• Cyril McAree

Hotels New-Look Grand Re-opening

Anywhere you look on the Internet these days, you’ll be sure to come across various images of what the future holds for the hotel and catering industry – now looking like it will reopen much faster than previously planned. Photographs of customers sitting in ‘snugs’ of Perspex walls in Switzerland, seemingly contented couples having romantic dinner by the Amstel River in Amsterdam with their table encased in a greenhouse, staff standing by to serve in the kind of outfits normally seen in American mega-budget films about a murderous virus…

As the curves everywhere continue on a determinedly downward slope, hotels and restaurants are gearing up to prepare for the day when they can serve customers once more. But what will they have to do in order to comply with the continuing restrictions on people keeping their distance from one another? Are the restrictions fair when compared with other countries? Will dining out and staying in hotels become unaffordable?

On the radio waves recently, there has been much discussion about this topic, with visions being conjured of all foodstuffs being wrapped in plastic in near-empty dining rooms. Hopefully, the reality won’t be as cold as this and if any industry can turn such a vision into something warm and welcoming, it’s the Irish Hospitality Industry.

NHance Hospitality Manager Ray Byrne is currently managing the historic Eccles Hotel & Spa in Glengarriff, West Cork – an establishment in a very touristic part of the world and which enjoys one of the most heavenly views of any in the country.

He’s looking forward to the property re-opening after an extensive refurbishment that will give the elegant old dame of West Cork a thoroughly modern makeover, transforming it from 3-star category to 4-star. He’s hoping for a strong restart on July 20th but things are far from clear with regard to the protocol on serving food:

“For us, we’re looking at a countdown in terms of opening as a restaurant on the 29th of June and then three weeks beyond that, for the bedrooms.

“With regard to serving food, it will be risk assessment – getting your SOB’s (Standard Operating Procedures) in place and government officials ensuring that those guidelines are adhered to.

“So it won’t be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ situation. Fast-food places will be different to fine dining establishments, for example. Each business will have to carry out its own risk assessment.”

The use of Perspex screens will probably be limited to areas such as the reception desk and the use of online menus (as opposed to printed ones) is likely to become de rigueur in most establishments.

“There isn’t any specific mention of them (Perspex screens) in the Fáilte Ireland guidelines,” points out Elaina Fitzgerald Kane, President of the Irish Hotels Federation, “but that doesn’t preclude businesses from installing them in certain circumstances… the only time it is prescribed is where social distancing cannot be achieved – this could be, for example, where you’ve booth seating where guests are seated back-to-back. There, you might bring the Perspex screening all the way up. Or indeed, things like a registration podium or tills.”

With regard to room cleaning, the worst-case scenario originally feared was that a hotel would have had to leave a room empty for 24 hours or 48 hours after a client had checked out and before you could have a new check-in. The guidelines issued by Fáilte Ireland have quelled those fears but saving time in the deep-cleaning process will likely be the primary focus for the industry, with UV light microbe-killing gadgets coming into their own.

And what of the occupancy rate expectations for the remainder of this stunted season?

“Bearing in mind that, traditionally, August is the peak month of the year, the realistic target for most hotels is around 40%,” says Elaina, adding that occupancy is likely to vary considerably, with pre-bookings heavily favouring hotels in established tourist destinations. “We worked in collaboration with the team in Fáilte Ireland over the last few months in deciding on the guideline protocols for re-opening. It’s very much a living document and it’s going to be amended as we go along.” In particular, the hope is that the two-metre distance rule will be relaxed as the infection figures reduce.

The Canary Islands is not only one of Ireland’s most popular destinations for foreign travel, it is also one of the first regions to map out in detail their plans for re-emergence from Covid-19 restrictions. Here too, the expectation amongst most hotels is for 50% occupancy rates to be the norm for the foreseeable future.

When it comes to hotels and restaurants in the Canaries, the plan is for a certain amount of social spacing and to request that people try and maintain this discipline where at all possible, with all policies deriving from that idea.

Hotel breakfast services, for example, are requested to conform to a longer stretch (from 6am to 11am) to try to space out the frequency of patrons and not have them all congregating at the same time. The plan is for one person to serve food from the buffet rather than everyone self-serving. It’s also recommended for single portions to be prepared and individually wrapped and regular replacement of salt cellars. For the customer, in this case, it will be a forced upgrading of the service in many ways:

“With buffet services, food will be served individually by an employee,” says the Directora de Zona Canarias (Canary Islands Regional Director) of Spanish state communications organisation SGAE. “Individually wrapped foods will also be encouraged, such as in the case of desserts.”

It's nothing new and these are the kinds of practices that have already been in place in many establishments servicing food – particularly in buffet services with large numbers of people passing through. They are also promoting the regular washing of hands rather than using gloves, with masks being recommended only where social distancing of two metres cannot be observed.

Just as when the virus first arrived, things are evolving fast. We’re at a very exciting phase when we feel that the news from week to week can only get better so here’s to hoping that the new normal won’t be too abnormal.

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