Interview with Jeremy Buffam, partner
What were the initial impacts of COVID-19 on your business?
It was twofold. The obvious is the financial, which is the 50- to 90-per-cent drop in revenues for most properties, at least early on — before anybody knew if anyone was going to do any business. Eventually that was alleviated as a couple properties were able to get some COVID-19-specific business — either the Navy or groups that are operating offshore oil rigs.
The immediate financial numbers [caused] shock and awe, but I would say the initial impact is the psychological game change for property teams, particularly in Atlantic Provinces, which is where we operate [in Canada], the spring is when they usually come out of the hard winter and to just have that cliff was a bit of a psychological shell shock.
How has it impacted staffing?
Initially, the managers had to pick up all the extra work of the associates who were not being scheduled. So, they were working more than they ever had before. Lots of people have been laid off on the hourly side, then you have managers working 60- to 70-hour weeks. After a couple of weeks, when it became apparent that this was not going to be a two- to four-week issue…it went to the point where you actually had managers starting to be furloughed…So it was kind of adding insult to injury. It was a very difficult time.
What new company or property-level initiatives have been put in place?
As far as doing business going forward, most of our properties are branded, so we’re following the leader so to speak. We’ve implemented whatever the local regulations [require], but also Marriott and Hilton have a number of initiatives on the cleaning front and the communication side.
This was kind of a coincidence, but we had [begun implementing] SpeakApp, [which] is designed to facilitate better communication between everybody…more social communication. We expedited the implementation of the app and I took off a little quicker than we [expected]. That’s been a success and something that helped us over the period where [some] people were not at the hotels for several weeks.
What has been the greatest challenge?
For everyone in the businesses it’s going to be the financial fallout; dealing with the debt. [Excluding that,] the greatest challenge has been trying to adapt to a new normal when we really don’t know what it is. We know it’s not going to be the same for the next year or two — at all. We don’t know what’s going on and how it’s going to change and develop; it’s just that uncertainty that pervades every aspect of the business.
What are the company’s strategies for recovery?
At the corporate level, like a lot of companies, we’re going to be operating with a smaller team for the immediate future. But, at the same time, we have the same number of properties, so our strategy is to do more with less. We’ve tried to instill a culture, at the corporate offices, of being a servant leader [and] resource center for the properties and right now the properties need that as much as ever. The strategy at the properties is rethinking, to some degree, how we leverage the group business at a hotel like the Westin in Halifax. One of our strategies is finding different ways to maintain social distancing in the short term and making groups comfortable to stay with us again and get out and travel.
What advice would you offer to other hoteliers?
Lead by example and get out and travel. If you’re a hotel company and you’re restricting corporate travel, but you want other people to go to your hotels, that’s a contradiction. Get out to the properties and meet with your team, not just because they need support, but it’s a matter of principle to encourage travel.