In a thought-provoking diary entry showcasing the reality behind two weeks of turmoil, Claire Hunter of the Marine Hotel, Ballycastle gives an honest insight into the impact of Stormont's indecision on her and her staff.
Monday November 9
The week commencing November 9 was indeed a confusing one for hospitality in Northern Ireland. Whilst we are absolutely devoted to doing what we are told regarding Covid, making the necessary investments, training and risk assessments running into thousands of pounds, an utter shambles is the only way I can describe the entire week last week!
Today at 5pm I don't think I would be alone in saying hoteliers and publicans (and other business owners) were beginning to feel ill-at-ease with the lack of communication coming from our Executive. We had been told on Friday evening that Monday would give us an answer. We don't, at that point, mind what the decision is… but give us your decision! We had a bride hanging in the balance!
Tuesday November 10
On Monday and Tuesday Jack, our head chef, and Joanne, our general manager, were planning the menus for Costa, Marconi's Bistro and some (socially distant) group dinners - you see you can't just open the doors. How many diners will we have? Will we only be able to feed residents? How do we make sure that we are ready in case we can feed a full Marconi's Bistro with residents and non-residents? We need to have enough but what if we can't open - we can't waste thousands of pounds of food. The egg man needs to know what we need, the milk and fruit and vegetable companies need to know, the fish order comes straight off the boats… what would we like for the weekend? They need to get the ingredients to us and their other 300 customers - and all before Wednesday or Thursday. We need to make sure we let them know our order early so we don't make life difficult for them.
That's how the world goes round - if you look after people, people will look after you.
On Tuesday Joanne and Adam (operations manager) prepared the rota. It's not just a matter of calling a few people up and asking them to work. We need to calculate revenue, estimate covers, spend, busy times, possible (or no) bar sales. What manpower do we need in kitchen and front of house? If the bar is open we need to order bar stock - not just one item, we stock dozens of items - you don't want to order in large invoices and lots of stock if you might not get the people in house to drink it… suppliers need paid, if we don't sell it… It's winter in Ballycastle and we can't afford to sit on stock at the best of times in this season.
Wednesday November 11
All of this and we haven't even touched on the accommodation yet. On Tuesday and Wednesday Liz and Connlith and Taylor spent hours on the phone explaining to guests that we are very sorry but we just don't know. It's our reputation and the emotional wellbeing of our staff. How horrible to spend call after call to distressed or confused would-be guests. Will we still come? Is the bar open? Does it close early? Most guests are fine but some guests find it incredulous that on Wednesday afternoon we don't know if we are going to be able to open or not and find it hard not to take it out on us.
From the beginning of the week, we are looking at having a full house at the weekend. Think linen orders, cleaning materials, chemicals, cleaning time, public area cleaning time. Is the heating on? When shall we turn it on? In zones 1 and 2 or throughout the hotel?
Mrs Smyth usually checks in early on the Friday - can we make sure her corner room with the view is ready and heated for 1pm instead of 3pm? How many housekeeping staff do we need for Thursday and Friday to finalise getting everything ship shape? Is the handyman list of replaced lightbulbs complete?
By Wednesday evening we had to make the call to close that weekend. We couldn't leave our guests hanging any longer, couldn't hold off on supplies but had no certainty of what we would need. I understand there are difficult decisions to be made but REALLY! The hotel probably lost around £7,000 in revenue that weekend, plus all the additional costs of staff in planning the opening and on the phones to guests. It's the inconvenience to our guests, Colum's and my excellent devoted team and the knock on to suppliers that is most annoying.
Friday November 13
To make things even more rosy, on Friday 13, the day we were supposedly going to reopen we had still not had any news of the Localised Restrictions Support Scheme which we applied for four weeks before. The fund seems to have been ridiculously slow and small businesses just cannot survive without a bit of cash flow for bills!
We run a 41-bedroom hotel in beautiful Ballycastle. We are renowned for going over and above in down to earth friendly customer service and relationships with providers. One of our many mottos is that "great communication can get the business through almost all difficult situations with almost every difficult guest". That may be communication with service providers like telephones, water, linen, computers, it might be services like plumbers and electricians, it may be guests, it may be fellow team members, fellow managers, suppliers of food, freezers, gas, roof tiles… every single thing that makes a hotel go around and be successful is linked to the communication within these circles.
This last week our executive gave the country a very poor demonstration of leadership and communication.
Our excitement at reopening after four weeks was palpable in the hotel, among staff and on social media. We were almost fully booked for weekend commencing November 13 and also for this weekend commencing November 20. Because you see, people want to support us as we have given them fun times, a listening ear, a retreat from real life, memories or simply good food, drink or a place to meet over the years! They feel bad for us with the closures and want to offer something back to the local community and the wonderful people of Ballycastle.
Monday November 16
It would be fair to say that we are a fairly resilient team though. We are where we are, let's move onwards and upwards.
Since the decision was made to close us for an additional two weeks Joanne and the team have been working on the Christmas decorations and sales. With the luxury of plenty of time I can honestly say the decorations are worth coming to see!
Covid precautions will be in place throughout the hotel unobtrusively. Our team will be here to welcome you throughout December and are really looking forward to it.
For Christmas Party nights we've had to knock the traditional dancing on the head BUT we have May McFettridge coming for a show with dinner on December 12 and Contessa Titti von Tramp and supper on December 18 for Titti's Bingo.
Tuesday November 17
This week we have been using time to paint bedrooms, re arrange stores, plan improvements to be made to the hotel for next season. We are also working with University of Ulster final year Students to analyse our Digital Media presence and identify and action changes, so there's never a dull moment at the Marine.
Thursday November 19
I had good fun talking to Stephen the photographer in a shoot for the Belfast Telegraph this afternoon. What a different world that was! At 2pm this afternoon I was working with Stephen and his lovely son Sam to find photographs that would portray the hotel in its closed state now but show also our optimism and hope for less than ten days time-November 27.
I am writing this at almost midnight on Thursday, November 19 after a peaceful family dinner, many dishes washed and a couple of primary school practice spelling tests. I have just heard that our gorgeous hotel is going to be closed for another three weeks from tomorrow. I am gutted, truly heartbroken and frustrated for the uncertainty for our team.
We were absolutely fully booked for next weekend and having to push lovely, supportive guests (who didn't want to return deposits because they wanted to support us) into next March! That's where the demand is… for safe, family, friendly people wanting a break. And, to be honest, I'm with them.
Our guests are really, really important to us. So are our team. Without either party we wouldn't be where we are now. The Marine isn't a Galgorm or a Solus Lough Eske or an Ashford Castle. We are a really good, friendly, accessible three-star hotel with a bit of funky beachside vibe which seems to bring people back.
Where do we go from here? Above, I wrote about onwards and upwards…
We still have to work in that direction, I will not spoil someone's Christmas plans knowingly. We currently have well over 100 people booked in for Christmas lunch. Many elderly, in couples, infirm, lonely or simply much bigger families than one house could accommodate…I don't want to let them down.
Whilst the Marine Hotel doesn't support all the decisions our NI Executive made over the past three weeks we will abide by the rules and do our best.
I'm proud of Team Marine.
For more information on the hotel visit www.marinehotelballycastle.com/christmas