A SUMMER OF STAYCATIONS
As we edge closer to the end of the school summer holidays, Halo’s Michael Donald reflects on his personal experiences of a summer of staycations and how his mindset as both a consumer and a Customer Experience Consultant has transitioned during this period
On 4th July 2020, merely hours after the hospitality industry reopened post lockdown, I found myself, my wife Ashleigh, three children, sister-in-law and her husband inside a pub. We hadn’t planned it that way. In fact, having spent relatively little time in pubs of late and I wasn’t as desperate to get back to one as I might have been. However, as hospitality consultants and lovers of the industry, we wanted to start supporting businesses as quickly as we could and thought a camping trip near Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland was a great way to do it. We hiked to see the iconic Sycamore Gap, reciting lines from Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves (one of only two movies I have seen twice in the cinema). On the way back to the campsite, we were entranced by the oasis that was a mobile pizza truck in the car park of the Twice Brewed Inn. The server at the pizza van suggested we could order food and eat in the beer garden. We misunderstood and soon realised that we would still need to enter via the pub to have our temperature checked and register our details for track and trace in order to enjoy our pizzas. The silver lining being that we should take the opportunity to order a few beers.
We were able to book our stay at Hadrian’s Wall campsite for just one night, which is normally restricted to a two night booking over the weekend, as July 4th fell on a Saturday. We arrived early and found a team who were clearly excited to welcome customers back. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming and it was clear that a lot of work had been put in to ensure the processes and procedures for social distancing were in place. It worked out as a great first step and a practice run for a bigger camping trip to Devon, via caravanning in Norfolk, that lay ahead of us later in the summer. We learnt what worked and what didn’t and another tent upgrade led to a splurge on new clothing and equipment for our “economical” staycation.
Fast forward to the first week of the school holidays in July and after loading the car, filling the tank and pumping up the tyres to a higher pressure than they had seen before, we hit the road. First stop was Hunstanton in North Norfolk. We picked this spot as we’d not visited the county and it was originally planned as a stopover between Sheffield and London before those plans were scuppered due to events cancelling. We had replanned our route from Newcastle to Devon, with stops in Norfolk and Taunton (to facilitate a trip to the Glastonbury Tor). Our caravan experience in Hunstanton was perfect as a base of operations. The facilities were clean and comfortable while we spent our days exploring the idyllic villages along North Norfolk’s Area of Outstanding Beauty including Blakeney, Stiffkey and Cromer, as well as a quick visit to the fairground rides in Hunstanton. Our nearest customer service contact with staff was a friendly wave across a car park.
After visiting Glastonbury, we stayed at the Holiday Inn at Taunton for a night. A few of the facilities, including the pool, were still closed, but the family room facilities were perfect for a family with small children. The service was excellent and they made such efforts to ensure we felt comfortable and safe given this was our first visit to a hotel post-lockdown. This particular Holiday Inn, managed by Kew Green Hotels, have been using some innovative QR based technology to offer a fully contactless menu and ordering system and there were plenty of staff on hand to help and make sure we had everything we needed.
The final leg of our trip brought us to Leonard’s Cove just outside of Dartmouth. The staff were very helpful guiding us to our camping spot, making sure we left suitable social distance between us and the next tent. The facilities were exceptionally clean and comfortable with an abundance of hand sanitiser available. Everyone we encountered kept their distance and wore masks as appropriate.
Weather plays a big part in any camping experience and we were treated to a deluge on the first day. Our plans to visit the beautiful and secluded fishing village of Beesands, were destroyed as we sat in the car being pelted with rain. We tried to come up with a plan B that afforded suitable raincover. I remembered seeing some nice signage for Stokely Farm Shop just outside of Slapton Sands. I’m a stickler for nice signage and was hoping there would be some nice lunch options. As we arrived, the second line suggested a deli/café, which seemed perfect. Of course, we weren’t the only ones looking to implement plan B. There was a big queue for the farm shop and as we stood in the rain by the café were told that they were fully booked…. but that there were tables free in the Brewery taproom. As a Dubliner this was music to my ears! In my Dublin days I enjoyed many trips to Guinness’ Hop Store in the 1990’s and later the Storehouse when it opened in 2000. Suffice to say, we took up the offer of a table in South Hams Brewery’s taproom and were rewarded with the sights and sounds of fresh beer being kegged alongside locally sourced food and some wonderfully fresh beer. Staff were all excellent, wearing visors, sanitising tables between guests. It was so good that we came back the next day with two large tables with friends and took home a few litres of takeaway Crab Juice (no crabs were harmed in the production of this beer) to help lubricate the camping experience.
In August, Chancellor, Rishi Sunak launched the Eat Out to Help Out scheme to encourage people to visit restaurants, hotels and cafés this summer. The plan was to encourage people on some of the quieter days of the week, offering a bonus for those who may have been out anyway and maybe encourage those who may be a little more hesitant to give it a go, in the hope that once they see how hard the hospitality industry is working to keep you safe.
It’s easy to see how this would be a popular scheme for many customers and we have enjoyed using it a couple of times. We visited a small local café called Kith & Kin in Whitley Bay. It was our first visit to them since February and we were delighted to return. We had the Aussie breakfast and Shakshuka along with locally sourced coffee, hot chocolate and home-made cakes. There was definitely an extra couple of cakes and coffees ordered due to the scheme and there is no doubt that increasing average cheques is going to be crucial in times of social distancing. Our second visit using Eat Out to Help Out was at The Potted Lobster in Bamburgh, Northumberland. Again, a wonderful local restaurant that we have been to before and we would happily pay full price. However, the scheme gave me the little encouragement I needed to go for the Halibut steak, which was the second most expensive dish on the menu that night. It was a great choice and, after managing to resist the Halibut Chop on a recent visit to Riley’s Fish Shack in Tynemouth, I would heartily recommend splurging on a meaty piece of this most excellent fish next time you have the opportunity. In turn, this will help restaurants raise the revenue per check needed to protect the business at this time.
As a follow up to our Suite Series conversations, Ashleigh and I travelled to Edinburgh in August to visit friends working in some of the hotels who participated and contributed. We were very fortunate to stay at The Balmoral. As expected, The Balmoral set a high bar in terms of service in the Covid-19 era. The warm welcome at the door remains the ideal start to any visit. The directional signage is clear and the sanitising stations look appealing surrounded by sprigs of lavender and part of the décor. All staff were wearing masks, but also working extra hard to make eye contact and make emotional connections through this barrier. I was delighted to see the statue of Sir Walter Scott in the lobby wearing a tartan mask to help remind visitors in a subtle way to wear masks in the lobby and I loved the sticker seal on the bedroom door (although I’m sure the maintenance team will need to order plenty of eggshell paint for touch ups) that gave us real confidence that the rooms had been thoroughly sanitised. There has been a lot of talk about the demise of the breakfast buffet but we found the a la carte experience more enjoyable as an opportunity to engage with the staff and enjoy a beautifully presented selection of items, delivered directly to our table.
We had pre-dinner drinks at the Voodoo Rooms and The Queens Arms before dinner at Noto on Thistle Street. All of these were working within the guidelines (slightly different in Scotland of course) and were working extra hard to make connections with their guests. The restrictions on any music playing in bars or restaurants does affect atmosphere and can lead to some awkward silences. The Queens Arms in particular took care of this by encouraging their staff to be highly engaging and friendly in a venue that benefits from old Victorian snugs and banquettes to naturally distance customers from each other. Noto is the sister restaurant to Aizle (which has recently relocated to the fabulous Kimpton Charlotte Square) and claims to have been inspired by New York City and a love of Asian cuisine. The food was fantastic and staff were clearly confident and well trained, all wearing masks and aware of their distancing with refillable hand sanitisers on every table and reusable terry towels in the bathrooms. Covid seems to have given some business an excuse to move back towards single use plastics for individual packaging and it would be such a shame if we as customers allowed that to happen on our watch.
We wanted to share our experience of summer holidays in the Summer of 2020 to help highlight some of the staycation options people could have in the Covid era. The industry is working incredibly hard, staying flexible and agile to ever changing circumstances to make things as safe as possible for their staff and customers. Governments will continue to dictate the conditions in which they will need to operate but we hope that there will be more collaboration with those working on the front line to make sure that risk is minimised as well as creating an environment that promotes continued recovery. It is likely that social distancing measures may be around in 2021 and while the airline industry and overseas holiday destinations will be working hard to entice people abroad where possible, we hope that we can inspire those who may still be nervous about travelling and experiencing hospitality venues to be encouraged by our experiences. Please do feel free to share your summer staycation stories on your preferred social media platform with the hashtag #mysummerstaycation2020.