Leave it to a 39-year-old, teetotaler, vegan GM to find the silver lining in the COVID-19 crisis. Jannes Soerensen, who has run the luxury independent Beaumont hotel in London since January 2016, has his share of worries and is working hard to manage a profitable return for the property, which closed March 23 and at press time could open as soon as July 4. The biggest obstacles will include overcoming what has been a predominantly international clientele.
But luxury hotel veteran is approaching life and business more personally, and at this unique moment in history Soerensen has been reflecting on his abiding philosophy that dictates hiring the right people and allowing them to do good because he truly believes it creates opportunity.
Soerensen subscribes to not limiting his team’s capabilities. “That has always been my message and I feel it will become more and more the message of luxury,” he says, “because that is one thing you can’t design, you can’t build and you can’t buy. Travelers are starting to connect more often to what feels right, and how a hotel feels and thrives through its culture needs nourishing.”
This industry pause has also allowed Soerensen to rethink certain elements of travel and daily life — more specifically, how hotels can become more sustainable; after the COVID-19 crisis is conquered, global warming, in his eyes, will take center stage. It probably doesn’t hurt that he was set to become a first-time father in June.
“Do we need to travel the world 50 times a year?” Soerensen asks. “Obviously we’re in the travel industry and I’m so passionate for it, but there might be a whole reflection on sustainability, longevity, inclusiveness. We only have this planet.”
He also points to how Gen Z wants to work for companies that have a bigger purpose. “And rightfully so,” says the veteran hotelier who most recently worked at Le Bristol Paris and The Connaught Hotel in London. “They feel that there’s a real opportunity, not to the detriment of luxury or travel, to give environmental efforts more purpose and meaning.”
The reset, Soerensen adds, has also allowed him to reconnect more meaningfully with some of his managers. “You get to know people differently because the pandemic is concerning. We’re all worried. We all have hopes. We all have thoughts about it. And it has been nice to see how much outreach there has been among the hotelier community in the U.K. That gives me a hope.”
Soerensen has not only been considering the bigger picture questions, but how the Beaumont, which is in the process of adding 30 rooms toward the back of the property, might evolve and operate differently when it re-opens. He believes luxury hoteliers must remember that they are in the business of bringing people together.
“We love shaking people’s hands, hugging people. People are in this industry because of high touch, not because of high tech,” he says.
With such a perspective, Soerensen and his team must not only decide whether to sterilize and seal pre-arrival guest room packs containing directories, coffee and tea, and single-use room service menus. There are bigger, more sensitive questions than competing on cleanliness. “The real luxuries in this industry are meaningful relationships, and I don’t think that will change,” he says. “No sealed bag or disinfected door handle will do that. So, I guess I still have more questions than answers today.”
Soerensen thinks it will be very important for the luxury sector to maintain social interaction with guests when it is meaningful and benefits the experience. “To type in your credit card, no guest benefits from that… We don’t try to process people through the experience, but I feel that guests will be very aware of their personal space. I think that having space in the restaurant, having space in the bar and in our Club Room will be important. People will be more mindful of that element.”
Of course, there will be restrictions and heightened cleanliness, but there is a long-term perspective as well. “Do you want to go into a restaurant where you sit in a plastic box with a waiter who comes with a mask and gloves?” Soerensen asks. “I don’t know if I want that… Luxury is about giving people the option and not dictating to them what’s easiest for us. It is about saying to guests, ‘Let us help you to continue with your life.’”
Soerensen adds that he doesn’t want to completely sterilize the Beaumont experience. “That’s not why people go to hotels. So it’s about finding the balance.”
Does balance mean things like plexiglass separating guests from staff at the front desk? “I don’t want to do that. But yet again, I feel that if we speak in three months, I’ll have a better answer to this because the ball is moving fast at the moment. We need to continuously adapt to how this is going to evolve. And if it demands for stricter measures, we might need to do stricter measures.”
With so many difficult questions to answer, such as whether to take the temperature of arriving guests, Soerensen wishes there were more specific guidelines being mandated. “Singapore has done that quite well. There are certain checklists… We should say ‘these are certain things we expect you to do, and if you do them, you’re a safe place to go.’ Not every hotel should start to come up with their own checklist. I’m a hotelier; I’m not a doctor. So, it’s important that as a hotel industry, we contribute to these and then go with a standard checklist.”
While Soerensen can’t stay physically close to his team during the closing, he is staying emotionally close. He writes a newsletter to the team every couple of weeks and is transparent about the situation at hand. He has also instituted social calls with every employee almost every day to see if they’re healthy, well and have any questions.
“As much as we’re concerned about people getting paid and being able to sustain themselves, we’re also very concerned and very caring about their mental state of being and the outlook. It’s sometimes hard because we don’t have all the answers. It’s sometimes even reassuring if you tell them that you don’t know yourself.”
The vast majority of hotel staff has been enrolled in the furlough program, but there are voluntary training and activity programs, as well as group fitness classes, meditations and other activities. “Nobody has to do it. They want to do it because they feel it’s right, and they feel a part of this team,” Soerensen says.
At the end of the day, Soerensen says he will have his team ready and will reopen the Beaumont when it makes sense, facing all the big questions of the day. “It’s about doing the right thing, creating an environment that’s comfortable and safe. Our owners have been great partners in this journey and will continue to be great partners.”