With less than two weeks until hotels can reopen, I caught up with David Scott, CEO at The Hotel Folk, to get an insight into his experience of the last year. We discussed everything from the impact of the three lockdowns on the business and the changes they’ve had to make, to adopting new technology and what he’s most looking forward to about reopening on 17th May!
What are the main challenges you’ve faced as a direct result of COVID-19 and the three lockdowns?
Of course, there have been the more obvious challenges, such as how to pay 350 staff and maintain empty hotels when we weren’t taking any cash – but there was a lot to think about when we reopened too. We saw a lot of new customers after the first and second lockdown; people were unable to go abroad so there were a lot more ‘staycations’. One challenge we’ve had, and a great one at that, is establishing how to encourage those new customers to come back for a second or third visit. We were dealing with a very loyal base of customers previously and they would come back 3, 4, 5 times a year. But now we have a whole host of new customers too, which has made us rethink how we market our business and the way we talk to our customers.
And then of course there are the changes we’ve had to make in order to help people feel safe; fewer seats in restaurants, face masks and social distancing. We tackled all of those things last summer and executed them really well. We also established that honesty and transparency helps our customers feel safe. So, I’ve made sure that I’ve communicated with them frequently and kept them updated with our plans, which I hope has helped them feel more comfortable about visiting us.
What impact, negative or positive, has COVID-19 and the three lockdowns had on your business?
The main and most obvious negative thing has been having no customers, and therefore no sales. The upkeep of the empty hotels and working out how to look after 350 employees whilst closed, was also a real low. If it hadn’t been for government support and the furlough scheme this would have been extremely challenging. There are obviously loads more negatives that come with being closed, but as I’m sure we’re all too well aware of them, I’ll focus on the positives…
I’ve definitely tried to use the time in lockdown positively rather than dwelling on how terrible it all is. Being closed has given us the time to look into how we can make things better. It’s given us the opportunity to think about things differently and focus on projects and ways of improving the business. For example, when we introduced Rotaready in the first lockdown there were zero hours going through the business, which made it the perfect time to implement a time and attendance system. We’ve also had the time to redecorate rooms and refurbish restaurants. When you’re running at a million miles an hour trying to look after customers and run the hotels, you never get that amount of time to invest in improvements.
I’ve also had the chance to go over our outgoings with a fine-tooth comb – something I had to do when we weren’t taking any cash. I was able to highlight a number of direct debits for things I may have overlooked previously, but in reality, wasn’t even using anymore. So, it’s given me the opportunity to run the business more efficiently and eliminate any unnecessary costs. It’s been a good way of analysing and understanding costs; you don’t always scrutinise the small things in the way that you perhaps should.
Is there a particular area of your business that has been affected the most?
The biggest challenge by far has been the accommodation side of the business. Obviously, we haven’t been able to sell any hotel rooms, so that’s been hit the hardest.
We’re lucky that we have the golf course and have been able to open that already. It’s been great to see so many new and familiar faces. As well as existing members, we’ve had traction from those who can’t get away on their usual golf trips and people on furlough for whom getting out to enjoy a round of golf has become a welcome distraction.
We’ve also been able to open the terrace at The Brudenell which is right by the sea! It’s good to see some revenue coming in from that too.
What were the key differences between each lockdown in terms of the impact they had on your business?
The first one was just a shock! I don’t think anyone really believed what happened was actually going to happen; we were all completely unprepared for it. Our hotels are always open so having to close them hit hard. As the government announcements trickled out you start to think ‘what are we going to do? how are we going to pay our staff?’ etc. We just had to find ways of coping, but thanks to furlough we’ve been able to look after everyone.
From a business perspective the second and third lockdowns were a lot more positive. When we did reopen after the first lockdown, we did really well; everyone was stuck in the UK so were making the most of ‘staycations’. This meant that when it came to the second and third lockdown we were able to invest in hotel improvements. So, it feels like we’ve done more positive things, to help move the business forward. I also think once you get a date and a roadmap it doesn’t feel as strange or as alien to everybody as you have something to work towards.
As far as the staff are concerned I think the latest lockdown has been the hardest. The first one was during the summer, so they could enjoy the weather and go on nice walks etc. Whereas the most recent lockdown has been in the midst of winter, so they’ve been stuck indoors with not much else to do but watch Netflix and eat crisps. The third one has definitely had a much bigger impact on people’s mental health.
Have you adopted any new technology as a direct result of the pandemic. If so, what?
Rotaready! We used to produce timesheets on pieces of paper – it was so manual it was ridiculous. Rotaready was in place for when we reopened on the 4th July which was great! Alongside this we changed how we do payroll, so that whole process is a lot more efficient.
We’ve also invested in making the guest journey as contactless as possible in order to help our customers feel safe. This has involved changes to our till system and the introduction of tablets and table ordering. Our biggest investment though has probably been on new carpets, curtains and furniture – so, everything is looking lovely and fresh for when we reopen.
Are any of the changes you introduced for COVID here to stay?
Yes – we’ve learnt a lot in the last 12 months and made changes that we would never have made if it wasn’t for COVID. For example, we opted to close some restaurants for lunch. Lunch times just don’t make a return, so it made sense to focus on dinner and close for lunch. That change alone had saved us a lot of money, but it’s probably a decision we wouldn’t have been brave enough to make previously.
The way I communicate with our employees has also completely changed. Whilst everyone is at home I think it’s more important than ever for them to still feel connected to something, so I’ve tried to put my face forward a lot more. I record videos now rather than just writing everything down and I’m also using our Facebook group so much more. I’m definitely going to continue with this new and more personal way of communicating going forward.
There have been lots of other little changes too, from what staff wear to housekeeping processes and general operational changes. We’ve also had to introduce certain cleaning procedures in line with COVID regulations, but these are all things that I would say are here to stay.
What are you most looking forward to about reopening?
Seeing the hotels full, it’s been so sad to see them empty! I can’t wait to see them sparkling clean and full of customers laughing, joking and enjoying themselves again. And to see the staff being happy looking after the customers. It’s all about getting everyone back to work and getting guests and customers back in and giving them a good time.
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