Navigating the Crisis | Andrew Stembridge on leading Iconic Luxury Hotels through Covid-19

“Clearly every business has been impacted, however hospitality unquestionably falls under the category of ‘worst hit’. Although the Government’s JRS was an incredible lifeline, having to close our doors for the first time and send almost 800 staff home as quickly as possible was beyond any crisis management plan we have ever written.”

In today’s luxury leader profile, we meet Andrew Stembridge, the Managing Director of Chewton Glen and Executive Director of the Iconic Luxury Hotel Group, for his insights on the impact of coronavirus on Chewton Glen, Cliveden, The Lygon Arms and 11 Cadogan Gardens – as well as the new addition to The Iconic Family, The Mayfair Townhouse, which is aiming to open this Autumn…

Andrew Stembridge is the Managing Director of Chewton Glen and Executive Director of the Iconic Luxury Hotel Group. With over 30 years of hotel, restaurant and spa operations under his belt Andrew Stembridge is currently the driving force and strategic vision behind Iconic Luxury Hotels, a small collection of owned and managed hotels which includes Chewton Glen, Cliveden, The Lygon Arms and 11 Cadogan Gardens. 

How are you navigating your business through the current COVID-19 crisis?

Clearly every business has been impacted, however hospitality unquestionably falls under the category of ‘worst hit’. Although the Government’s JRS was an incredible lifeline, having to close our doors for the first time and send almost 800 staff home as quickly as possible was beyond any crisis management plan we have ever written. Throughout the process my priority has been to protect the business and our iconic buildings, keep in touch with the team and our guests and lastly to plan meticulously to hit the ground running when we reopen. Probably the biggest challenge throughout has been the uncertainty and as much as we now have very comprehensive reopening operational plans, commercial plans and year-end forecasts, there are still too many unknowns in terms of when we might be able to reopen and what social distancing restrictions and health and safety measures will be imposed upon us.

Our provincial hotels are lucky in that they already benefited from a particularly high ratio of UK leisure business and I am confident that this will bounce back both quickly and strongly. Even though we are closed we still have a skeleton reservations team, working from home and they are getting busier by the week as everyone starts to plan to get away post lockdown. There has been a flurry of enquiries for larger parties and events such as weddings in 2021 has demand for corporate events for Q3 and Q4 this year is also picking up.

Doing ‘our bit’ for the NHS has been an important focus for us whilst closed and we have instigated our own scheme to give Spa vouchers for Chewton Glen, Cliveden and The Lygon Arms to local NHS workers. Even in the absence of an audience our GM’s and skeleton teams have been clapping every Thursday evening and we have replaced our corporate emblems with NHS flags. We are also participating in a number of hospitality industry initiatives to provide luxury nights away when we are allowed to reopen for all our properties including our Chelsea hotel, 11 Cadogan Gardens. Many of our teams who are furloughed are volunteering or making scrubs at home and the hotels have donated everything from hand cream to hospitals, to leftover food to food banks and freshly harvested to leeks to a local ‘soup bowl’ initiative.

Now that building sites have been able to reopen, we have a small team of contractors back at Chewton Glen to finish our exciting spa transformation in readiness for reopening and it also means that our new addition to The Iconic Family, The Mayfair Townhouse, should be ready to open in the Autumn, only a few weeks later than originally planned.

What has the situation taught you about leadership?

As an eternal optimist I am always able to remain positive and I also believe in only worrying about what we can influence, and in this instance, The government actually took many of the harder decisions out of our hands. In a previous role I learned more than I ever imagined about challenging scenarios and as a leader you are forever dipping into your past experienced to help you deal with difficult situations. Adversity inevitably adds to your resilience and I’d like to think that I have remained both strong, focussed and decisive throughout.

That said, everyone is reacting differently though to this unprecedented situation and there is also so much conflicting information and advice that it has been quite hard at times to remain on the same course and bring everyone with me. Overall it has brought the best out in the team and their determination to crack on and make the most of the opportunity has really impressed me.

And what has it taught you about your business?

Under normal circumstances, our hotels operate 24 hours a day, 7 days per week, 365 days a year and due to the inevitable pressures of running luxury establishments, it can feel at times relentless. Although I haven’t had as much time to reflect and strategise as I would have imagined, just having the doors closed momentarily has allowed us to metaphorically stand back. Amongst the team we have certainly had numerous discussions around ‘blank pieces of paper’ and ‘if we were starting from scratch’. We’ve also drilled down on our expenditure to an extent that we have never done previously and although I would like to think that we operate in a very commercially savvy way, there is clearly opportunities for efficiency without any detrimental impact to our guests or the team.

How are you – and the wider business – supporting your people?

Keeping in touch with the entire ‘Iconic Team’ and especially those who have been furloughed has been one of our main goals and this has been particularly important for some of the team who live on their own and are possibly a long, long way from their families. We set up a closed Facebook group which has been a been positive and thoroughly entertaining, seeing how everyone has been filling their time at home. Our General Managers have been doing Zoom calls every couple of weeks for any of their teams who want to join and I have been sending out emails and video messages on a regular basis. Our industry charity, Hospitality Action, operates a brilliant Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) which we subscribe to and this gives our entire team access to a confidential helpline with professionally trained councillors.

What do you see as the potential long-lasting changes to your business?

More rigorous cleaning regimes are here to stay for good I am sure however from our guests’ perspective I believe they are looking for us to operate in as normal a fashion as possible. Ultimately leisure hotels are a discretionary purchase and the interaction with our teams, our relaxed approach and the general ambience is all part of the experience. Behind the scenes and especially from an administration perspective there are definitely opportunities as we have learned to meet using MS Teams, instead of travelling and those that can, have adapted to homeworking.

How are you, on a personal level, dealing with lockdown?

Rightly or wrongly I always see the positives in every situation and although the crisis continues to have an immense impact on our business it hasn’t really touched me personally (yet, touch wood). Ordinarily our weekends are fully booked with my own hockey matches (I captain a team), school sports fixtures (I have two sporty teenagers), dinner parties (Lymington is very sociable), and generally catching up on everything that needs to be done to keep on top of life and prepare for another week. So to all of a sudden have weekends with nothing on has been quite liberating and, although they are still as busy with self-inflicted jobs that I would otherwise not have time for, we now have more time for more family meals – many of which have been cooked by our teenagers – and family cycles along the Solent coast, where there is plenty of space to exercise without really impacting on anyone else.

iconicluxuryhotels.com

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