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“Confusion, communication and Covid” Rudding Park’s Peter Banks on 2020 in hospitality

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Charismatic managing director at Rudding Park, Peter Banks, shares his candid view on the last 12 months, in a year of curfew confusion, cash flow worry and a clear lack of clarity from the government.

January

Reports of an Epidemic in China. We seemed to think it was a purely Chinese problem.

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I attend the Hotel General Managers conference in London on the 20/21 January, the key note speaker was a futurologist, some bloke who is supposed to be able to tell us what the trends and issues are coming in the future. Not ONE mention of a global pandemic – some futurologist he was. I wonder if I’d get my money back…

February

Italy suffers really badly with overflowing hospitals and whole towns shut down. We still allow our population to go skiing to Italy. We watch in horrified fascination, a sort of voyeuristic “Rubber-necking” at a crash on the motorway. We still refuse to believe it will happen to us.

March

Spain and France are the next countries to suffer and impose severe lockdown and curfews. We follow the “Herd Immunity” theory and allow Cheltenham races and European football matches to go ahead.

16 March – Boris throws the hospitality industry under the bus when he tells the population not to go to pubs, restaurants or hotels. 500,000 Hospitality jobs lost in one week as a Tsunami of cancellations hits us. I convince all of my team to take a 40% pay cut to see us through to the end of June.

20 March – Guests are leaving on the Friday night, in tears, telling me I should be shut now. The feeling is of a country on the verge of a war.

21 March – I close the gates of Rudding and the hard work really starts as we try to contact every guest and alter their arrival dates. We try to move dates rather than refund as we are not sure how long we will stay cash liquid.

23 March – Rishi comes to the rescue with the incredibly generous furlough scheme that saves millions of hospitality jobs and means that my team only need to take a 20% cut.

April   

We have a skeleton team staying in the hotel for security, grass cutting and fire. I stay one week and start feeling like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”. Less “Here’s Johnny!”, more “Here’s Banksy!”. Two of my team start a 100-day stint staying in the hotel. Respect.

We start talking with the Bank for CBILS loans and overdrafts. I redo the budget four times before it is satisfactory. Frankly it’s all guesswork anyway as we have no clarity, no plan and no communication from the government. I imagine they are even more up to their necks in it than I am. The daily briefings become a depressing tally of cases and deaths, but there seems to be no clear planned escape route.

The weather is amazing, we would have been heaving at the golf, spa and terrace if we had been open. Heartbreaking. We start taking bets that when we reopen it will start raining.

May

I start going a little crazy as I am not shaving, polishing my shoes or ironing a shirt. This way lies madness so I start coming in to work every morning – in my suit, polished Oxfords and cleanshaven.

We reopen the golf on the 14th May, and are given 24 hours to get the course open. Boris announces this in a sort of “off the cuff” manner on Sunday night. Great planning and great communication. Not.

June

Four balls allowed, I have my first contact from the EHO about the external bar at the golf. Apparently guests can bring their own beer from Sainsbury’s and drink it in the car park, or I can sell them beer and they can drink it on the side of the road. I can’t however sell them beer and they drink it on our terrace, or spread all over the estate. Social distancing is possible over 200 acres surely? Apparently not. Them’s the rules.

We try to keep our team engaged with volunteering for Ripon Walled Garden and the “Rudding Pop up Litter Pick”. We collect over a tonne of rubbish from around Harrogate by hand.

July

Hallelujah! We are open!

4 July – Holiday park reopens.

14 July – Hotel reopens.

25 July – Spa reopens.

We have planned and implemented so many Covid secure ways of operating, masks, visors, temperature checkers, apps, sterile cutlery bags, staggered dining times, on line check in and out – the list is endless.

Staff return to work in a panic. They don’t know what they are allowed to do, are afraid of talking to guests – daily tears are the order of the day.

Guests are delighted to be back, and are very understanding. I (foolishly) hope that this will be a sea change in guest behaviour towards staff. This good behaviour lasts about two weeks before usual service is resumed. Silly old me, ever the optimist.

August

Steam rooms and saunas are still closed by law. This apparently is our fault and guests get really annoyed. I suggest that they write to Mr B Johnson, 10 Downing St, London WC1.

The world goes mad with the “Eat out to Help out” scheme. A month ago we weren’t allowed to see each other, now we are encouraging restaurants and pubs to be full. The irony! Still we have to join in as we have to take the opportunity to make some money as the bank still needs paying.

Rishi announces a 5% VAT rate on food and accommodation. Tremendously generous and is the difference between many hospitality businesses being solvent or going bust.

September and October 

The incredible demand continues and we are so busy. Some guests are Covid deniers and swear and shout at staff when we ask them to wear a mask or tell them what the “Rule of six” means. Guests book two separate tables of six and then push the tables together. Some guests are Covid Police and shout at us for other guests’ behaviour. They then troll us on social media. You can please some of them some of the time, but you can’t please all of them all of the time, I guess…

The ridiculous curfew starts. Most guests behave and go to bed, some bend the rules by ordering room service drinks, then walking out of their bedroom and sitting in public areas in the hotel. Guests complain, swear and shout when we try to enforce the curfew. Again a lack of clarity. I wonder whether the government actually asked an hospitality operator how these rules would work in practice. Somehow I doubt it.

November

Here we go again. Closed on 4 November. This lockdown is not a real lockdown however – more of a just hospitality and retail closed. We use the time to refurbish the Clocktower restaurant; we can make as much noise as we want and not disturb guests.

December

The impenetrable tier system starts. Guests in Tier 3 are “advised” not to travel, but it is not illegal. This creates great confusion for guests, are they allowed to stay or not? We tell guests that they are “advised” not to travel, but we are open. The Government needs to make some unpopular decisions, that’s what leadership is about sometimes – you can’t always be everyone’s mate.

20 December – The new variant is announced and the Government is finally forced into making an unpopular decision. At last he acts like a real leader. We have 45 rooms cancel for Christmas, but at least it’s clear. At last the communication is getting better.

We planned a different New Years Eve at Rudding. Because of the curfew we decide to be creative and change time! We will give every guest a watch with the time set two hours forward so that 10.00pm GMT is 12.00pm RPT (Rudding Park Time)! Therefore Champagne and pipers can happen within the rules at Rudding.

30 December – Well this really is the icing on the cake. 9 hours notice to close as we go into Tier 3 at Midnight tonight. New Years Eve we should have been full. All of the food (Turbot, Venison Fillet, Lobster) all wasted, the time spent preparing the dishes, the administration of New Years Eve, the watches, the recovery packs, the marketing collateral for our Rudding Park Time – all wasted. They must have known this was going to happen, but to give us nine hours notice? I understand the danger of the virus – but a little more notice would have been appreciated. Nine hours? Really? If I ran a company like this – I would be out of a job – pronto. For a year of poor planning and poor communication this has got to be the absolute gold star award.

We’ve decided to have New Years Eve tonight, rather than tomorrow. They might have cancelled New Years Eve, but not at Rudding! Music, balloons, time change, smoke machines, champagne – this is our Dunkirk I reckon.

Overall a chastening year – battered, but still standing. Still trying to look after our guests, trying to understand the impenetrable fog of directives coming from government and trying to tread the thin line between financial success and failure.

What a year. Leadership, communication and resilience have been the watchwords of the hospitality industry.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in 35 years at the sharp end of hospitality, it’s that no matter how bad today has been – the world will continue to turn, the sun will come up. The key is how we frame tomorrow. As leaders that is our responsibility – let’s kick 2020 into touch and frame 2021 with energy, enthusiasm and positivity.

Bring it on.

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Zoe Monk

The author Zoe Monk

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