As hotels across the United Kingdom reopen or prepare to, hoteliers are confident that they have the professionalism, expertise and standards in place to cater to largely domestic demand for what remains of summer 2020.
REPORT FROM THE U.K.—The Fourth of July was also Independence Day for most United Kingdom hotels, following government announcements that the COVID-19 lockdown is ending for the hospitality industry.
The government in Northern Ireland previously announced hotels there could reopen on 3 July, while the governments in Wales and Scotland said its hotels will have to wait until 13 July and 15 July, respectively.
One English city excluded from allowing its hotels to reopen is Leicester, which will remain closed at least until mid-July due to a localized spike in COVID-19 infections. There are also worries about the cities of Barnsley, Bradford and Rochdale, but no lockdowns are in place there at press time.
While social distancing and hygiene measures will remain key, sources said they are prepared for reopening. In the last week of June, the British government announced the two-meter (6.56 feet) rule of social distancing would be reduced to one meter, a demand voiced by the hospitality industry to provide sustainability.
On 3 July, the Scottish government in most of its regions ended the stipulation that people living there could drive only five miles from their homes.
On 1 July, the European Union started to lift temporary restrictions on non-essential travel into its member nations, although the U.S. is not on its first list of 14 accepted countries. The EU recommendations can be reviewed by member states, and the list of accepted countries will be reviewed and updated every two weeks.
Howard Hastings, managing director of family-run Hastings Hotels, which owns and operates seven hotels in Northern Ireland, said his GMs are anticipating longer stays from travelers from the Republic of Ireland and the U.K., including a greater number of families than normal at this time of year.
“Northern Ireland has also controlled the pandemic well, with almost no new cases being announced. So we are well-placed to end our lockdowns in a controlled and timely manner,” he said, adding he predicted that most hotels in the region will open for food and beverage on 3 July, with approximately 50% offering rooms, too, on that date.
He expects properties to ramp up gradually.
“Others (will be) coming back on stream over the next six weeks,” Hastings said. “We are awaiting guidance as to when our spas may reopen. Initially, we will open between one-third and half of the bedrooms available in each hotel, to ensure we can meet with social distancing requirements.”
Even with a reopening, demand patterns will have changed significantly.
“There will be almost no escorted coach market this season, and so we are anticipating most guests will be self-drive. … In the absence of a second surge, we look forward to the reopening of international air traffic in time for the traditional tourism season in March/April 2021,” he said.
Some revenue is flowing, sources said.
Robin Sheppard, president of Bespoke Hotels—which has a portfolio of more than 5,000 rooms across the country—said he has seen more than £500,000 ($625,604) in future bookings in the week after the government announced the 4 July reopening date. That sum involved almost 4,000 roomnights, 2,075 of which were for properties in Scotland, and the majority of bookings were for two people for an average of two roomnights.
Sheppard said Bespoke planned to open four hotels on 4 July, which will be followed by another five properties not long after that and then by half a dozen at a later time.
“By September, we hope the vast bulk will be reopened. We may consider not opening a couple of hotels, deeply seasonal properties, until next year,” Sheppard said.
Countryside properties will open largely before urban ones, but Sheppard said one of his firm’s three Manchester assets will be among the first to open.
“The demand driver in the countryside is the bucolic bit, but in cities such as Manchester and London, if there is no football, sport or rock concerts, the demand falls,” he said. “The end of August in Manchester is Pride Week, hugely popular, and that is not happening this year.”
Sheppard expects to see “see a huge amount of changes to guests’ plans and booking patterns” and “no international travel.”
“It is naïve to open and think everything is going back to normal,” he said. “This is entirely fueled by a domestic market determined to get out of the house and to have some form of treat and reward. For hotels, it is very welcome, as corporate Britain will be much longer coming back than will leisure Britain.”
Sheppard, who stepped down from his role of chairman on 1 July to concentrate on the development of in-house brands Gotham and Brooklyn, said he hoped the demand was not a spike.
“We had our foot over the hole on the hosepipe, but all other operators have experienced this. Good news is that we’ve seen the displacement of weddings into 2021, which looks like it will be a bumper year,” he added.
Recovery will not be easy, Hastings Hotels’ Hastings said.
“(We are) well-placed to see through the current crisis,” he said. “However, since turnover will be affected in a significant way for up to a year, we will take steps to reduce our headcount to what we can afford, to remain sustainable as a business into the future. It is with great regret that we will have to bid farewell to some valued staff as a result.”
Four of Hastings’ hotels opened on 3 July, with the remaining three to open in July (one more) and August.
Sheppard said when Bespoke was first founded in 2000, it had to overcome a livestock foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, which saw many rural areas close to visitors.
“That blunted tourism in the spring, but the economy bounced back remarkably quickly, but as we are not killing (COVID-19) quickly and probably will not, recovery will be very different,” he said.
Popular markets for Bespoke’s new bookings are the Isle of Skye, Loch Fyne and the West Coast of Scotland and English destinations such as the Lake District, Cotswolds and the Lake District.
It remains to be seen how quickly hotel companies can rehire employees to their former capacity.
“The biggest expense is payroll, and if we were to bring everyone back on board, we would need 80% occupancy, and we will not,” Sheppard said.
A silver lining in all of this, Sheppard said, may be that restaurateurs may finally realize the long-held dream of having diners arrive at the exact moment of their table seating and vacate the table at an also-agreed-to time.
“Not everyone will be able to eat at 8 p.m. on Saturday and have breakfast at 9:30 on a Sunday. They might have to sit down at 7:32,” he said.
Bespoke will open the 191-room Hotel Brooklyn in Leicester in 2022. But for the time being, that city is not allowed to open with the rest of England.
James Conaghan is GM at the 154-room Novotel Leicester and 98-suite Adagio Aparthotel Leicester, which opened in the same building in January and are managed by Interstate Hotels & Resorts, Aimbridge Hospitality’s international division.
He said in their first few months of opening, the hotels were seeing very encouraging occupancy and F&B numbers, and when lockdown started, only the Novotel closed.
“We (remained) open for key workers, which we have been immensely proud to do,” Conaghan said. “As a result of staying open, we have been able to bring 70% of the workforce off furlough. Of course, no new hotel expects a global pandemic to hit just months after opening, but we feel we’ve learnt a lot about operating in this ‘new normal’ … and this knowledge will inevitably stand us in good stead when we are able to reopen for all.
“We are well-prepared for reopening, and while this latest delay does mean we have to wait a little longer, the health and safety of our guests and our employees, as well as our local Leicester community, remains paramount.”
Conaghan said new measures included working with Accor to develop and implement stringent cleaning standards and operational protocols that are verified by local expert auditors.
“This has included … sanitizing on arrival, putting in place new cleaning procedures and purchasing new outdoor furniture for our terrace. Also, we have introduced new F&B procedures,” he said.
He added that also working with Interstate and Aimbridge, which operate hotels globally, gives his staff and management unique access to a wealth of information about how properties are reacting to the COVID-19 crisis worldwide.
“I think it is safe to say it is going to take a long time for the hospitality industry to recover from this, especially the meetings and events sector, where I imagine we will see some real innovation to try and bring people together in safe yet familiar way,” Conaghan said.
Kate Nicholls, CEO of the U.K.’s principal hospitality membership association, UKHospitality, said she expected more than 960,000 hotel and hospitality staff will return to work across July, with a further 720,000 doing so before the end of September.