Navigating the Crisis | Conor O’Leary on reopening Gleneagles today
Today sees Gleneagles – Scotland’s ‘Glorious Playground’ – welcome back guests for the first time since March. To celebrate, we spoke with Conor O’Leary, the joint Managing Director of the five-star hotel, for a discussion of the impact of Covid-19, what the future holds for the business, and how the team have been gearing up for reopening.
How have you navigated Gleneagles through the current crisis?
During the initial period when we closed the hotel and moved into lockdown, it was vital to ensure we kept our team up to date as much as we could, given the information we had to hand. We were also as proactive as possible with our communications to our guests. Despite not always having the answers, we wanted to at least articulate how things currently stood. We then needed to remove as many costs as possible from the business, so we spent time working with our own supply chain to negotiate as best we could to minimise the pressure on the business, whilst being sensitive to the fact that our suppliers were in the same situation.
We maintained communications with our colleagues, guests and members throughout the lockdown, providing updates as we had them. This was through social media channels, writing or calling – just to stay in touch and provide some happy memories, rather than attempting to sell or promote. For our team, we made and shared a variety of cooking videos, work outs, wellness, and general information videos across our colleague intranet. We were delighted to see a huge interest in this and many times pictures and videos were shared back from the team as they engaged with what we were putting out.
Once we had (today’s) reopening date set, we changed gear, and moved into a more commercial model. We started to promote, create a different kind of content for our PR and social media, and started to engage and deploy the team tasked with getting the Estate ready to welcome guests again. We had a skeleton staff keeping an eye on things while we were closed, but there was lots to catch up on in a 232 bedroom hotel, and 850 acre estate.
What has the situation taught you about leadership?
That sometimes it is okay not to have all the answers. Our team were nervous – as we all were – in the early stages of the crisis. What would closure mean, how long would it last, how would they be paid, and so on. We didn’t have all the answers from the outset, as we know it was an ever-developing situation. However, to keep people calm and informed, we gave daily updates to the team. Often along the lines of ‘this has just happened, it means this/that, let us come back to you in 24 hours to explain how it will impact us hear, and what we need to do’. We found this strategy gave great comfort our team, they knew we were working on a solution, and knew we were in communication with them. We have maintained that policy throughout lockdown, and so many of the team have commented positively on it.
I guess it taught me that, as a leader, the responsibility is to lead towards the solution, using all the resources to hand, and be upfront, open and honest at all times along that journey. It buys you time while you look for that solution.
How have you prepared for today’s reopening?
We have taken on all the government guidance on protocols to deal with Covid-19, and enhanced them to fit into our customer journey. There are some noticeable changes to what we do, understandably, but hopefully we have managed to retain the warmth and personality of a typical Gleneagles experience. We have coached and prepared the team on what to expect, with extra focus on reassurance for themselves, as well as how they will provide that for our guests. We have enhanced cleaning regimes across every part of the estate, as well as distancing measures and PPE where required.
Otherwise we have prepared the estate itself to look as magnificent as it always does; the team are excited to be welcoming guests back again; and there is a real buzz around the place as we prepare for those first arrivals today.
What would you like your guests to know about when considering a visit to the hotel?
Gleneagles was originally built as a playground to get away from it all, and that is still true today. We have an 850 acre estate, with a variety of pursuits and adventure spread across it, so it really is a place to get away to, relax, spend time with your family, and enjoy the hospitality we have been known for close to one hundred years.
How else can government / local council help with aiding hospitality/tourism recovery?
There have been some great interventions already by the government both at UK and Scottish levels to support hospitality. Furlough, rates, VAT have all been welcome support mechanisms; the question is whether they go on long enough. They come to an end when our industry goes into its quiet period, and that’s the time we may need more help. The quarantine rules seem confused and certainly do not help our industry here, the quicker we can bring tourists back the better.