Expert’s Voice: Amid the turmoil, UK hotel industry bands together to fight coronavirus

by | 20 Mar 2020 | Experts

Many Best Western hotels across the UK plan to turn into temporary hospitals.

Hundreds of hotel beds in the UK are being turned over to the health service, providing shelter for patients and accommodation for frontline medical workers.

At a time when the hotel industry is facing an acute crisis, extraordinary gestures of kindness are serving as reminders that a generous spirit underlies true hospitality.

In London, hotels are offering support for those on the frontline in the battle against coronavirus. The city is experiencing an alarming growth in the rate of infections, despite the closure of cinemas and theatres. Many pubs and restaurants are shut and hotels could be next. Spain has already instructed all hotels to close next week.

In London, the Millennium Hotel at Stamford Bridge, in the wealthy district of Chelsea, is to offer accommodation without charge for two months to staff who work at nearby hospitals. Beds and food will be available for people who find it difficult to commute into London. There will also be accommodation for those who cannot stay at home because a relative is showing signs of infection from the virus.

Chelsea’s Money

The cost of the project will be met by Chelsea football club. The initiative came from its chairman Bruce Buck and the club’s Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, who is currently barred from entering the UK because of visa issues.

All football matches have been suspended for the current season. The concerns about Covid-19 at Chelsea are especially urgent, because a member of the squad tested positive for the virus last month. He has since recovered.

The London branch of Britain’s National Health Service said: “We really are enormously grateful to Chelsea Football Club and Roman Abramovich for their offer to support our hard-working NHS staff during the Covid-19 emergency.”

It added: “We’d very much welcome similar offers of support from other hotels. This really does help us keep services running at a time when the NHS is likely to be under enormous pressure.”

Hotel hospitals

Another company to respond quickly is Best Western Great Britain, which plans to turn some of its hotels into temporary hospitals. Bedrooms could provide places for people to self-isolate in safety, particularly elderly and homeless people, who might otherwise have nowhere to stay.

In addition, Best Western is planning to use one of its hotels in South London as a “halfway house” for patients who have been recently discharged from hospital but are not ready to return home. A hundred rooms will be provided, with the health service providing medical facilities.

Rob Paterson, chief executive officer of Best Western Great Britain, said: “We are in unprecedented territory so we would be willing to take unprecedented steps to support the national effort.”

He told the BBC: “Like many industries at the moment, the hotel sector is on its knees. We have had huge declines in our bookings and massive cancellations, so a lot of hotels are on the verge of closing.”

Best Western is a not-for-profit organisation and runs around 280 hotels across the UK.

Critical care

Another group which plans to offer supplementary hospital accommodation for patients throughout the coronavirus crisis is Britannia Hotels. It has told the British government it wants to help take the pressure of hospitals by providing bed spaces.

A spokesperson for the group said: “We are uniquely placed to provide extensive support accommodation for hospitals or care homes during this difficult time.

“Our hotels are large properties situated in key locations throughout the country and we can provide 600 beds in cities such as London, Manchester and Coventry – more than 60 properties in total.”

Prior to the coronavirus crisis, Britannia Hotels was already considering turning some of its hotels into private health and social care facilities. The scale of the crisis facing the hospitality sector is evident in the lobbies of London’s leading hotels.

Public spaces in the Four Seasons, the Renaissance and even the Ritz have fallen eerily quiet. TOPHOTELNEWS has learned that the Kimpton Russell Square has been operating with an occupancy rate of about seven percent, a figure which is likely to be matched at other upmarket London hotels.

Town and country

While big groups face problems which are international in scope, the cancellations are putting a great deal of pressure on independent and smaller operators.

The Pig Hotel Group has seven properties in the South of England, as well as a ski hotel in France. It employs around 800 people.

Robin Hutson, the chairman and chief executive, says: “My absolute priority is to support our team for as long as I can. However, if we are forced to close because of this crisis and are left without income, we will need help from the government with our payroll.”

He says that some guests who live in cities have made short term bookings to stay in the rural hotels, in the hope that the country will be safer than the urban environment. A few British guests have also chosen to remain in the UK on “staycation” after trips abroad were cancelled.

Nevertheless, across the sector, the concerns that all hotels will be forced to close indefinitely are mounting.

“I have been in the industry for 45 years and on the whole hospitality operators are a pretty sanguine bunch. We are on the frontline for many types of crisis – economic turmoil, even wars. We usually take whatever is thrown at us but this time the scale of the problem is unprecedented,” says Mr Hutson.

The wait for clarity is an anxious time for all businesses. Yet the clear signal from the hospitality industry in Britain is that even the profit motive is secondary at a time of urgent need. Commercial rivalries have also been put aside for now as businesses rally together, doing all they can to support society.

Duncan Bartlett

Duncan Bartlett

Editor, Asian Affairs Magazine

Duncan Bartlett is a journalist specialising in international business based out of London. He is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and a former presenter of World Business Report on the BBC. He also runs a public speaking support for professionals named Deliver Your Message.

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