as its bar. The hotel has 87 bedrooms but the building is divided into two parts, which allowed Skinner to open just half of them during the inter-lockdown period. There were two dozen staff recalled in total – the hotel had 125 on it books before the pandemic – so managers were still required for all jobs.
Those staff who were in used two-way radios, so that if someone was needed, a general call was put out and the first person there did the job – carrying luggage, for instance.
Skinner also found himself doing some housekeeping – "I was trained to do hospital corners" – and was called on for all sorts of small but essential tasks, including changing lightbulbs and picking up the meat from the butcher at the back door.
One of the challenges for Skinner was stressing to staff that it was OK to ask him to do these sort of jobs. Some were understandably not used to asking the GM to do something that would usually be done by a kitchen porter or a cleaner.
Skinner says: "These are not the sort of things that a GM would typically find themselves doing. Normally everything just happens, but Covid has turned the industry on its head."
In the long-term there are benefits to GMs being called on to pitch in to a degree that many will not have done since they first moved through hotel departments as management trainees.
Skinner's experience was repeated just across Piccadilly in the Connaught, where GM Sandeep Bhalla also found himself with a skeleton staff. Bhalla was quite happy doing every job that was needed, including flushing lavatories to keep the water system fresh, manning reception when required and carrying luggage and delivering room service in the period between lockdowns.
He says: "You do what is needed. And it is extremely important from a staff morale point of view that they can see you are quite happy to do it. Even when the hotel was closed things still needed doing."
Although the end of full lockdown might be in sight, the challenging period is not. In London, Skinner does not believe anything will return to normal this year.
He says: "It's not just about what the government says, it's about what we can do with reasonable occupancy. I don't think many people will be saying, ‘Oh, I know what I'll do in August, I'll spend it in central London'."
It's not just about what the government says, it's about what we can do with reasonable occupancy
Outside the big cities there has been a bigger contrast between lockdown itself and the period between lockdowns. At Summer Lodge in Evershot, Dorset, the husband-and-wife general management team of Jack and Alex Mackenzie found that the relative quiet of lockdown quickly turned to being extremely busy last summer.
In lockdown itself Jack had found himself in the kitchen of the Red Carnation-owned hotel, helping to cook meals for six live-in staff who had remained at the hotel, supplemented by a bit of gardening to keep the hotel's grounds in as passable a state as possible.
He says: "We were also doing spells on reception as we wanted to keep the phones manned. We were doing a wider range of things than we would normally do, but to be honest we are pretty hands-on here anyway."
Because Jack has a background in food and beverage, it was natural for him to return to the kitchen to help out the one chef that the hotel had kept on, and there was some pleasure in getting back to the stoves.
He says: "I enjoyed it. I think change can always be a positive thing. But would I go back to the kitchens full-time? No chance!"
In any case, as soon as the hotel reopened fully in July, Summer Lodge filled up with guests until November. Staff flooded back from furlough and the 25 bedrooms saw more or less full occupancy.
It was so busy, in fact, that Jack admits the hotel took enough of a battering that the second and third lockdowns have provided time for redecoration (just like Cliveden – see below), so that it will be in pristine shape for its hoped-for reopening in late spring. Like many other GMs, Jack and Alex might have quite enjoyed their spell as jacks-of-all-trades, but reopening properly is certainly something they will be looking forward to.
Lisa Steele on becoming head gardener at Culloden Estate & Spa
Lisa Steele – who was appointed general manager of the Culloden Estate & Spa in Northern Ireland last February, just as Covid hit – found that one of her first real jobs was organising the hotel for lockdown. For some of her staff, the first time they spoke to her properly was when she was telling them they would have to go on furlough.
It was perhaps not the best of beginnings to a new management role, but she has taken it philosophically.
She says: "I believe in being positive, especially when it's something that I can't do much about. It's definitely given me a chance to get to know the hotel very well. I've been doing a lot of dusting. I know where every valve and store cupboard is, so it has been useful."
Steele has also been gardening and helping with everyday jobs such as collecting laundry from the estate's long-term apartment guests, who have stayed throughout.
Niall Kingston on living on-site at Le Manoir during lockdown
Niall Kingston, hotel manager at Belmond Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons, was happy helping with the upkeep of the gardens at the Oxfordshire restaurant and hotel during lockdown, but then he did grow up on a farm in Ireland.
Kingston lived on-site at Le Manoir over the entire lockdown period and, with a small ‘business continuity team' shared all the jobs, including some of the cooking for staff, a bit of maintenance and plenty of cleaning.
He says: "You can learn from any situation, even if I was working to a broader job description than normal. In any case, it's important to appreciate all the roles in a hotel, although I suppose that appreciation increases when you have to do a lot of them yourself."
The periods between lockdowns provided a bit of relief for the business – and for Kingston – but he points out that business was limited, even if guests were keen to come.
Kingston says: "We were driven by the social distancing requirements in the restaurant, which meant we didn't fill the rooms as we otherwise would have done."
Paul Wilkinson Photography Ltd
Francisco Macedo picks up a paintbrush at Cliveden
There are worse places to be confined for lockdown than Cliveden, the National Trust property in Berkshire that is operated as a hotel.
That is where Francisco Macedo, the hotel's GM, has spent all three lockdowns, along with a skeleton staff of six, covering day and night, with all other staff on furlough.
He has spent much of his time painting and decorating the public rooms, together with a spot of gardening and the daily round of running taps and flushing loos to keep legionella at bay.
Unsurprisingly, these are not his usual jobs and in the absence of the furloughed decorators, Macedo found himself on YouTube, looking up decorating advice on everything from the best painting methods to how to change silicone seals. He and the small team also found time to check plumbing and to make diagrams of electric wiring, and the GM learned how to programme all the door locks, another task routinely left to other staff.
Macedo says: "It certainly wasn't what I'm used to doing, which is talking to guests and the team, and overseeing the hotel's operation."
He moved into the hotel for the duration of the three lockdowns and, even though he had already slept in every bedroom in the hotel, he admits it helped make him more familiar with what guests experience.
Keeping Macedo and the other staff company was his Labrador, Dash, who was quickly nominated head of security.
Was it enjoyable? Up to a point. Macedo says: "I did enjoy getting to learn a few things, and the camaraderie with the small team that remained here, but I am looking forward to getting it over with and getting guests back."
Cliveden is hoping for a good summer, but Macedo is realistic about the probable decline in international visitors. Even domestic guests are proving cautious in committing themselves to summer stays at this point.
Macedo says: "People are calling all the time and enquiring about the summer, but they are not yet very confident about booking."
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