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'We've had a slew of bookings since Friday': Hoteliers' plans to reopen in the Covid-19 era

Hoteliers have asked for clarity on small weddings, and live music events this summer.

HOTELIERS SAY THERE was a spike in bookings after the announcement of an “accelerated” road map to reopen Ireland, but added that further clarity is needed on the 2m social-distancing rule, music events, and weddings.

Although welcoming Fáilte Ireland’s guidance on how hotels can reopen from 29 June, which was published yesterday, hotels are still asking that the social distancing advice be brought down to 1m, in order to help host more guests and remain “viable”.

Hoteliers have also asked for clarity on small weddings and whether live music can be organised, which isn’t mentioned in the new guidelines.

Pat McCann of the Dalata Hotel Group, the largest hotel group in Ireland with over 7,000 rooms across all its Irish businesses, says that it’s “a very comprehensive document”, but the 1m-rule would make things easier. 

“It’s not just kind of a doubling of the space, it’s actually more than that, it is very significant in what it does,” he says, adding that smaller hotels would have it much tougher.

The World Health Organisation has said that one metre is fine, and if they say it’s okay then then I’m happy enough with that.

“Reading through it, we can work with most of it,” Donal Minihane, General Manager at Hotel Doolin said. “For the last few months we’ve been in limbo. We didn’t really know what was coming down the line.”

“So we can work with most of it except the two-metre rule,” he says, meaning bars cafés and restaurants will all have to space tables and chairs two metres apart.

Rónán O’Halloran, General Manager at Glenlo Abbey Hotel in Galway, said that they’ve already been looking at how to change before the guidelines were published.

“Previously guests would have had a buffet for the cold items and then the hot breakfast was a la carte in the kitchen. So what we’ve done now is we’ve removed the buffet fully.”

Instead, a waiter will take an order for the cold items, so customers will get a “two-course order” for their breakfast. 

The tourism sector is the hardest-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdown: the Irish tourism season stretches from St Patrick’s Day until September – so a huge chunk of revenue has already been lost for the tourism sector.

“For a lot of premises, [the two-metre rule is] going to be unworkable,” Minihane said, adding if it was reduced to 1m, it would still require “drastic changes”, but may “give us a chance of being viable”.

It’s going to result in the physical amendments to the property, and it’s going to come with a rather drastic reduction in revenue. So, I don’t know how it’s gonna be financially viable but we need to open our doors, for our staff, for suppliers, for customers.

After the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s announcement on Friday that Ireland would ‘reopen’ at an accelerated rate compared to what was envisaged in April, Minihane says that they had “a slew” of bookings on Friday “and they’re still coming in”.

McCann said that Dalata also saw an “immediate update across all our sites”. The group is to launch a domestic tourism campaign in Ireland and the UK from Monday.

But Minihane is careful to point out that over 11 million international tourists were expected to fly into Ireland this year, which cannot be replaced by domestic Irish tourism alone. Ireland’s current population is around 4.9 million people.

When asked whether opening now will be enough to weather the financial hit hotels have taken, O’Halloran says “the short answer is no”.

“The revenue wheel went to zero on March 19,” he said. “And whilst we tried to manage costs as best we can. There was a cost to maintaining and securing the property that ran to thousands and tens of thousands of euro each month. It’s just it’s been a sheer devastation off normal trading.”

He said that the hotel group has added new services to grapple with the lockdown: the hotel group now offers a takeaway menu three days a week, which O’Halloran reckons they’ll keep. They’ve also started up a coffee ‘wagon’ on the roadside, that offers tea, sandwiches and soups, which has been used by golfers on their site. 

“Now, if you were able to do a wedding tomorrow, financially you’d be so much better off,” he adds, “but each time we did one of these things allowed us to bring more staff back, which was a key driver.”

Minihane also mentioned that clarity on live music events and weddings is needed – and makes the point that before the lockdown, gatherings of 100 people were permitted outside, and gatherings of 50 people indoors.

We’re hoping to be able to bring back music sessions in some form over the summer, but there isn’t much clarification… I don’t see how a music session can impinge on social distancing, you can have musicians in a corner and tables spaced out. So we’d welcome something on that.

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 McCann says that weddings in the near future will be “a big challenge”. 

The problem is, even if you could get a room large enough, it will lose all its atmosphere. It’s just unworkable.

Most people who had booked weddings have opted to postpone them until next year, both McCann and O’Halloran say.

All three hoteliers said that for staff returning to work, childcare and at-risk family members have presented as issues, but that they are supporting staff in prioritising their health during this crisis.

O’Halloran said that one staff member initially didn’t want to return to work because of the risk to his parents. But he has since returned to work because of the trust in the measures put in place. “It’s really a case-by-case basis,” he says.

“We will look after our people in whatever way we have to make sure that they’re all safe,” McCann says. 

When asked if he was concerned that Ireland will lose it’s international tourism market, McCann replies “not at all”.

“There’s a lot of talk around ‘people will change and do things differently’. That’ll happen for a short period of time but mark my words, it’ll move back to where people were to be and and are comfortable and then their lives will start to return to normal and start to do the normal things again, that’s the way life is.

There will be a pent up demand as we get to 2021 and into 2022. Because, don’t forget, most people won’t have travelled this year.

“The way I look at where we are now is: 2020 is about making sure you survive, and 2021 then you’re back to rebuilding your business, and then 2022 you’re back to what I would call normal trading patterns.”

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