Branston Hall Hotel is one of Lincolnshire’s finest country house hotels, set in a stunning restored stately home three miles outside Lincoln city centre. Its 88-acre grounds are resplendent with parkland and lakes, and the building itself stands on nearly 300 years of history. But what has been going on behind the scenes at a place like this during the tumultuous events of 2020? As the hotel reopens for bookings, its general manager Chris Tomlinson shines a light on what’s been happening, and what the future may hold.
November 2020 update: we are sad to hear the news that Branston Hall Hotel has closed its doors. The company went into administration following the continued impact of this year’s events.
Before the pandemic struck, the hotel was riding a wave of positivity. “We had our best ever January at Branston,” says Chris, who came on board as general manager in July 2019. But the events of 2020 have meant the hotel has been closed for much of the time he has been in the role.
Chris sent an email round to his staff at the beginning of March congratulating them on all their hard work, after a storming Christmas and start to the new year. “Seventeen days later I was shutting the place,” he recalls.
The week leading up to the full lockdown was a blur of bad news and uncertainty. “On the Tuesday, the prime minister advised people not to go out to restaurants or bars. I was in this chair looking at my business just crumbling in front of my eyes. After he made that announcement, I lost 400 room nights in one go.”
“There was a huge sense of being completely out of control,” Chris continues. “That week was, and I speak for all my colleagues, one of the worst weeks ever.”
A special last night of service
For hospitality businesses, the move into full lockdown was swift and abrupt. “Come the Friday, we had a clear sense that a shutdown was coming. But we thought they would make an announcement advising everyone to close on the Monday, allowing some time to prepare.
“They didn’t. They said do it now. Five o’clock on Friday, shut now.”
At that point, eight of Branston’s 53 bedrooms were booked in for the night. Rather than turf everyone out, Chris and the team allowed them to stay for the night, as long as they kept to their rooms – and the guests were treated to full-on room service throughout.
“It was a really lovely evening,” Chris remembers. “All the guests were very understanding. They’d seen the same news that we had seen, and clearly they could see the impact on the team. They understood the restrictions and the fact that it was very serious.
“Working together, we actually had one the best services we’ve had since I’ve been here. We took a restaurant table up to every bedroom, we set it in a restaurant style, they had a candle and a flower – a full setup. We went up course by course and served dinner in the guests’ bedrooms, and the same again for breakfast. There was a lot of running up and down stairs!”
Putting the feelers out during shutdown
Over the weekend, reality began to set in. Chris brought the team and mothballed the hotel. It was a scary and uncertain time for everyone involved.
“I remember saying to them, there’s a scheme coming in that we’re not fully aware of yet, nobody can pronounce it, and we don’t know all the details – but it’s going to help.”
Chris planned initially to shut down for three months, targeting the third of July for reopening. “As it happens the fourth of July was the official date, so I was only one day out,” he says. “But by that point things had dragged on, and as a business, we decided that strategically it was still too early to open.”
Instead, Branston decided to stay closed through the summer and monitor how other hotels were doing. Chris also used the opportunity to explore personally how other businesses were approaching it. “I went to a number of different places,” he says. “The extremes of how they interpreted and implemented the rules were incredible.
“I went to one place with a friend from uni, who I hadn’t seen for years. It could have been a Saturday night 12 months ago. People were packed around the bar, with tables side by side. Had we not been on a table for two in the corner slightly out of the way, we probably wouldn’t have stayed out.
“On another hand, a friend of mine runs The Grand in York, so I popped up there for a quick night away. Now, he’s got the luxury of being a five star, so he has a full concierge team. They were temperature-checking, logging people in and out – his team were all over it. He handled it very well, but I suppose he had the capacity to do that.”
Thinking outside of the box
Branston Hall is not only a hotel. It also caters for weddings, conferences and other activities – and every single one of these functions has been hit by the events of this year. “Weddings we simply can’t do, because they’ve gone,” says Chris. “Likewise with the conferences and the large parties, they’re just not happening. Transient corporates don’t travel because they can all work from home, or have no need to travel anyway.”
In the face of these challenges, Chris has been looking for creative ways to get things moving again. The estate’s ample outdoor space could be a very helpful asset in reshaping things for the future. “I think in time, Branston will come into its own,” he says. “We’ve got 88 acres here. To give one example, I think more companies will be doing away days, just so that people have human interaction and they’re engaging with the rest of their team face-to-face rather than over Zoom. I think there will be a huge need for that.”
“You need to deserve the business. You can’t just stay still and expect people just to come back to you.”
One of Chris’s ideas involves turning the traditional Christmas party on its head, and bringing everybody outdoors to create the masked ball scene from The Count of Monte Cristo. “In normal times we would host 120 people in our Churchill Suite, which has plenty of space. But I thought, why not do that outside? You know in the film when Dantes reveals himself as the Count of Monte Cristo and sends all those lovely invites to everybody, and they go to a masked ball outside in his garden?
“That could be completely reenacted at Branston. We have the beautiful backdrop, we have all the space out in the garden. We could have fire pits, close-up magicians, and maybe some fireworks at the end.
“I think we will be too restricted leading into December for this year, but creative events like this are in our thinking for the future.”
The challenge of bringing guests back
The hospitality sector as a whole faces a major challenge to bring visitors back through the door. Chris believes that things will need to be done differently, but also that a change in public behaviours after this year’s events will present some opportunities.
“I hope that the society of politeness, distancing and respect between each other continues,’ he says, “because that was lacking before, and this situation has brought it back. In hospitality, that politeness has always been a part of what we do. We’ve always held doors for people, said ‘good morning sir’ and ‘good afternoon madam’. And now we see there’s an element of this coming back into society in general.
“So hospitality has to up its game. You need to deserve the business. You can’t just stay still and expect people just to come back to you. You’ve got to move with the times and really engage with your audience.”
But the world of hospitality will not be able to survive without support. “We are people-heavy, but we’re not getting people in through the door,” says Chris. “And we have a lot of people inside already in a job who need supporting. It’s counterproductive for the economy just to turf them all out and say ‘you’re not our problem anymore’. Because ultimately, what goes around comes around. If they’re out of a job, then they aren’t spending any money, and they’re certainly not going out for dinner or staying in hotels.”
So what next? Uncertain times still lie ahead, but Chris is upbeat. “We will make the best we can of 2021, because we’re hospitality, and that’s what we do. Hopefully the confidence will return, and people will come back and support us. But we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Find your perfect stay in the area in our rundown of some of our favourite hotels in Lincoln.
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