We spoke to Lottie Haylock, General Manager of The Whittling House to understand what it’s like to open a hospitality business during a global pandemic.
2020 was certainly a hard year that no one saw coming.
Many businesses have moved online, some sadly closed, and others seized the chance to refurbish.
But it wasn’t just a difficult time for existing businesses.
The Whittling House in Alnmouth, Northumberland, opened only a week before the second lockdown began back in November 2020.
“It’s frustrating,” said Lottie Haylock, the General Manager of The Whittling House.
“We totally understand that these difficult decisions have to be made, but it was so disappointing because the team were absolutely desperate to get going!” she added.
The 10 bedroom boutique hotel and restaurant is a joint venture between chef and restaurant owner, Richard Sim, and Kelso-based entrepreneur, Tom Leslie.
“We opened just before the second national lockdown, had a week of trading and then had to close again, so we’re looking forward to some sort of normality in 2021,” said Lottie.
“We had an amazing first week in November with lots of really great feedback, so we’re just really excited to get up and running again and the team are all chomping at the bit to get going!”
2021 will undoubtedly bring forth a whole new set of challenges for the hospitality sector and The Whittling House will be one of many across the country battling their way through.
“COVID itself will be a challenge, but also the unpredictability that comes with it,” said Lottie.
“It’s difficult to plan when we don’t know what’s going to happen and working with time frames for tier reviews. It’s just so challenging to make plans because everything could end up changing very quickly.
“I think the hardest thing is constantly being reactive, as opposed to being organised and proactive like we’re all used to.”
Half of the rooms at The Whittling House are dog friendly and each room comes with WIFI, and tea and coffee making facilities. As well as a delicious breakfast, guests get to enjoy their getaway in laid-back luxury.
Lottie said: “At the end of 2020, in terms of hotel bookings, there wasn’t much pick up because we were in tier 3, which means a lot of uncertainty.”
“A lot of people weren’t confident in making plans to travel. Hopefully things will settle down and everyone will have a bit more confidence to make and plan travel arrangements and book to visit hotels and restaurants this year.
“The majority of people that came in during our first week before the lockdown were wanting to eat, so it was very restaurant led. I think one of the big difficulties is whether people feel confident enough to book and plan ahead.”
Whatever the new ‘normal’ will become, Lottie says she can’t wait to get a good run under her belt.
“I’m looking forward to really getting into the swing of things and getting going,” she said.
“Our main goal is to carry on with the really good feedback that we had at the start and hopefully get busier and busier.
“We’ve got a sister restaurant called The Potted Lobster in Bamburgh and they’re fully booked many days in advance, so it would be lovely to be in a similar position where people have to book in good time to come and eat or stay with us.”
Laughing, Lottie added: “But you know, at the moment we’re just grateful to be open and have a somewhat ‘normal’ run of things.”
Opening during a global pandemic has proven to be a real learning curve for many businesses, and Lottie has advice to pass on.
“I think you’ve just got to be resilient,” she said.
“These things are totally out of our control so all we can do is prepare, stay positive and do the best we can in whatever circumstances we’re working in.
“Opening a business is a very brave thing to be doing at the moment, but you know, there’s definitely that hunger in people to support new and local businesses, now more than ever.
“The interest we’ve had has been beyond what we expected, so just have faith in what you’re doing and it will all work out.”
Lottie advised that it’s a good idea to plan extra time for everything as supply chains are also being affected by COVID. With supply chains in mind, Lottie explains that The Whittling House also does their bit to support local businesses.
“One of the owners, Richard, is really keen on it. He loves sourcing locally. He’s got really good contacts, especially for meat and fish,” said Lottie.
“We have specials everyday and a lot of it’s planned around what Richard’s been able to source locally for us. We support a lot of the local businesses, partly because it’s a great thing to do, but also because that’s usually the best quality food, which is what we aim to provide.”
She added: “We’re passionate about our business and it’s exactly the same with local suppliers.
“They’re so happy to talk about what they do and I find that local producers and suppliers want to do whatever they can to help support you too.
“We shout about the fact that we stock and use their products and likewise, they do the same for us and it really helps with marketing. It’s definitely worth it.”
With a global pandemic going on, Lottie also stresses the importance of “making sure your team fully understands the current legislation and are comfortable implementing it”.
She said: “Get involved with your local Hotel Association and/or UK Hospitality. It will really help you navigate the constantly changing legislation.
“Try to roster staff in bubbles and cross-train where possible, then if anyone has to self-isolate, it doesn’t affect the whole operation.”
Lottie had one final piece of advice, especially for the new businesses.
“Have faith in your vision!
“There is still demand out there and people are keener than ever to try new places!”
Lottie’s 5 Top Tips:
- Make sure your team fully understands the current legislation
- Get involved with your local hotel association or UK Hospitality
- Try to roster staff in bubbles
- Allow extra time for supply chains
- Have faith in your vision for your business
This article was first published in Issue 46 of the Luxury BnB Magazine in February 2021:
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