Many serviced apartments have remained open during the lockdown to provide accommodation for long-stay business travellers. Here we speak with Frédéric Carré, Regional General Manager UK, Germany, Spain, and Georgia at The Ascott Limited, about the Citadines Apart’Hotels properties and what has changed for the travellers staying in them.
Which properties are you responsible for?
There are a total of 13 properties, all Citadines, making up 1,500 rooms over Europe, excluding France. We have approximately 250 staff. My role is to ensure we deliver a great promise to our customers on the day to day along with the country managers and the resident managers of the properties.
How did the pandemic affect you at first?
January and February and early March we were fully booked. We have a strong base of long stay customers and also a very good base of leisure customers. Then when the virus appeared we saw a significant decrease of the demand and also our customers started to cancel their stays. It was mainly our short stay customers who were cancelling. Our long stay customers were quite resilient regarding this crisis and wanted to stay with us.
Then there were some ‘stay home orders’ by governments.
For the long stay customers we stayed in touch with them to find out if they wanted to stay or go home, and most of them wanted to stay because they felt safe in the apartment and were able to work in the apartment, and they were here in London to work on projects, and the projects are still running. It was also difficult to go back into their country, in some cases. So, for instance, we had some Indian customers and it’s not easy for them to get back to their country.
So how full are you now?
Well around 15 to 20 per cent occupancy. We are not able to accept transient customers, so we have the long stay customers and we can welcome some key workers and NHS-related workers, so this is the main base of customers.
If they are staying with you for these months, do you upgrade them?
We are lucky because our one-bedroom apartment is 38 to 45sqm for one person, so it is the right solution, even if you stay for a long time. But if some customer has a specific request we are able to accommodate case by case.
And the Cavendish Hotel?
That is run by Ascott, as well, but the Cavendish in Mayfair is temporarily closed. As soon as the circumstances allow us to reopen, we will be really happy.
How have things been different around Europe?
In Germany, too, the government has implemented restrictions for transient visitors, so no leisure customers are allowed, but there we have a good base of long stay customers so those properties have stayed open.
In Tbilisi in Georgia, we have temporarily closed that property because the situation was not the same as the UK one. We had a lower base of long stay customers, and the measures implemented by the government there were stronger than over here.
It sounds like operating serviced apartments is easier than a hotel, though. You have a choice about staying open.
Serviced apartments are the right solution to address social distancing constraints. The apartments allow the customer to combine sleeping, living, eating and working in the same place.
What has happened about communal dining?
We have suspended the buffet breakfast offering, and instead if the customer requests we can offer a grab and go which is delivered directly to the apartments. We have also reduced any physical contact, so have implemented a cashless policy and encouraged contactless card payments instead.
Due to the hygiene issue on site, we have closed the gym, and we are not offering newspapers in the communal area. The shared water and coffee machines are also closed. Finally, we have limited the access to the property. So, as an example, if we receive a delivery we ask for people to ring the bell at the entrance to the property and await instruction from a member of staff, and there is hand sanitiser at the entrance which must be used.
What about the staff?
Because we have a significant reduction in demand we have implemented some reduction of our team. At the beginning of this virus we asked staff to take their holidays, and then the furlough process was implemented by the UK government, so around 65-75 per cent are currently furloughed.
You’ll be hoping the scheme is extended?
It has not been officially announced that it will be extended. While the restrictive measures are until the end of June, what we know is that new information will come out in one week, then we will have a better view of the situation on what will happen. For sure the health and safety of people is the key thing.
What sort of year do you think it will be for you?
If we are able to reopen our properties in June, we think that the demand will stay low for the next three months, so June, July and August the demand won’t be too strong. We believe that from September demand will start to come back. For sure, the type of customer we will get will mainly be domestic, because airline traffic will be lower until the end of the year, this could be both leisure and corporate, so it’s what we will focus on.
Within Trip Advisor, during April 2020 we saw an increase of requests for people looking for October for accommodation compared with last year. As an example, we received an important request from a theatre group requesting accommodation in October for a long stay group in one of our properties. These are people planning a performance in the theatre, so we have seen a few requests like that.
What changes have been made to the cleaning of the property?
We still have some team members on site to maintain our properties, and we have instructed our maintenance team to have a deeper look at our rooms, but our properties are in good condition and we follow deep cleaning on a regular basis. We maintain this and will continue because the occupancy is lower. We wait a few days after the room becomes empty before housekeeping goes in and cleans the room. We have also removed non-essential items from the room like bed runners, design features, design cushions and magazines.
We have significantly increased the cleaning of the common areas with an anti-viral cleaning product and we are also working on other initiatives and protocols – to ensure guests feel safe with us. We have set up a working group, to look at measures on social distancing and house-keeping.
It must be easier to do that in apartments than hotels?
I’m sure that in traditional hotels we will be able to do it as well, putting in measures to make sure we can deliver a good quality service. Maybe instead of having a buffet breakfast at The Cavendish we will be able to serve a la carte breakfast for a period of time.