The challenges of running a ‘dry’ hotel

When the Bermondsey Square Hotel was sold last year, its new owner decided to stop serving alcohol. GM Robert Holland explains how the hotel and staff rose to the challenge.

When we took over the management of our sister hotel in Bayswater last June, I thought that being a dry hotel would add a few challenges but with a minimalistic design, a raw/vegan restaurant and excellent dining options on the doorstep, I didn’t envisage it being too insurmountable. Then it happened in Bermondsey….

Often hailed as a Mecca for foodies with Zucca, Pizarro and Casse-Croûte being just some of the fabulous restaurants that we have on our doorstep in Bermondsey Street, we have long tried to have our own hotel restaurant compete with our illustrious neighbours. We were in a good place, a very consistent product welcoming an average of 40 diners a night and a strong events business with our large terrace being a great draw for Christmas parties and summer cocktail receptions.

The new owners took the keys on the 7th November and whilst we were able to honour all the restaurant and events bookings that we had until the end of the year, any guests that wanted to use the restaurant without a reservation were informed that the hotel no longer sold alcohol. By way of transition we gave away a complimentary drink to all guests that dined with us in the first two weeks following the sale.

Like many city centre hotels’, some 85 per cent of our guests never touched on the F&B other than for breakfast, but taking away the choice at a time when our competitors had availability did undoubtedly lead to some of our guests choosing to stay elsewhere. Where much of our occupancy had come from our local corporate partners, we had to work a little harder to find alternate sources of business.

Negative press, mindless online posts and vindictive phone calls threatening my staff did little to aid team morale. But there was no push to make redundancies and the new owner fully accepted the consequences of his choice and the increase in costs that went with operating a much quieter F&B department. The vast majority of our regular guests continued to use the hotel and the bar across the square from the hotel got busier. We also made an arrangement that were a guest  wishing to celebrate and have a bottle of fizz awaiting their arrival, they could pre purchase this from our neighbouring bar and we would arrange for it to be put in the room with the requisite ice bucket and flutes. There was some natural turnover of staff, predominantly related to the lower gratuities but the majority of the team bought into the changes and were excited by the challenges that we had ahead.

As a team we reviewed the current offer and accepted that the traditional hotel reception, bar and restaurant would not appeal as it had in the past. We asked ourselves how we could reinvent the hotel to be more welcoming and dynamic for our guests. Without the guests in the evening how could we make the day times more inviting? Many of the team had previously had experience of other departments and with the restaurant being quieter in the evenings, there was every opportunity for cross training. We reflected on the changing demands of the millennial travellers and questioned ourselves as to how we could become more appealing.

It was decided that we would learn from some of the younger hotel brands and whilst maintaining the comfort of our bedrooms we could make the ground floor more playful, with the familiarity of one’s home providing a less formal space. We no longer needed bar staff and we didn’t expect to have a dedicated restaurant in the evening so why not have all the team work together. I never liked going into hotels and asking for something only to be told that “one of my colleagues can help you with that”. We were all capable of using the coffee machine and taking a food order so why not have it so that everyone could do everything?

Why should a guest that stays with us every week be asked to sign the same registration card and be pre-authorised for any extras that they may consume? We had been an early adopter of an app called ALICE that with a little reconfiguration was reprogrammed to allow our guests to check in prior to their arrival and check out without the necessity of standing in a queue. We didn’t want a faceless terminal for guests to check in at, but we wanted to welcome our guests and engage with them about their stay, any plans they may have for dinner rather than ask if they would like a wake up call.

The new owner has fully embraced the new concept and is committed to the success of the new format. The team are excited by the changes and want to be a part of the success of the hotel going forward. We have all survived the change and whilst it was not our choice we recognise that it is the prerogative of the owner to operate in accordance with his principals. I am confident that our guests will continue to enjoy everything that we have to offer and will use our neighbours to provide the things we do not. London has something for everyone and we are all entitled to make our own decisions. I do not think that the ever evolving London Bridge will require an alcohol free hotel anytime soon but I am confident that we will welcome guests from all walks of life to enjoy our hotel.

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