We chatted to Vicky Green, Associate Director for Business Development at the Andras Hotel Group. Vicky has worked with Andras for 17 years and with six hotels and serviced apartments they are Belfast’s largest hotel group approaching 1000 bedrooms in the City.
While the hotels have been closed, they have furloughed a number of the team but Vicky has been working from home throughout, she has spent lockdown with her husband Andy, daughter Grace and their two cairn terriers.
Having recently reopened the properties to the public after lockdown, Vicky shared some of her experience from the past few months and discussed the future of hospitality and meetings post Covid-19.
How have you been staying positive during lockdown?
I’m naturally a worrier, I worry about everything but I have kept my health, my family, friends & colleagues have stayed well and I have been fortunate enough to continue to work the whole time. It would be remiss of me to not feel positive every day.
Some aspects of my job may have changed dramatically over the last few months but I still love what I do so that natural worry doesn’t in any way quell my massive passion for our industry and my role in it.
What has been the hardest bit about lockdown for you?
Missing people! On both a work and personal level I missed people and really struggled not having those daily interactions. I can’t go and visit my family in England and in my role pre covid I would have been out and about in busy hotels, meeting clients attending events and travelling extensively, so I miss being with others face-to-face.
Video chat has been a really great thing for keeping businesses open and keeping communication going but I am definitely Zoom fatigued, it has been great to see people back in the hotels this week and to see colleagues again.
All the team have felt the same and to make up for lost time we have planned a social for some of the Andras House office team. As we’ve have had lots of training recently, we know how to socialize safely.
Have there been any parts of lockdown that you have enjoyed?
The commute from the stairs to the dining table! I can repurpose that travel time and it’s made me more proactive; I would usually be traveling between a few properties each day and even those ten minutes each time can be a new meeting or an extra client call.
Virtual board meetings (Vicky sits on the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation board) are even more efficient as you just click on for the start of the meeting and off at the end but I miss the social aspect of catching up with everyone before and after.
What did you and the team do during the closed period?
We were actually very busy; Holiday Inn was kept open for key workers and we donated 50% of Cordia Serviced apartments to health staff who couldn’t stay at home. We’ve been home to lots of keyworkers including engineers, healthcare professionals and the ambulance service so we had to adapt very quickly, putting in safety measures before full guidelines became available.
It has been an entirely new experience for all of our teams and has provided challenges beyond the safety aspect. There were things we had never had to think of before, for example when looking after key workers who were staying for months, we realized we needed to vary the room service meals so they didn’t get repetitive and even tried to tailor them to the guest’s preferences. We had flasks of coffee waiting in reception in the morning for the ambulance crews starting their shifts too. That’s what hospitality is really about, building relationships and personalizing the experience for guests.
Alongside an exceptional range of accommodation, Andras Hotels also have meeting and event spaces in each property. The Crowne Plaza alone has 21 meeting spaces including the Grand Ballroom which can host up to 900 people.
Across the seven properties we have been rearranging group travel, weddings and conferences, being as flexible as possible. We’re communicating constantly, holding multiple dates, coming up with solutions and reassuring clients as best we can. We are lucky to have a huge amount of space to work with so we’re able to move to accommodate events with distancing and we’re helping people to visualize how their event will look in new spaces.
A lot of clients just wanted to talk and we’ve been on hand to offer that support, after all this could be someone’s dream day or an event a company has put a lot into organizing so we’re working with people and building confidence. This has been a time when businesses have had the opportunity to show how much they do care for and value their clients, if we can’t look after them now we never will!
What has the organization been doing to look after staff during the pandemic?
Our HR Manager, Jacqueline has been absolutely brilliant, she has kept regular contact with furloughed staff, checking in on their mental health and sharing hints and tips with us all to help with anxiety – gardening, games, yoga, language and skills sharing so people keep busy and look after themselves. There has been a big focus on looking after our mental health and keeping people connected even when we’re apart, even those who celebrated a birthday in lockdown got an e-card so they knew they weren’t forgotten.
Andras Hotels have been busy since the reopening of hotels in Northern Ireland in July. It is estimated that over 90% of their occupancy has been visitors from the Republic of Ireland and locals taking government advice to holiday at home.
What has it felt like since reopening the hotels last month?
BRILLIANT, BRILLIANT, BRILLIANT. We’re getting back to what we’re good at and it’s lovely to see hotels come alive again.
Occupancy has surpassed expectations, I think there was a lot of pent up demand and now people are treating themselves after a difficult time. There are lots of things to do in Northern Ireland that still give you space and the attractions are reopening managing social distancing well so people are keen to visit.
What was the most challenging thing for the properties to consider when reopening and what new measures have you put into place?
Priority is staff and guest safety of course and we avail of guidance from the brands (Andras Hotels includes members of the Accor Group, Intercontinental Hotel Groups & Hilton) who were able to support us with new protocols to give a sense of security. We have had lots of training including an entirely fresh induction for every member of staff and have implemented standard safety procedures like Perspex screens and lots of sanitizing stations alongside new standard operating procedures covering every aspect of our services.
For meeting organizers, we’ve had our architects draw up every room showing the capacities and layouts based on different levels of distancing and have already hosted small meetings and weddings adhering to the guidelines, so we have tried and tested our new operating procedures – rethinking every step of a guest’s journey.
What opportunities and lessons from lockdown will you be taking forward into the future?
In business I always knew that in every situation there is always an opportunity but I’ve learned that you must be able to adapt very, very quickly.
Really I think the line between personal and business has been crossed, we’re in each other’s homes now, seeing the people behind the keyboard and the lives going on around work. I think that will have a lasting impact and help people to be more considerate of each other.
In my personal life – the lesson is to count your blessings every day, try to be kind, don’t be wasteful.
People have gone above and beyond emotionally and in business to support each other and I think it is amazing. I really think it is a Northern Irish trait too, I don’t hail from NI and I’ve chosen to make my life here because of the spirit of the people, it’s unlike anywhere else. It will come to the forefront more now and it will be remembered when people do start travelling and meeting again.
Thinking ahead a year or two, do you think that we will eventually go back to “normal” or what do you think will be different in the post-Covid world?
Normal is a strange word, everyone’s perception of normal is different. I think people will adapt to changes and they will become normal to us, for example, do I think the Perspex screens will come down? No, but they will feel less strange in time. There are some changes I hope will stay, like cleanliness levels across all sectors.
In hospitality and travel, it is all about confidence. People will start to venture out and confidence will build but it has to be done sensibly – safety is the priority.
In events, I hope we reach a balance of online and in person – virtual events are by no means a new thing but there is definitely still an appetite for face to face. I imagine that safety and hygiene will be at the top of everyone’s lists from now on and organizers will be more conscious of space and due diligence thinking of how their delegates feel. We have the tools to operationally adapt, we fully support flexibility and have the space and facilities to support our clients and guests in gaining confidence as we all continue to move forward.