Falkirk hotelier: 'Our business lost £20 million due to pandemic'
To say the COVID-19 pandemic hit Airth Castle Hotel owner Steven McLeod’s business hard in the pocket would be an understatement.
The former Aurora Hotel Colletion chief executive admitted to The Falkirk Herald this week the business had lost £20 million as a direct result of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown which has devastated the hospitality industry and led to Airth Castle Hotel being closed for the best part of 18 months.
Mr McLeod was responding to a wave of negative comments on Trip Advisor website, and claims from customers and clients past, present and future that Airth Castle Hotel looked to be on its last legs.
One posted: “The hotel will tell you everything is fine, they just have shortage of staff due to COVID-19 – that’s why things have been cancelled. People going to weddings are having to pay cash only while the hotel sells booze bought from Asda.”
Mr McLeod said things had been difficult in recent times, forcing him to take an unprecedented step of closing the hotel during the week and cutting hours, but he assured people that Airth Castle was not going under.
"The hotel is not disappearing,” he said.
"I’m not going to let our customers and clients down.
"But it has been a real fight for the last two years.
"I made the decision to change the business opening hours and closing it on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays until October.
"If you talk to any hotelier they will tell you the same thing – I’m not the only one who has been hit hard by this. Everyone in the industry has.
"In all the years I’ve owned Airth Castle, this is the first time I’ve had to take these steps so we can concentrate purely on weddings, hen nights and other weekend events."
Mr McLeod stated there was “no point” opening up the hotel at the start of the week to serve dinner to a few local people, and said he wanted to keep his staff fresh and focused on the weddings and events booked for the weekend.
Staffing has also been a major problem.
“I lost over 200 team members – that’s 80 per cent of the staff – who were on furlough,” said Mr McLeod. "I allowed them to take up a second job when we were closed for their own survival throughout the pandemic.
"Most of them have enjoyed the new life and they preferred that and left the industry. I stuck right beside my entire team throughout this entire pandemic, when I stopped furlough and opened back up the business in July, they left us in the lurch, either going off sick or not coming back.
"I feel used and devastated – many of our team have retrained in new business throughout the pandemic and have left hospitality altogether. Brexit also caused difficulty with some of our foreign team members going back home to their country and families.
“Around 20 per cent of the team remained loyal to me and are still side by side with me – this includes family and indeed my loyal staff members who are happy to be back working.”
Looking to get things back on track again, Mr McLeod has introduced an “extensive recruitment drive” to fill the sizeable gaps in the venue’s team.
The hotel has also had issues with supply chain for food, drink, consumables – hence the trip to Asda for alcohol.
"We’ve been forced to mix and match,” said Mr McLeod. “We must have had 12 weddings last week and we had to get chicken from four different suppliers. The demand is outstripping supply at the minute
"We are doing the very best we can for the clients.”
As for asking people to pay in cash, Mr McLeod admitted his merchant services contract had come to an end so he had to tell wedding guests to bring cash with them.
He said bank card facilities had been up and running again at the hotel for the last four weeks.
Mr McLeod said he was saddened by the attacks his staff had to endure on social media and in person from upset customers and clients.
"I have witnessed first-hand the way some of the public have treated my staff and it’s quite disturbing – many have forgotten how to behave with no manners and attitude.
"We are trying our absolute best. There’s very little I can do to manage external factors.”
Those factors include the “staycation” crowd staying away from Airth Castle Hotel this year, which has also hurt the business and, as if all this was not enough, the hotel unfortunately experienced a horrendous flood in February which resulted in damage to three storeys of bedroom accommodation.
Those issues have been dealt with, and Mr McLeod is now looking to refurbish 60 out of the hotel’s 125 guest bedrooms over the winter period.
He admitted he is at the mercy of the fluctuating COVID-19 situation, and has to hope restrictions do not return this festive season.
He said: “We normally play host to over 16,000 guests throughout our festive programme and, while our bookings are coming in, it looks like people are still cautious about going to large public gatherings.
"Some of our beautiful couples have moved their wedding dates four or five times to fit in with COVID and the ever-changing regulations.
"Of course our complete attention shall be on giving them what they have waited on and that is the best day of their life and at Airth Castle Hotel.”