How O’Leary, Gleneagles are managing through COVID

HOTELS caught up with Conor O’Leary a couple of months after our initial interview (read it here) with the hotel manager of Scotland’s Gleneagles Hotel to find out how the property is handling the coronavirus situation. O’Leary offers his thoughts on how a greater emphasis on cleanliness will impact re-opening, and how COVID-19 will shape operations and guest expectations going forward.

HOTELS: How did you handle operations when it became obvious that Gleneagles would have to close? 

Conor O’Leary: We immediately furloughed the majority of our 950 staff, keeping 45 as a skeleton team, to look after the property, guest inquiries and bookings, member communications, brand, HR and finance. Not to mention looking after our dogs, horses, eagles, falcons and ferrets!

In terms of marketing, we very quickly decided that it was not a time to sell but to offer support and positivity where we could. Our guests, members and friends were experiencing severe impacts from this virus, and we are sensitive to that; health, wellness and security for all connected to Gleneagles was our only wish.

We are planning on reopening when the government lifts the restrictions and feels it is safe to operate again. That looks like the summer months now, all being well. I can imagine that some areas of our operation may come back sooner than others, golf for example, and we foresee some restrictions around events, dining and bars to ensure enough spacing, so we may have to phase our occupancy if the demand warrants it.

Exterior of The Gleneagles Hotel, Scotland
Exterior of The Gleneagles Hotel, Scotland

Contributed by Mary Scoviak

H: How much can staffing change while you wait for profit and rate recovery?

CO: We implemented a few different measures at the time of closure, including the furlough support from the government, as well as tightening our belt on all our expenditure. Our aspiration is to provide work for all our Gleneagles team, and we are still exploring ways how that could look when we reopen. Once we understand how the business level looks, and match that with the restrictions we may have to put in place, we can then work out the right manning level, and see how our team applies to that. We are invested in our team for the long term, and will do what we can to provide support in what we hope will be a short-term business impact.

H: How fast will luxury leisure travel recover, and will it affect rate?

 CO: We would hope that in spring 2021 we return to levels relatively close to what we would have planned for pre-COVID. The rate may be challenged due to the lower volumes of international visitors, but we hope we can get a good occupancy due to our popularity with the British market. The majority of our guests are from the U.K., and most are repeat guests, so we hope to be able to welcome them all back very soon.

I don’t believe cutting rates is the right long-term strategy. We will look for ways to add value to the experience rather than focus purely on price. We always believe our long-term guests come back because of the experiences we deliver and memories that are made, and we feel that going forward, more than ever, people will want to spend their money on experiences that enrich their down time, with their families and friends.

H: Will you require health certificates from guests?

CO: We do not envisage setting our own rules around health certification, but will follow regulations on this.

Conor O’Leary: “We are invested in our team for the long term, and will do what we can to provide support in what we hope will be a short-term business impact.”
Conor O’Leary: “We are invested in our team for the long term, and will do what we can to provide support in what we hope will be a short-term business impact.”

H: What plans do you have for testing staff? How will you address increases in cost and time needed for sanitation and cleaning?

CO: I think the testing of staff is a complex issue, and again, we will await guidance.

We certainly know there will be some adjustments around how we get rooms and public areas ready for guests, some of these may take more time, or more manpower. There also may be areas when we cannot do as much as we used to for guests, so this could balance out, we will wait to see. Our priority is getting the environment right for our team and out guests, and we will put all our energy into that to begin with.

H: What are your plans for monetizing the conference and function spaces while that market rebuilds? Some say it will take three to five years.

CO: We are lucky at Gleneagles that we have a lot of flexible space, and none of it is really large, so we hope to still welcome the smaller private celebrations and occasions, along with small corporate events such as board-level retreats, which was really the core of our corporate business already.

H: How will luxury hotels respond to demands for more distancing in restaurants and bars and still make money? 

CO: This will be challenging, and difficult to make the same margins as before, in an already tight business model. However, we also have to be fair and not just pass on the cost to the consumer. We will be more flexible with dining times, as well as more efficient in the style of service we offer, whilst retaining the qualities our guests have come to expect over the years.

H: What permanent changes do you see for luxury resorts?

CO: We need to continue to use digital technology and data more in our day to day practices. However, hospitality by its very definition means human interactions, and our people are our unique asset. We have learned that we must be agile and alert to possible negative impacts, but be relevant and market-leading with our offering, to come out of the impact period quicker and stronger.

H: Do you think this will renew interest in health/fitness leisure travel?

CO: I believe we will continue to see a rise in wellness/health-focused brands, particularly in urban environments for the business traveler. I also feel that local travel will grow, not only in the short term, and this will encourage the industry to think outside the box to capture the local market who thought they knew everything locally already. Now we will ask ourselves, ‘how do we surprise and delight someone from our own region?’.