‘We planted, weeded, planned, kept up morale and sunbathed’

The Great Pause has been tough on hoteliers but the stage is now set for a grand reopening, says Fiona Duncan



Daily Telegraph


Cover Story

I’ve been chatting to the owners of some of my favourite hotels about their plans for reopening, hopefully on July 4 or shortly thereafter. They have been telling me what their first eager guests, desperate for someone else to do the cooking and make the beds after interminable weeks of lockdown, might find. A few weeks ago, rural hoteliers were plunged in gloom. How could their hotels operate with social distancing, masks and thermometers when they are all about cosy corners and conviviality? And how could they make any money with far fewer guests, at tables spaced out like islands in the Pacific? But now, although of course the worries, both financial and operational, remain, I sense a much more positive, can-do approach, encouraged by the evident eagerness of many guests to return, as long as they trust the hotels to keep them safe. Now hoteliers are busy working out the fine details – how they will create a safe environment that is still a fun and welcoming place to be. The business of pampering people is in their blood and they are rising to the challenge. “The last thing we want is for our guests to feel as if they are in a hospital,” says Olga Polizzi, “but they do need to feel in safe hands”. Polizzi, who owns Tresanton in Cornwall and Endsleigh in Devon, is candid about the toll closure has taken. “It’s been disastrous,” she says. “We’ve had to borrow a lot of money that will need paying back, but we are determined to celebrate when we reopen. There will be champagne for everyone, and myself and my daughters, Alex and Charlotte, will be there to greet our guests.” In preparation for opening – hopefully as soon as July 4, and before any government announcement outlining specific rules for the hospitality sector – every hotel has been working hard to develop its own “new normal” plan and publishing hygiene and protocol statements on its website. At Tresanton and Endsleigh, rooms will be sanitised with Rapid-10, a specialist spray, then cleaned as normal using the Ecolab cleaning products that Polizzi favours (“I’ve always been paranoid about housekeeping in my hotels”). As at all the hotels mentioned here, every item of bedding, including mattress toppers and duvets, will be changed for new guests. As for meals, guests will choose from a reduced menu in their bedroom, and be called to the restaurant at a pre-allocated time. There will be just four staff in the kitchen, plus a runner who will bring each dish to the restaurant, to be served by one of two waiters wearing white cotton gloves. Reception staff will wear visors. Both at Tresanton, with its seafacing terraces, and Endsleigh, with its glorious grounds designed by Humphry Repton, the outdoors will take on an added importance, both for dining and relaxing. Polizzi hopes that tours of Cornish gardens, walks along the coastal path to little-visited beaches and outings on the hotel’s classic yacht, Pinuccia, will all help to entertain her guests. Hotels with plenty of space are at an obvious advantage. At Chewton Glen, you will be met at your car by a staff member in mask and gloves, have your temperature checked (staff will be constantly checked as well) and led directly to your bedroom. The room will have been deep-cleaned by an electrostatic fogger worn on the back of a cleaner in full PPE. It sanitises the air as well as all soft furnishings, bedding and hard surfaces. The room is then serviced as normal. Each room is equipped with an ioniser; all touch points, such as magazines, will be removed, with the exception of things such as remote controls and the hotel’s digital directory of services, which will be sterilised and in plastic bags. Room service will take on a new importance, but if you decide to eat downstairs, you can do so safely in one of the hotel’s three restaurant spaces. According to Andrew Stembridge, executive director of Iconic Luxury Hotels (to which Chewton Glen belongs), “I think our more formal, old-school approach to service will play into our hands better than for hotels where informality and close contact is usually the order of the day”. The larger the hotel, the easier it is to repurpose space. At Calcot Manor, Richard Ball and his team “have never worked harder”, coming up with creative solutions to address the situation. Their beautiful events barn, no longer required for weddings and conferences, will become the reception area and a fireside café, with a vast space upstairs for yoga and wellness (“an increasingly important element of the hotel in future”). The formerly tightly spaced gym equipment will be split between the gym and the barn. Treatments in the spa will include manicures and pedicures behind screens and back massages, though probably not facials. Pool lanes will allow nine people to swim at a time. “Our regulars are desperate to return to the spa,” says Ball. “We’re making it more appealing than ever and I believe it will sing.” Children, too, need spacing out at family hotels. In Calcot Manor’s play barn, staff offices have made way for an extra floor of play area. On the ground floor, children will be greeted and temperatures taken, before moving off to the various play areas. One change is that a parent or parents will be asked to stay with their children in the play barn to ensure social distancing. There will be staff too, of course, also engaged in a “massive, constant, visible amount of cleaning, sanitising and clearing up”. Hotels like Chewton Glen and Calcot are the lucky ones. Smaller places – inns, B&Bs and pubs with rooms – are much more compromised by social distancing rules and they are unlikely to see profits until they can have a full house and non-residents crowding their tables and propping up their bars again. One thing is certain in this pandemic: nothing is certain. “What we’re not doing,” says Edmund Inkin (whose Felin Fach Griffin, Gurnard’s Head and Old Coastguard are just the sort of simple, honest inns I find myself longing for after lockdown), “is twisting ourselves into a tortuous state trying to predict what will be required. We will take every reasonable measure we can to make our places safe, but ploughing money now into gimmicks and kit may later be regretted as they gather dust in the cupboards.” The owners of the West Country properties Beckford Arms, Talbot Inn, Lord Poulett Arms and Bath Arms, while “doing absolutely everything sensible, short of installing thermal CCTV cameras to monitor guests’ temperatures” are similarly cautious. “We are unsure”, says Dan Brod “how our public will react. A pint in the garden is one thing, but will our guests want to have a long lingering lunch inside, which is really what pays the bills? An uncertain future then, but, says Brod, “I truly believe humans need hospitality and this need has to be balanced with the actual Covid risks and the risks to the rural economy. So I am optimistic but nervous.” John Illsley, owner of the charming East End Arms, who probably found life much easier when he was bass guitarist of Dire Straits, feels the same, though “there is no question that going to a pub or inn will be a strange experience under the present guidelines”. He will at first give priority to his loyal regulars who will find their own personalised glasses behind the bar, just as in the olden days. The menu is likely to be a simple “plat du jour” chalked up on a board. Outdoor seating, under big canvas umbrellas, will help because indoors there will be room for not much more than a handful of customers and a one-way system. Increasing the contact payment limit to £45 will help to dispense with cash. “I’m an eternal optimist,” says international hotelier Gordon Campbell Grey, now based back in his beloved Scotland. Like most of the hoteliers I spoke to, he does however concede that for his Three Chimneys in Skye and Pierhouse Hotel on the shores of Loch Linnhe, much depends on the introduction of a one-metre rule instead of two. Neither of his properties is large and the weather in Scotland makes outdoor dining a rarity. The Pierhouse will reopen with a flourish, offering free dinners for all its suppliers and for the residents of Port Appin in a gesture of solidarity. The menu, mainly of local seafood, will be shorter than usual but the quality will remain. “Standards must not drop,” says Campbell Grey, emphatically. “We need to tempt back our wary customers. ‘Wow’, they must say ‘that lobster soufflé was worth risking my life for’.” “A two-metre rule is not a problem for us,” says Federica Bertolini of the Fife Arms. “Braemar is tiny, but the Fife Arms is capacious, as are many Scottish Victorian hotels, and we have so much space outdoors, miles and miles of it.” To encourage the sense of space, Federica is increasing her team of in-house ghillies who are on hand to help guests make the most of their stay, whether it is finding a perfect picnic spot, fishing or learning the history of tartan. As general manager of Tresanton for many years, she witnessed how Polizzi brought glamour back to Cornwall; now she is helping the owners of the Fife Arms, Iwan and Manuela Wirth, return it to the Scottish Highlands. Her staff will wear visors, made by a local couple in aid of charity, so that “guests can see them smile”; back of house staff will wear masks from Scottish Linen. Many hotels, such as the Fife Arms, have used their enforced closure well, and despite the worry and uncertainty, the Great Pause has meant catching up on maintenance and carrying out improvements. “We’ve painted, weeded, planned, kept up morale and done a lot of sunbathing,” say Simon and Wendy Bennett of Augill Castle. “We and the castle have never looked so good.” Talk about hoteliers rising to the challenge. Robin Hutson’s open letter to Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, in April, signed by many industry colleagues, expressed their fears about operating in a Covid world, even fearing that it would be impossible to do so. But now his Pig hotels are slated to be among the first to open their doors. All being well, on July 4, each of the hotels, plus Hutson’s Lime Wood, will host 30 NHS nurses nominated for free stays by colleagues and members of the public. In late July, the new Pig at Harlyn Bay in Cornwall will open. How will the Pigs embrace the new normal and still entrance their guests? What they will do is ensure scrupulous and constant cleanliness and hygiene; what they won’t do is change their look and feel. “There has to be an element of trust,” says Hutson, “that we will keep both our guests and our staff completely safe but at the same time keep the atmosphere alive.” It’s a tightrope that every hotelier will have to walk; they are up for the challenge. For full reviews of these properties, see telegraph.co.uk/tt-welcomeback