Richard Lee FIH, General Manager of Hilton Garden Inn London Heathrow Airport reflects on the decision to stay open through lockdown, and shares his experience of the operational changes that have been introduced.
When the Prime Minister announced the closure of bars and restaurants on Friday 20 March, many hospitality businesses were forced to immediately close their doors overnight. However for hotels which were not specifically mentioned in the announcement, we were left in a strange kind of limbo unsure how the closures orders applied to us. This would be clarified a few days later when the full lockdown was announced on Monday 23 March which ordered the closure of hotels “for leisure and commercial purposes”. However unlike pubs and restaurants, hotels have customers in their business 24/7.
On the day the lockdown was announced our hotel was almost full with a large group of foreign nationals awaiting repatriation who still had a week to wait before their flights home. This presented something of a challenge as to close we would have needed to ask them to leave with nowhere to go when most other hotels were also in the process of closing down. Faced with this dilemma we started to consider our options and if we could find a way to stay open safely within the government restrictions.
Making the Decision to Stay Open
Our first priority was to establish if we could legally stay open or if the closure order was unequivocal that we must close completely. Without the full legal text of the legislation to analyse we started taking advice from our licencing solicitors, local authorities, and the team at UK Hospitality. As we all grappled to understand what defines “leisure or commercial purposes” we started to come to a consensus that we could still serve existing residents who were with us before the lockdown. This was good news as it meant we did not have to evict 200 residents onto the streets with nowhere to go! Over the next few days as more details emerged from government, we established that we could stay open for certain categories of guests, namely Key Workers, essential travel and people whose primary residence was unavailable.
The next priority was our team; would anyone want to work when most of the country was been asked to stay at home? We had already held conversations with the team that even if we closed we would still need some people to come into work to look after the building and through these discussions some staff volunteered to continue working. We put together a small crisis group of managers, supervisors and team members who would form our hardcore team for the next few weeks. Some of the team who lived alone or in shared accommodation even wanted to move into the hotel, so they were not isolated by themselves at home. Once the team was established, we held a conference call to go through all the arrangements of how we would work during lockdown and make sure everyone was comfortable. We agreed that we were all in it together, no one was too important to do the hard tasks, and that we would make the big decisions together. Our crisis team was now ready to go!
Of course, we also wanted to make sure that if we were going to make the effort to stay open it would be a profitable decision, or at least make less of a loss than if we closed. We produced several different forecast scenarios and we realised that we would only need two or three more employees to work if we stayed open compared to closing, and that with a high fixed cost base in the business any revenue coming in would help to mitigate our losses which would ultimately help us to survive and protect jobs for the future.
So now we had legal permission to operate, a willing team and a positive business case; our decision was made, we would stay open, adapt, and reinvent our services as we go.
Operating during lockdown
The biggest restrictions were on food and beverage so with our bar and restaurant closed, and a lot of hungry guests in the hotel we had to quickly reinvent our food and beverage services to work in this strange new environment. We started with breakfast by creating an ambient breakfast box which we could deliver to guests to have ready in their rooms for their entire stay. For lunch and dinner our chef created a set menu of meals which could be delivered in disposable packaging at set meal times using contactless room service deliveries. We also enhanced our grab and go outlet to offer a much wider range of meals, snacks, and drinks for guests to eat in their room.
Our next issue was the knock-on effect that restrictions on other sectors were having on our supply chain. We engaged with all our suppliers of key items such as linen, food and beverages to understand how they were been affected and find new ways to work with them, such as longer order times, limited deliveries and using alternative products if necessary. We also found new local suppliers who could support us in emergencies if our main suppliers could not fulfil orders.
Naturally protecting the health and safety of our team was critical and it was something we had promised to all those who were staying on to work, so we embarked on a steep learning curve about what social distancing means in practice. We quickly introduced new actions to maintain a safe working environment including:
- Socially distanced queuing areas
- One-way systems in our lobby
- Extended our reception desk with tables to give guests extra space
- Installed screens at reception
- Limited capacity in the elevators
We also gave staff access to enhanced PPE and stepped up our cleaning regime using hospital grade disinfectants on an hourly basis for all contact surfaces.
All hospitality businesses are going to have to go through these changes but staying open during the lockdown has allowed us to experiment and test what works and does not work in our operation.
Managing Sales and Revenue
In the first few days most of our bookings were from the original group, however as their checkout date approached, we wondered if there would be any other business to replace them. Over the last few days we had picked up quite a few guests who were displaced from other hotels which had closed, with many of them for long stays until they could find flights back to their home countries.
We also started receiving enquiries from new clients with various leads from aircrew, repatriations, quarantine, and government bookings, however the enquiries were very volatile with lots of them changing or not going ahead at all due to last minutes changes of plan so we had to be even more flexible and responsive to our clients needs than ever.
We also had to work within the limits of our new restricted operations, and we turned down a number of enquiries which were too big or too demanding for us to handle with our reduced inventory and skeleton team. Eventually we managed to secure a few smaller long stay groups who have given us a stable level of base business which has secured our revenue and given stability to the operations.
By the end of April our crisis team felt quite proud of what we had achieved together. We had adapted our services and despite a few challenges refined our operation into a smooth and organised workflow, we had introduced social distancing and safe systems of work including PPE and enhanced cleaning ,we had brought back two more employees from furlough to join our crisis team, and we even managed to make a small profit. More importantly we had also helped hundreds of people by providing them with safe and welcoming environment demonstrating true hospitality in a time of need.
Making the decision whether to stay open or close was undoubtably one of the hardest choices I have ever had to make in my career with significant risks either way. I will admit that I have had several moments of doubt in the first few days; were we asking too much from our team? Was it even possible to carry on? But now we have adapted to our new normal I am convinced it was the right decision to stay open. All hotels and hospitality businesses are going to have to adapt to this new environment and staying open had given us a head start on understanding how we can operate smoothly and safely in the Covid world.
Richard Lee FIH is General Manager of Hilton Garden Inn London Heathrow Airport which is owned and operated by Pandox AB. Richard holds a Degree and Postgraduate Diploma in Hospitality Manager from University College Birmingham and is an alumni of the Cornell General Managers Program, he also has a keen interest in Hotel Real Estate and Asset Manager and holds a Certificate in Asset Management from eCornell. Richard is chair of the Heathrow Hoteliers Association, a St Julian’s Scholar and Fellow of the Institute of Hospitality.