An interview with Marc Webster, Commercial Director, Whittlebury Park (www.whittlebury.com)
Can you describe a typical working day for you at the hotel during lockdown?
The day starts off by clocking up around 6,000 steps whilst checking the security and health of Whittlebury Hall (the owners actively check on our Atrium, Orangery and Pavilion and serviced office buildings), so that is the ground, first and second floors.The tools for the walk include a walkie-talkie, mobile phone for the switch- board, my mobile phone, a portable doorbell, master keys,
torch, and not forgetting that all important first flask of tea – I’m not the epitome of someone in operations, however I do look and sound the part whilst jingling and ringing as I walk the floors!
While the volume of calls, emails and enquiries have declined, the 12 email accounts that I have access to continue to keep me busy through- out the day, as does the constant flow of inbound phone calls and the adhoc visitor to the front door, which is normally our postie or a courier dropping off an order that one of the team who live in staff accommodation on site have ordered…all of this helps to contribute to the daily step count.
In between the calls, emails, doorbells and keeping a watchful eye on the CCTV cameras, I work on budgets, reopening strategy, planning our proposed new business segments such as hotel management support, and work on developing our serviced offices product.
Although my obvious preference would have been not to have experienced this global pandemic, it has allowed me to gain a greater understanding of the various areas of our business that in a ‘normal’ year I wouldn’t have got involved in at such a granular level. My learning curve
has taken several steep inclines at each lockdown. However just to re- emphasise, I would of course prefer to be open to all of our guests and have the full Whittlebury Park team back at the hotel, and I can’t wait for that day to come round again soon.
How many members of staff are working at Whittlebury Park during closure and which teams are they from?
Back in the first lockdown, ten long months ago, we kept a core team of 28 working across commercial, finance and operations.There was the initial mammoth task of contacting our customers to organise refunds and move bookings, plus respond to new enquiries across the various market segments, as well as making the most of the time while our doors were closed to invest in the product through decoration and refurbishment. Usually in a hotel’s life there are very few days when a swimming pool or hydrotherapy pool can be drained and scaffolding erected in order to be able to paint the wet areas and ceilings. Now with the third lockdown, and currently no easing of restrictions in sight, we have reduced our team further to just ten for January and February.
What type of work generally happens at the hotel during lockdown?
Everything that would normally happen in the life of a hotel, but with the exception of servicing the critical part, our guests.The day-to-day work is at a massively reduced volume. Invoices are paid, phones answered, emails responded to, maintenance programmes are followed, golf greens lovingly tended. One of the hardest parts is putting together a reopening plan and budget when there is currently no roadmap for reopening UK plc.
Are there any new strategies or innovations you are putting in place for when the hotel reopens?
During the first two lockdowns we embarked on a maintenance programme of the areas of our business which would normally never be closed down for long periods of time due to business volume. For example, our maintenance team spent months redecorating our Spa and Leisure Club, installing new showers, updating the changing rooms, repainting the ceilings, and we even had a local artist in to refresh the artwork around our swimming pool.Areas such as our large lobby and main restaurants also had a refurbishment and subtle colour change, including the painting of the ceilings, of which was a mammoth task in itself.
We invested in proximity web-based food and beverage ordering services after the first lockdown, and we will continue to utilise these across more areas of our estate once we are open again. Just before the cur- rent lockdown we launched a new online live class and streaming service for our leisure club members, and whilst this is currently paused we will continue to offer initiatives such as this when we reopen so that our guests have more choice.
How are you preparing for post-Covid trading?
By ensuring that we are ahead of the curve and have the business ready to go when the government sets out the UK’s roadmap to recovery. We are currently working on our new online training plan so that all team members are able to complete both the new and refresher train- ing modules over the coming weeks and months.We are keeping in contact with our customers and continuing to plan for the traditional promotional periods, ensuring that these can be booked online or over the phone through the small team that are still working each day.
How are you keeping in touch with furloughed staff (and they you)?
Our rota scheduling tool Planday has a communication platform on it which we use to send out relevant business updates, plus the Heads of Departments stay in regular contact with their teams through WhatsApp messaging or Zoom team calls, which helps to boost team morale among the furloughed staff. Our business, like all others within the hospitality sector, has its people at the core of its success, so whilst staying in contact remotely is effective for a period of time, we can’t wait to see the whole team back at the hotel.
How are you keeping in touch with guests?
We continue to remain active on our social media channels to give regular updates and stay in touch, plus we send out appropriate communications via the Mailchimp platform to reinforce the message that Whittlebury Park is still here and waiting to welcome our guests to the estate one day very soon.