Alex Robertson is the general manager for Scotland and Northern Ireland at OYO Hotels and Homes (www.oyorooms.com)
This time last year, OYO was optimistically entering the Scottish hospitality scene, so I was excited that in 2020, we’d be entering peak season with over 40 independently-owned hotels under the brand and a visible presence across many of Scotland’s tourism hotspots. Sadly, coronavirus will make this summer memorable for the wrong reasons, but resilience, agility and adaptability are the hallmarks of a start-up business and they’re traits we’ve doubled down on in recent months.
By early March, the notion of ‘going on holiday’ began to feel quite frivolous against the backdrop of a growing global health emergency, so we started considering our hotels as places people might stay out of necessity rather than choice. We began working on a key worker strategy, introducing discounted fixed prices and long-stay rates at our hotels. OYO’s dynamic pricing technology has always been central to our value proposition, but in this situation, we realised that predictability was what individuals and businesses would need for contingency accommodation plans.
This meant that by the time we went into lockdown, we were already prepared for the government-approved uses of hotels and had the backing of owners who felt able to keep their hotels open for key workers. We’re incredibly grateful to these hoteliers. We’ve presented them with a back-up plan, but they are the ones who’ve continued to look after guests, putting themselves on the frontline to help the greater cause. Room rates are far below the average for this time of year, but it was obvious very early on – what with international travel restrictions and Edinburgh’s festivals, Glasgow Concerts and Highland Games being cancelled months in advance – that we’d all need to be flexible and, in some cases, prepared to compromise.
For the OYO Scotland and NI team, vacating our Edinburgh office and working from home wasn’t too much of a challenge. We’re a young company, so laptops, mobile phones and cloud-based systems mean we’re already set up for remote working. We’ve always collaborated remotely and connected with our hub offices across the UK via video conferencing. I do miss the social atmosphere and “water cooler chats” of the office, but for the time-being I’ve created a workspace in my house. I currently spend a good portion of my day hiding from my kids who are too young to understand why Zoom meetings must (usually) take precedence over singing “The wheels on the bus”.
The biggest change to our work has meant pausing a lot of regular activities and pivoting towards capturing any available demand for rooms. The team pulled together and spent a few solid weeks on proactive outreach to NHS Trusts, local councils, government departments and businesses within key industries, building partnerships and matching their requirements with hotels in suitable locations. OYO also launched a ‘virtual hotel’ called OYO Rooms for Carers, through which individual colleagues, the company and members of the public could buy a room night to be redeemed by a frontline care worker at their closest OYO hotel. This was our way of saying thank you to those people who were unable to return to a household shared with vulnerable people, or who needed a comfortable place to recharge after a long and exhausting shift. The uptake on these free rooms for healthcare workers has been stronger in other parts of the UK, but we’re not disappointed by that – ultimately, it indicates less of a desperate need in Scotland, which is a positive sign.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland, many rooms at our open hotels are occupied by energy sector workers – those from utility companies, wind farms, oil and gas companies. We’re also hosting emergency services personnel, stranded travellers and some homeless people, who receive extra support from local councils and homeless charities. Again, we’ve seen greater need for housing vulnerable individuals outside of Scotland – OYO has more than a dozen UK hotels being solely used to give homeless people a safe place to sleep. It has been great to be part of the upsurge in empathy and community feeling during this pandemic, and while we can’t wait to shake off most of its effects, I hope that’s a legacy which will remain.
So now it’s time to look ahead to the ‘new normal’, when more of our hotels can open and leisure guests can return. We’re working with our owners on reviewing operational procedures because of course, the safety of guests and staff will be of the utmost importance and visible reassurances on hygiene will matter more than ever. Who would ever have thought that the number of times a day an elevator button is disinfected could become a bigger selling point than a cooked breakfast? ‘Cleanliness theatre’ is the new buzzword and OYO is finding solutions that will work for independent small and medium-sized hotels who would otherwise miss out to the marketing might of the larger franchises and brands.
We know there’s a real appetite for a change of scene post-lockdown and in England, OYO has seen a spike in July and August bookings to seaside destinations such as Brighton, the Isle of Wight and Cornwall. Scotland has the beautiful landscapes and the sense of space that people are craving right now, but we worry that we don’t as yet have an indicative date when hotels might be able to reopen or whether there’ll be specific parameters for doing so. We hope that the Scottish government will provide clarity soon, to give travellers the confidence to book and to give hoteliers time to prepare their businesses for reopening.
Many OYO hotels are family-run businesses that have been part of their communities for many years. Both we and our partners are determined to ensure that these small businesses weather this storm. They are part of Scotland’s heritage and part of its charm. We, along with the rest of the industry, will be ready to throw open our doors when the time is right. We just hope that the signal comes soon enough to give us a fighting chance.