Two world wars and a pandemic… How the Petwood Hotel is part of history

>>Two world wars and a pandemic… How the Petwood Hotel is part of history

We spoke to George Kane, General Manager of the Petwood Hotel Lincolnshire to find out some of the history of this 116 year old hotel 

Tell us about your current role and workplace.

My current role is General Manager of the Petwood Hotel in Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire. The Grade II listed hotel was originally built as a private residence in 1905 but has seen roles as a WWI military convalescent home and WWII Officers’ Mess for Bomber Command squadrons, including the Dam Busters. The 53 bedroomed hotel is set in 30 acres of grounds and the Petwood Peto Gardens were Grade II listed in 2017 following a garden restoration scheme to reinstate the designs of the famous landscape architect Harold. The independent hotel is a family-owned business and the Board see the hotel staff as an extension of their family, extending a “welcome home” greeting to guests.

How did it feel having to close the hotel on your first day in the new role?

I started my role on the 1st March 2020. By the end of the third week I had become the first General Manager to close the hotel’s doors in its entire history (even two World Wars did not manage that!). I think that, like all General Managers and business owners, it was a huge emotional shock to close the doors as events had developed so quickly with the government’s decision to force hospitality to close. In those early days we did not know how the pandemic would unfold – or what support would be available to sustain the business financially – and so it was very much triggering crisis management mode. I remember organising a call with the Board and they had one objective for me; to support them in finding a way to protect the staff and keep jobs secure for as long as possible. We called a company-wide meeting the next morning and some staff attended in person and some via Zoom. It all felt very surreal as we addressed the team and attempted to answer their questions and concerns with what little information we had available. I was completely honest with the team that the business was facing an unknown challenge but that the direction from the Board was clear; that we would get through this with the Petwood family in tact.

How have you kept your new team engaged during the last year?

It has been hard to keep the team engaged during the last year over two long periods of no trade and work. The teams quickly formed their own circles for keeping in touch, doing quiz nights, catchup calls and Zoom dine and coffee catchups. We did regular online town hall meetings combined with e-mail updates to keep everyone updated with the changing situation. We have just started to roll out a complete suite of online training powered by Flow Hospitality platform and we will continue to evolve and develop this to help people maintain and develop core competencies, alongside developing our own bespoke courses for all aspects of the business. Prior to returning from each lockdown, we hosted team briefings to help refamiliarise the team with the workplace and agree how the operation needed to adapt to be Covid-secure. This consultative approach really helped engage the team with the workplace and feel more confident about reopening.

You are currently offering alfresco dining, how has this been going for you?

Alfresco dining has been an absolute delight. We knew that we would largely be at the mercy of some good weather. We started with snow on the ground on Monday 12th April which was a bit of a shock, but once the sun came out we were at 80% table occupancy for the day. We are fortunate to have a large terrace area overlooking the gardens and so the alfresco dining space is in an English country idyll. The response from our guests has been brilliant and we have been so encouraged by the support shown to us so far. In readiness for reopening in July 2020, we implemented the Access Group’s Collins online booking and table management system. This has been a game changer for helping guests easily make bookings, reducing inbound call traffic to Reception and giving Operations and Kitchen a much better prediction of the number of covers we will have for the day. It has also supported us with the Test and Trace data capture requirements. We have maintained a good level of occupancy so far with weekend days at 80-95% occupancy. Operating at reduced opening hours with shorter shift patterns has been a great opportunity for us to ease our teams in more gently than a sudden return to full opening hours.

How are you gearing up for the full hotel reopening? Is it looking busy?

Having lived in at the hotel during both periods of lockdown, we have manned the phones throughout the pandemic and maintained contact with our guests. This has really paid off in building a strong level of accommodation occupancy to support the hotel’s reopening. We have an average occupancy of 68% for the rest of the financial year which, although low by usual standards, is very pleasing for this year has scope for improvement. With a higher average room rate (ARR) too we are confident that accommodation revenue should recover to more comfortable levels over the summer. We are finalising some renovations and I am excited to welcome our housekeeping team back to help us prepare our bedrooms in readiness for 17th May.

What have you missed the most with hospitality being closed for a lot of the last year?

The most important thing about hospitality is people and we have certainly missed our Petwood family and our guests. Reopening has reintroduced the energy and buzz back to the building which has been a surreal home for 9 months of the last 12. Hearing the chatter and laughter emanating from the terrace, kitchen and bar areas as we have reopened with outside dining has been a heart-warming experience.

The hotel has played a part in history, could you tell us more about that? 

The hotel was originally built as a private estate by Lady Weigall, the daughter of the Maple & Co family, which at one time was the biggest furniture maker in the world. She discovered the area when it was a Victorian and Edwardian resort and directly connected via train to Kings Cross. She identified the area of land that the hotel is now sited on as her “Pet Wood”.

During WWI the Petwood became a military convalescent home, with an operating theatre in one of the bedrooms and the oak panelled dining room (now the Drawing Room) lined with hospital beds. After being converted to a hotel in 1933, it was requisitioned by the RAF in 1942 and became an Officers’ Mess for 97, 619 and 617 Squadrons, the latter famed for their dam busting raids. The hotel today has lots of memorabilia dedicated to the history of these men and the Squadron Bar is an atmospheric space to raise a glass in their memory.

What skills do you need to get to the top in hospitality?

The most important skill is listening to people. Whether its bosses, colleagues, guests or friends of family, there is so much to be gained and learned by simply listening. This neatly ties into the next important thing which is talking to people and networking. It is amazing what other people can teach you and suggest, helping with problems and developing a good idea into a great idea. Finally, make the time to keep learning and developing your knowledge and skills and finding ways to continually improve.

What would you say to someone who may feel nervous about joining hospitality after the last year?

I would say what I have said to people joining our own team since we have reopened. It has been a terrible time in many industries and probably none more affected than our own. However, as an industry we have stayed strong, supported one another and worked out ways to innovate and adapt what we do. It is an exciting time to be joining our industry; we are an industry that can offer lots of opportunity to gain and develop valuable skills which are transferable to all sorts of careers. Irrespective of degrees and qualifications, what employers really value is the experience and skills in customer service, communication, teamwork, efficiency and multitasking that are honed in hospitality. I also firmly believe that we as an industry will come back stronger and what will get us there is the new talent that joins and helps us deliver world class hospitality.

Moving forward, do you think any positives are to come from the pandemic for hospitality?

I think that there will definitely be positive things to come from the pandemic for the hospitality industry. We have been forced to try new things and adapt what and how we deliver services to our customers. We have been very agile to implement and deliver these changes and has made us all wonder whether there are some things that we will adopt after restrictions are lifted.

We have also gained a much stronger voice with the government and proven that we are not a Cinderella industry. I think our industry associations have really fought a strong corner to keep as many of us able to protect our businesses and our staff. This is our time to take advantage of the VAT cuts and show the treasury why we need to get on a level footing with our European counterparts and deliver even more value to our customers and in turn this will create more jobs and greater profits to put back into the country. I am a firm believer that out of adversity comes opportunity. There has been no greater opportunity to stop and take stock and work out how to develop our weaknesses into strengths and turn threats into opportunities. This will ultimately make our industry stronger.

Petwood Hotel has recently joined as Company Sponsored Member, why is it important your staff are part of the IoH?

The Institute of Hospitality provides the perfect gateway into the industry for any hospitality student or professional in the industry. It provides a wealth of information to support the team’s learning and development and access to leading figures in our industry with which to take part in networking and mentoring opportunities. It is a fabulously positive community of likeminded professionals with whom to share concerns and stimulate thoughts and ideas.

How have you used your membership over the last year?

IoH membership has been invaluable to me over the past year. I think it was one of the first places I turned to when we went into the crisis to look for advice and support. I gained a fantastic Regional General Manager mentor in John Badley. I have taken part in numerous webinars that have really helped me identify ways to help improve the business and navigate a way through the pandemic. One of my favourite things to join is the weekly coffee morning as it has been a great opportunity to network and discuss a wide range of things with other industry professionals across a broad range of backgrounds.