The big interview: Bespoke Hotels
Last updated: November 4, 2020
What makes Bespoke Hotels so special?
We are necessarily different. We celebrate the local hero status of each hotel rather than trying to homogenise everything, which makes it slightly different to pretty much everybody else who seems to want to make everything look the same!
We have some extraordinary contrasts within the group, from deluxe hotels with golf courses to very simple room-only businesses in city centres to temporary cottage-style hotels right on the coast.
We're expanding at the moment – rather bizarrely through these difficult trading times. We're in the process of adding another 40 hotels to the group, which takes us to 100 UK hotels, ranging from North Cornwall to Scotland. It's the old Shearings portfolio. They're fairly old-fashioned hotels, so we’re going to have a lot of work to do to get their disabled facilities back to full swing. We’re opening them in relays of six months, starting in the Lake District at the beginning of September.
Why did you become a standard-bearer for accessible hotels?
I ended up with an illness [Guillain-Barré syndrome] which paralysed me from the neck down and I was in recovery for two years. I'm still far from fully recovered, I remain registered disabled, although I'm allowed to drive. So I feel as though I've got some of the T-shirts at least! I'd seen all these extraordinary examples of care and kindness in hospitals and I became embarrassed that in the hotel business we were so reactive and dim in terms of our approach to looking out for disabled folks and I wanted to do something about it. Which is why we become evangelists along the way.
As the outgoing chair of the Supervisory Board of the Institute of Hospitality, how do you think that the industry has taken on the challenge of Covid-19?
I think hoteliers are, by default, considerate and compassionate people. Our instinctive reaction is to make sure others are okay. So I think that has taken place. However, I fear that the next nine months of business are going to be unprecedented because we won’t have seen anything quite as scatological before now.
At the moment, though, we're seeing signs that the leisure market is showing a pulse. For those hotels that we've reopened by the coast or in the countryside, there's demand. Where we have hotels in city centres such as London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Birmingham, there's just no bounce at all. We're looking at 20% occupancy at best. Corporate Britain has to wake up this autumn, but I think it will. People will have to get out and start networking again.
So how are your hotels facing the challenge?
We've been very, very prescriptive in terms of ‘here's the bespoke company Covid charter; here's your online training program; here's your physical training program; here's your roleplay exercises; here’s your equipment; here's the laminated purchase order system.’
We have really done this to death to make sure we were as safe and as healthy as we could be. On top of that, the request from the staff has been to ensure that not only did they feel safe and are distanced sensibly within the business, but that they feel confident around customers to give them a sense of reassurance.
But there are pinch points in every hotel, whether it's a small galley kitchen, or its reliance upon lifts. So in our 13th century coaching inn the bit about lifts doesn't matter, but what does matter is washing the banisters relentlessly because you need to hold on to them as you go up the staircase.
So you can't have a one-size-fits-all process.
What is important is that we build in a period of adjustment, so that in a few weeks we can look at what we have learned and what we must add to the process.
The best piece of advice I've heard from anybody is from Brian Moore, the former England rugby hooker, who said: *‘Assume that you've got Covid-19 and behave in such a way that you can't give it to anybody else.’ *
What has become apparent during that period of adjustment?
How we manage and supervise lifts – people going in and out – is an issue. How we ask people to distance socially because we might put people into a dining space, where they're supposed to stay. Some guests don't. So you have to have a method of saying, ‘No, we need you to stay there.’
Have you got any new equipment in the wake of the pandemic?
In a couple of hotels we put in walk-through temperature-scanning devices in the lobby, and we put in temperature-checking devices in every hotel. We put hand-washing stations in and around reception and bathrooms.
Where in the past we would have a large bottle of shampoo in a bathroom, we’ve gone back to single servings. As soon as the shower is finished, all the consumable items are disposed of.
We're spending a fortune on menus because every time someone touches one, we're throwing the menu away. But I suppose the area where you hope you've estimated enough is just how much physical cleaning fluids you can go through. Just because of the frequency of the cleans.
There's a temperature check for all the staff, too. Staff and guests have to come in through one way to make sure we're all checked at the same time.
And what about making sure that the guests are still getting that relaxed hotel experience?
Some of the temporary measures that we put in do look pretty industrial – the black and yellow tape or road signage or floor plates that say please keep your distance.
But it's necessary and customers are apparently just so pleased to be able to get out and be in a different non-domestic environment, they're very forgiving.
For instance, if we're bringing food to a table, we bring the tray to the table then we invite the guests to take the food or the drink off that tray.
So there's a huge amount of behavioural activity that feels alien. Obviously, there’s no hand shaking but a very strange dance of elbow kissing. We haven’t cracked that one yet!
What about other facilities?
We’re embarking on a campaign to open the spa facilities and hairdressing salons. Swimming pools have been a very tricky area.
In some hotels, where we have two restaurants, we've only opened one restaurant. Or we’ve used our banqueting rooms in addition to our dining rooms to ensure we could feed everybody two tables apart, so it can feel a bit like an aircraft hangar!
But the one thing for sure is that the staff are just so thrilled and keen to see guests coming back. You can see that from the smiles – because there's a genuine delight just to be doing their day job again.
Finally, what do you think about what RightRooms is trying to do, keeping guests informed about Covid safety?
In terms of creating a site that reassures customers, particularly those who have compromise in their life – I think that's essential. I think it's an incredibly worthy cause and all power to your elbow to get it done so that people see it as a fantastic source of information.
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RightRooms believes all information to be correct at time of going to press. As guidance, research and facts around Covid-19 are changing constantly, the information provided here is for general information only and does not constitute professional advice. Please check with venues, locations and attractions before travelling.