London’s hotels stayed open through two world wars, but not this pandemic. Anna Sebastian, bar manager of The Langham’s Artesian, describes the scenes and promises that when they are back they will be better than before.
Maybe it is the 10 years I’ve worked in hotels, but for me these buildings are the foundations of our hospitality industry. The Langham stayed open through two world wars and became a temporary broadcasting studio for the BBC during the Blitz. It and other hotels have been homes to royal families and safe meeting places for famous guests. Through the ages, families could bring their loved ones to London’s hotels to celebrate special occasions and know the doors would always be open. Historically, hotels never close. Until now.
In March we saw a decline in the travel industry to an unprecedented level, with hotel occupancy figures reduced from 90% down to as little as 15%. Nervous panic rippled around WhatsApp groups of hoteliers as the reality of the situation unfolded. But it was not just about our falling guest numbers but our staff. Hotels require a military-style operation to keep running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A hotel never sleeps, so each department needs a strong headcount to work around the clock and meet our guests’ needs. However, without our guests, we are just a (beautiful) empty shell.
Thursday March 19, 2020, will forever be the benchmark for a ‘bad day’. We all knew it was coming; it was only a matter of time. I had been pacing up and down the gradually emptying hotel, my neck and shoulders stiff with anxiety, waiting for the inevitable to happen. Time slowed down until every minute seemed like an hour as we waited to confirm the news from our leaders that all the food and beverage outlets would close temporarily. At 16.30 I sat with our team, some called in from home or across the world, and delivered the news and the plan of action for the next three months.
Our leaders had seen the virus sweep through our sister hotels in Hong Kong and were able to follow their lead to put plans in place quickly. Despite the uncertainty it was made very clear that we would remain employed. The next day the government had ordered closure but a few days later the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme offered further security – enough for us to know that, as a company, we were going to get through this together.
I watched teams around the country do a final stock take, clean down their shelves, split any perishables between them and hug each other, fighting back tears, for a final time. The immediate shock was palpable, the unknown and the uncertainty was tangible, however there are already glimmers of hope and strengthened bonds between each other.
There is no doubt that this pandemic will change the face of the hospitality industry for good. But it is not what has happened, it is what we do next that matters. Right now, it is hard to plan as things are still changing day by day and there is no end date to work to. So we have several plans – one for every possible scenario.
You should do this too. Look at possible reopening dates – perhaps in June, September and January 2021 – and plan accordingly for every aspect of the business and how it will work, from putting the stock back on the shelves to the rota for the first week.
Look at your finances, especially for when you reopen. What are you able to do to make and save money? How are you going to reopen? Speak to the other bars in your local community and see what you can do together. Start looking at 2021 now. Keep an eye on when travel bans are lifted, speak to the travel agencies and see when their business starts to ignite again, airlines as well. It all has a knock-on effect for your business.
If you are composing a new menu, start the training now, develop the content for the social media plan so when the time comes everyone is ready. Invest in the team, look at how you do the rotas, look at every element of the business and change it. This is the time to do it. This is the time to rewrite the rule book and start afresh. Ask yourself, when we all reopen, what do we want to be?
I don’t know what will happen tomorrow but I know that at this time we can succeed as a community. I urge you to share your ideas, your best practices and your time with others to help as all grow into a new, better form of what we were.
I also hope that, like the pain and anxiety in my neck and shoulders, everyone else’s trauma will soon leave them. Stay safe and look after each other and, most importantly, yourself.