To be honest, the minute Boris Johnson came out and said to avoid pubs and restaurants, I thought about closing down. This was about a week before the actual shutdown. On Monday, March 16 I told my management team what I was thinking, but not everyone in the business knew. I saw other countries closing down and I thought it was inevitable.
In some respects, it was an easy decision to make because it had been made for us. This was before the furlough deal was revealed. But we were getting lots of calls from concerned brides and grooms and people wanting to freeze their gym memberships and such-like making it difficult to operate because we didn’t know what was coming.
Although we could have kept open over the next weekend we didn’t feel it was the right thing to do. We had a team of 500 people who could have picked up coronavirus, and so on the Tuesday we announced we were closing and that we would be keeping all the team on, but at 50% of their wages, for as long as it took. I think it was the right thing to do, anything else was just being in denial of what was going to come. Maybe that is easy for me to say, because that is the way I think. Once I made the decision I felt relief. I felt like we had taken back the power and at the same time, it allowed me to offer the NHS free bedrooms.
That quick decision worked for us. We were able to close in a practical manner. The units were cleaned and perishable stock given away to charities and the right places – and that helped. When the actual shutdown came we were actually very well prepared.
The following Friday the government announced the furlough scheme, a year’s holiday from rates, and Government-backed loans and I could see that there would be more support coming from the Government which was a real relief based on the decision we had made.
We spoke to our lenders and suppliers. Then we spent days and weeks going through cashflow projections, looking at where we would be in 3 months, 6 months 12 months – and producing all the information we needed for the bank in a thorough way which ultimately allowed them to give us support.
The CBIL government loan didn’t work for us because of the five-year profile thereafter. We had to look at it in longer-term aspect and Barclays understood this and had approved our increased facility by Easter Friday. The bank could also see that we are still growing and expanding our business, and certainly, once we get back to normal that is what we will continue to do.
I think the Government has done a reasonable job for businesses in the circumstances. They have been reacting to what has been happening and the Chancellor comes across very well. He has an eye on the economy and with furlough, is trying to keep everyone with a wage while at the same time trying to ensure the health and wellbeing of the country.
Coming out the other side the Government will have to continue with support – a year won’t be enough for some people. We think it will be a full year before we get back to the profits we were achieving at the year-end 2019. We are lucky because a lot of our business is postponed rather than cancelled.
Hospitality was the first to close and we will be last to re-open. We are all in the same predicament and we are all facing the same challenges, but there will be opportunities – certainly, I couldn’t have got more bank support without the crisis. It has changed the bank’s outlook. Before they were lending against leverage now it is against cash flow – cash flow for debt servicing. For a company like us that is a positive because we want to keep expanding.
I love change – and everything is about to change. Our best period of growth was after the last crisis. The hard work and effort that we have put into this company over the last 10 years has given us the safety net that we need now.
We all will come out at the same time and same pace as each other. It will be no better for one company than another. If we all think like that and move forward it will go back to normal one day – although there will be changes. I certainly believe there will be opportunities too.
Since we got the funding we have started the process of bringing our suppliers up to date – everyone has to survive. We are also keeping our team up to date. We have an internal app and we post every day. We ask everyone if they have any questions and on a Friday I answer them in a Q&A session online.
We are using this time to do some maintenance around our sites which we are usually struggling to do because we are trading. We plan to get as much in place as possible to keep our standards up. When we do open we plan to come out running.
We also still have staff working in units helping look after NHS staff. It has been one of the highlights of this shutdown that we have been able to offer this accommodation. I didn’t do it realising how good it would feel. It was an easy decision at the time and the response we have had has been amazing. Some of the NHS staff were sleeping in their cars to self-isolate from family. They couldn’t believe our gesture, we weren’t looking for anything from it, but when you can see that you are making a difference it also gives you a level of comfort and reassurance too.
The comforting thing is that we are all in this together. People say hospitality will be very challenging when we do go back. But I have never known the business to be anything but challenging. I, for one, am always thinking about how to drive profit.
I do think it will take time to go back to normality. I think people will appreciate eating and drinking and having a good time even more. We will have a busy period from this although people may be a bit cautious to begin with.
I have also got four units leased out and we have given them a three-month rent-free period. We passed the support onto our tenants that we were getting. After all, we have to think about coming out the other side and I for one believe that something good always comes from something bad. I refuse to think negatively.