Room Service

Survival of the fittest

Fiona Duncan looks at the winners and losers as the hospitality sector copes with Covid-19

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

‘‘Welcome back! While we are excited to reopen, we are still stressed, having survived one of the hardest professional challenges we have ever faced and we are not out of the woods yet. Please be assured that we have done all we can to keep you, and us, safe. We hope you enjoy your visit.”

So reads the poignant message chalked up on a blackboard at a cosy Wiltshire inn run by a young couple who have seen their business all but hit the wall. Close to a major hospital, it used to be filled with visitors and locals; now, at a midweek lunchtime, we were the only customers. Poor things. If there’s a second wave, I can’t see how they could survive.

If your hotel is on or near the coast or close to a national park, you are probably full

Have you been to a pub or rushed to a hotel so that, at last, someone else could do the cooking? Olga Polizzi, owner of two hotels, told me she was going to eat out every night for a month to make up for the long stretch stuck behind the stove.

Others, like me, have fallen into a different rhythm, which involves much time at home and seeing friends in small groups for garden drinks. Dinner parties? Thank God they are off the agenda. Restaurants? Yes, but not regularly. In this strange time, life has an altogether quieter, gentler pace.

Attitudes like mine are not helpful for a hospitality industry. Overall takings in July were down by an average of 30 per cent on last year, with a definite pattern of winners and losers.

If your hotel is on or near the coast or close to a national park, you are probably full. If you have a city hotel, you will probably be limping (many London hotels have not yet reopened) and if you are a wedding or conference venue you are stuffed. Even hotels whose bedrooms are full are struggling to make ends meet in the dining room, thanks to spaced tables, staggered sittings and fewer non-resident guests.

In general, country hotels are not faring as well as expected, though luxury ones with plenty of space are less badly affected. I stayed at Summer Lodge, deep in Dorset’s Hardy Country, on the first weekend that hotels could reopen. It was almost full and Covid precautions had been fine-tuned to the last detail, yet the staff managed to maintain the same warm and soothing atmosphere and the exceptional food and wine was as good as ever.

There were some laughs too. “Mon dieu,” exclaimed Eric Zweibel, the hotel’s world-class sommelier, as he swapped his mask for one of a consignment of visors that had just arrived for the staff, “I look like one of my children’s Playmobil figures.”

Summer Lodge is spending thousands on an electrostatic treatment that creates a protective anti-virus coat and I have every confidence that their anti-Covid measures will remain second to none.

But this won’t be the case everywhere: already a US investigation has revealed that several iconic New York hotels were not thoroughly cleaned between guests. But if people are not entirely trusting of hotels, they do seem more comfortable with holiday homes, which are booked solid, presumably because one doesn’t have to mingle with strangers.

I speak from experience. We have a holiday cottage in the New Forest and bookings have never been stronger. We do our best to hose it down, change all the bedding and disinfect touch points after each let, and then we hope for the best. Which is, I suspect, the same for all the holiday cottages, hotels, restaurants and pubs in the country.

The sweet young owner of the pub in Wiltshire where we dined in solitary splendour is certainly doing all she can to reassure customers. But it may not be enough.

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