Pete Brend, managing director of Saunton Sands Hotel on the north Devon coast, reveals all
Pete, his wife Kelly and their kids had what must have been one of the weirdest and best lockdowns in the UK. The family spent three months living alone in the 92-bedroom Art Deco Saunton Sands Hotel, with three miles of world-class beach, an indoor and outdoor pool, a huge glamorous dining room, spa, gym, putting green and playroom at their disposal during that never-ending spell of sunny days.
‘Beyond the huge uncertainty over what was going to happen to the business and whether we’d get ill, I really appreciated those three months off with the family,’ says Pete.
‘After the initial stress I started to feel confident that as soon we opened again we’d gain momentum and that things would take off in the South West, and they have – it’s been incredible.’
Saunton Sands Hotel has been fully occupied since it opened in July. ‘Things are looking rosy until the end of October,’ says Pete.
‘We’re in a bubble here in Devon and Cornwall; it’s different to London where lots of hotels are not going to open until the autumn because only five per cent of their customers are domestic travellers. We’re getting job applications from people who’ve worked for years at The Savoy and The Ritz – they don’t know what will happen to their jobs and want to escape the city.’
What’s it been like running a hotel during a pandemic?
‘I haven’t had any time with the kids for about six weeks and I feel guilty about that, but you have to do what you have to do.
‘It’s been like starting a business from scratch – at first we were completely unsure of how many staff we’d need. The furlough scheme really helped – both because it looked after the staff and also because if we’d laid everyone off it would have taken up to now to recruit enough people to even operate at 50 per cent occupancy.’
In what ways is the hotel experience now different for guests?
‘The spacing is different – in addition to our already large restaurant we’ve turned the Terrace Lounge into restaurant space, so now most of the ground floor of the hotel (apart from the bar) is restaurant.
‘The interaction and the service you can provide is also different as it has to be ‘minimal touch’. You can engage in a verbal way but no one wants you within two metres of them and when you’ve been schooled in old fashioned hospitality and service you have to retrain yourself – you can’t just top up a customer’s glass or move their chair for them.
‘However, the customer comment we receive all the time is how amazed they are that we’ve been able to make the experience feel as normal as it does.’
Other restaurants have reported that customers are more tense and tricky than usual. Have you noticed that?
‘Not at all, although there are two distinct camps of customers: those who have suffered from or had contact with the virus – they’re very critical and analyse everything you do – and those who don’t seem to have any worries about it at all.
‘The most difficult part is that you have to police the second group when they visit in multiple household groups. Groups of only two households can be together at any time, but the legislation is a bit silly as two different households can sit together for breakfast and then they can each sit with different households for lunch and dinner – it doesn’t make any sense at all.
‘People want to stand and mingle at the bar and you have to say ‘Sorry you can’t do that,’ and tell them they have to be in blocks of two households here and two households there. It can get a bit ridiculous.’
When restaurants reopened there was worry that the food supply chain wouldn’t be able to cope, has that affected the hotel?
‘The supply chain still hasn’t really settled down for ingredients – you can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to get the same things each week.
‘We’ve adjusted our menus to keep the same ethos but made them a bit simpler and shorter. We took out some of the intricacies but kept the flavour and quality. There’s still a lot of choice, though.
‘The number one issue is meat quality: because abattoirs have been closed, none of the meat has been hung long enough for it to be as tender as it could be – and it’s the same from every supplier.’
Is your front of house team wearing PPE?
‘There’s no rule that serving staff need to wear a mask – and we didn’t until two weeks ago when the guidance changed about having to wear masks in public areas and corridors. All our staff multitask and are moving through different areas the whole time, so rather than them taking masks on and off they now wear them constantly.
‘It’s very sweaty though – especially when you’re walking huge distances across the spaced out restaurant. Our team wear Fitbits and where they used to average 22,000 steps a day, they now do 46,000 – they’re losing weight and are tired.
‘Customers can help us by making sure they order everything they want at one time – we don’t mind if they order eight croissants and a jug of orange juice with their full English in the morning – as long as they order it all at once so we can minimise the amount of walking we have to do.’