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  • Writer's pictureWill Hide

One Sussex Hotel's Coronavirus Story

In a normal year Deans Place Hotel in Alfriston, East Sussex would be humming.

Guests would be checking in to one of the 36 rooms, eating in the restaurant, enjoying a drink at the bar, having a dip in the pool and using the four-star property as a base from which to explore the bucolic South Downs National Park.

On weekends, newly-wed brides and grooms would be toasting each other, getting ready for their first dance and hoping the best man’s speech wouldn’t bring up that weekend at university when…well, let’s just hope the best man’s forgotten. (Spoiler alert: he hasn’t forgotten.)

Owners James and Lucinda Dopson would be overseeing a staff of 45 and making sure all was going smoothly at the hotel they have run for 11 years.

But this is not a normal year.

Things aren’t going smoothly. Thanks to Covid-19 things aren’t going at all. No guests are checking in and staff have been furloughed.

I first chatted to James and Lucinda six weeks ago for an article in the Sunday Times. I caught up with them this week to see if things are looking any brighter now.

Ups and South Downs…

“It’s a strange experience living in a hotel that’s shut,” Lucinda tells me over the phone. We last spoke in March, when customers were cancelling, refunds were being requested, staff were being sent home and suppliers’ contracts renegotiated. I’m keen to hear if they are more or less optimistic.

“Back then I was exhausted from all the chaos that was going on,” says James. “Mentally I think things have settled and we’ve slowed down a bit. Information isn’t being fired at us quite as heavily and we’ve adapted in terms of understanding what’s going on. We are still getting bookings for later on in the summer but they’re few and far between, and often for things like weddings that have been moved.

For me optimism changes by the day. I think I’m realistic, Luci says I’m pessimistic. But I don’t want to pretend it’s all going to be OK because if it’s not I’ll feel disappointed. When I last spoke to you I felt like the world was collapsing. There’s a little bit of light now for the industry as a whole but also for us, a hotel in a beautiful part of the South Downs.”

“This whole episode has been hugely disappointing” adds Lucinda. “You don’t run an independent hospitality business like this if you don’t absolutely love it. If we can pull ourselves through it’ll be incredible, but we’ve got to be hugely realistic.

World War Won…

I think once we are allowed to reopen it’ll be like that post-WWII model. It’ll be James and I doing as much as we can ourselves and having a bare-bones staff and stock. We’re simply not going to have the set up to go straight back into what we were doing before all this happened. I think for others it might just be too much to financially and physically get through the next 18 months.”

James adds “I just wish we knew what we’d be allowed to do, service wise when we’re told we can reopen. Are we going to be allowed to open our bar and restaurant? We just don’t know what’s expected of us yet. Our industry’s shown how quickly it can adapt to change, with so many outlets becoming takeaways when all this started.

But when we do reopen it’s going to take us time to get staff back, to retrain them. We need to know what’s going to be needed, what are the requirements of hotels in terms of rooms, will there be stuff in rooms that won’t be allowed. If we’re suddenly given a 200-page document of things we have to change about our business and we have to learn that in a week, that’s going to be really hard.

Don’t Bank on It…

Everything we’ve built up over the last 11 years has rather gone out of the window in the last few months. We’ve invested everything we had to get this up to a four-star hotel. But because of that, we haven’t made a profit for the last few years and so now the banks won’t support us. We’ve invested in our product to make things better in the long run and everything was going in the right direction but the bottom line wasn’t there. It’s frustrating not to have that support from the banks when they can’t see the future product in an independent business. You’re told they’re there for you but they’re not really.

For our industry, this isn’t going to be over in a few months, there are going to be knock-on effects for a long time. We need a good summer to get us through and I think we’re going to be the last industry opening so we’re going to miss out on all that. We need to support independents whether they’re hotels or restaurants."

Coming Back…

Reopening? “July for bedrooms is my guess,” says James “but you read different things every day.”

“If there are social distancing measures in place, I think we’d be able to do that here because we have space” adds Lucinda. “I’d feel quite worried if we’re able to open up for rooms only rather than our bar and restaurant too, because really who wants to come away just for the bedroom if they can’t eat and drink too unless you’re a seriously keen walker who’s happy with a packed lunch. It would just be odd.

“I think they may look at rural areas to open first, places where there have been very few outbreaks because the social distancing measures can be put in place here” ponders James. “Towns will take longer but if the whole country is blanketed with a ban, that will delay it. I think they’ll have to look at the square meterage of your restaurants and hotels to work the social distancing options out. In terms of capacity, though, it’ll be like January in the back end of summer, which isn’t great.”

“We’ve lost our bookings for the Glyndebourne opera festival and we’ve had to postpone all our summer weddings too. But those kinds of gatherings might only be allowed next year. Having moved them once, we might have to shift them again. Those conversations are never easy. The initial ten days of this whole episode were exhausting, it’s the closest to a stress breakdown that I’ve ever had. After that, we just chilled out because we realised there wasn’t much else we could do. We’ve used the time to build things, fix things, washed down the front of the hotel.

I guess we’re in acceptance of it all, though. The whole world is going through this, it’s not just us.”

All photos were taken by Deans Place Hotel

(c)Will Hide 2020

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