Check-In With U.K. General Managers On Reopening Plans

(The Athenaeum)

United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the public last week, generally stating that hotels may plan to reopen in July, though restaurants and pubs are not likely to be allowed to reopen until August. With the European Commission providing guidelines for reopening travel, as well the World Travel & Tourism Council, Luxury Travel Advisor interviewed general managers to get an update on how plans for summer and beyond are shaping up for the U.K. 

Planning for the New "Normal”

Most luxury hotels have been closed since March; hoteliers have been using this time to look after employees, help local essential workers and community organizations, and plan for the new “normal” post-pandemic. The five-star Athenaeum, just opposite Green Park, is one of the few luxury hotels that has remained open to key workers and guests in their long-term residences. General manager Joanne Taylor-Stagg has quickly adapted by “taking the temperature of each person entering the hotel, including the team." She adds, "The current lockdown teams are living in the hotel for one week at a time, and the hotel is providing taxis for all employees on changeover days to eradicate the need for public transport.” Looking ahead, Taylor-Stagg thinks there will be even more focus on health and safety measures in hotels, including social distancing and use of PPE.

Upgrades to Housekeeping Protocols

Hotel companies across the world—including Accor’s North and Central America region, Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, and Kempinski Hotels—have announced new and enhanced health and safety measures.  

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Outside of London, at Heckfield Place, a five-star resort on 400 acres in Hampshire, general manager Olivia Richli, plans to give housekeeping options to the guest when they reopen in July. “All guests will be given a choice of three housekeeping plans, which range from no housekeeping or room service at all during your stay to our beautiful attentive service many times a day. We plan to steam clean all our rooms and leave a space of two nights between departing and arriving guests to ensure their safety. We are making our own face masks and hand sanitizer, and each guest will be gifted these on arrival.” 

Heckfield Place

The Athenaeum has debuted a hospital-grade ozone cleaning machine to sanitize all rooms, which ensures the rooms are free of any viruses. “Our housekeeping team has always cleaned the hotel wearing gloves, and each surface has historically had a dedicated cleaning cloth to prevent cross contamination. We are fortunate that hygiene has always been a top priority at the hotel so adapting to the new normal is a relatively straightforward,” says Taylor-Stagg.

What Is "Luxury" Post-Coronavirus?

At The Beaumont, a 73-room boutique property in Mayfair, general manager Jannes Soerensen has  been reviewing the hotel’s already stringent cleaning and hygiene procedures while the property has been shut and will be scaling up dramatically the frequency of cleaning throughout the hotel, especially in the public areas. He tells us, “Our dilemma is how to keep the layers of luxury at every touch point, from minibar to bathroom amenities, and we are debating how we can still provide convivial, accommodating, physical environments and not make the experience too clinical.”

He adds that he feels confident due to the relatively small size of the hotel and his regular communication with repeat guests, they will find solutions to help guests feel secure and comfortable. Soerensen continued, “These initiatives are, inevitably, fluid at this stage, as scientific and government advice changes but they will include the amenities we put in the limos that pick guests up at the airport, to the welcome packs they receive in their rooms, to the advice our concierge will give on the places we most trust in the city, to the arrangements we will have with key destinations in London for private visits ... While some are talking about 'stripped-down' experiences, this is anathema to a luxury hotelier, and we have to ensure the experience is not stripped down emotionally.” 

Changes to Check-In and One-Way Systems to Manage Social Distancing

Most hotels noted that they have enabled contactless payment and are encouraging payment online. According to Jill Van Rest, rooms division manager at The Strand Palace, when the hotel reopens, they will be completely cashless. Similarly, Stuart Proctor, COO of the Stafford Collection says the five-star Stafford Hotel in Mayfair is planning to use a mobile app for both check-in and as a room key. 

Most hotels are even planning a one-way system for walking through their properties. General manager Louise Uys-Jones from the five-star St Michaels Resort in Falmouth, Cornwall, says “Clearly marked routes will enable guests and staff to move safely through the property.”

New Food Service Standards: End of Luxe Breakfast and Brunch Buffets

Bountiful hotel breakfast and brunch buffets (think: tables filled with everything from caviar and smoked fish to freshly baked breads and pastries, omelet bars and carving stations) will become a thing of the past, for now, as hoteliers re-work these services into a la carte and family-style services to be plated in the kitchen. Malcolm Hendry, general manager of the five-star Red Carnation properties, The Rubens at the Palace and Hotel 41 (and named Luxury Travel Advisor's Top General Manager Worldwide in the Awards of Excellence 2019) tells us, “As The Rubens was renowned for our extensive breakfast buffet, we will now be replacing this with an enhanced a la carte offering to protect our guests and staff and allow for adequate social distancing.”

Similarly, at The Stafford, “the traditional breakfast buffet will be removed; instead, we will utilize our outdoor courtyard to accommodate guests with distanced tables and eventually open our variety of private event and dining rooms for small gatherings,” according to Proctor of Stafford Collection.

Cornell University School of Hotel Administration Professor Linda Canina, who directs the school’s Center for Hospitality Research, said, “Even prior to coronavirus, buffet options in hotels decreased by 25 percent, while, at the same time, hotels have added 20 percent more restaurants.” She added, “The shift was already underway from quantity to quality, with farm-to-table concepts flourishing. Now, people are going to be even more concerned about the quality and source of restaurant food.” 

For the very near term, hotels plan to increase room service, with a new protocol to leave trolleys with food just outside of guestrooms. Once restaurants can reopen, at St Michaels Resort, Uys-Jones says “dining times will be scheduled to enable two sittings for greater social distancing, which guests will need to book a table along with their food order ahead.” At Heckfield Place in Hampshire, award-winning culinary director Skye Gyngell is creating a weekly plan of dining in and around the estate, utilizing all the various locations—breakfast on the Italian Terrace, a picnic by the lake, tea in the Sun House and dinner cooked over a fire in the hearth. 

Business for Summer and Beyond

The Beaumont

Hotels outside London—Heckfield Place in Hampshire and St. Michaels Resort in Cornwall—noted they were seeing an uptick in domestic bookings and were focusing marketing for the remainder of 2020 domestically.  London hotels seem less sure as they await the opening of museums, theaters and other attractions that bring tourists, though they are more optimistic for business travel to resume in the fall if quarantine restrictions to the U.K. are lifted.

The Beaumont's Soerensen has a measured outlook: “I feel the remainder of this year will only see a very cautious comeback, although there is clearly pent-up demand. We have many guests saying they cannot wait to return; some are already making plans for this time next year. It is also a generational issue: The perception of risk does differ from generation to generation, with those at the younger end of the spectrum feeling much more comfortable about venturing forth.” 

He continued, “In the long-term, which could be as long as in 12 months or more, we will see travel come back strongly, but quite possibly from some countries before others, depending on international and government-imposed travel and border restrictions, on bilateral deals between countries, on whether we see a second spike of COVID-19, on whether testing and a vaccine are widely available.” 

Keeping in Touch With Travel Advisors

No matter where they are located in the UK, all hotel executives noted the importance of their relationships with travel advisors, now more than ever. Hendry of Red Carnation says, “We have been busy keeping up with our travel agent communities, participating in a number of industry webinars and video calls and see this time as a good opportunity to build and nurture relationships.” 

Soerensen concurs: “We have been in constant touch with so many travel advisors throughout this difficult time; these relationships are key to our success and we feel closer than ever. I also feel that the incredible work that so many agents have done for their clients during this crisis will further strengthen the role of the travel advisor in our industry and we hope that many will come out stronger than ever before.”  

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