Lockdown has brought the hospitality sector to a halt. But, despite the challenges, Cumberland customers James Wilkinson and Tony Guthrie have made good use of the time.
They bought the landmark Three Shires Inn in Little Langdale just two years ago. It was a dramatic life change, having worked in London and lived in Hampshire, and their first experience in the hospitality industry.
By the start of this year many of their plans for the business were falling into place.
An extensive refurbishment was mostly completed including a new kitchen and the combining of two bedrooms into one, creating a flagship suite. They had developed a new menu showcasing local produce and created a new kitchen team under chef Warren Machell.
“All the plans we had were coming together and we were getting comfortable and used to running the business and we were putting together our marketing plan,” says James. “And then we hit the lockdown.
“I have done business planning for years but you certainly don’t plan for an event that shuts you down completely, and shuts the whole country down.”
Staff were furloughed, deposits repaid and 15 barrels of the real ales which are a new speciality at Three Shires had to be thrown away – “that was fairly heartbreaking,” says James.
But then they turned their attention to work.
“We have actually done loads,” says James. “We have had a massive programme of maintenance on the outside of the building.
“We have renovated the veranda replacing a lot of old wood. It was a massive challenge because in the early days of lockdown we couldn’t get any materials.
“Replacing the woodwork on the veranda, I have had to carve some parts myself. Tony has been doing a lot of painting inside and outside the building.”
They have put in long days, taking advantage of the lockdown to complete tasks which would have been very disruptive to customers and impossible without good weather.
As newcomers to the area they have also used their exercise allowance to explore the surrounding hills, creating inspiration for their marketing plans.
All the bedrooms have been renamed after peaks which they face out towards.
“We have a plan to write up walks from the hotel for each peak. Our new knowledge of the area is already feeding into the marketing programme. We will have a Three Shires map with these walks on it,” says James.
It fits with their wider aim for the business of expanding their clientele to include the 20- to 40-something age group who are looking for an active holiday.
“In the short term we need to reopen in whatever form we are allowed,” says James. “We have invested in screens for the bar and we have quite a large beer garden and can configure the outside space for social distancing.
“We also have a quite reasonable amount of space inside and can manage a single flow of people through the building.
“I think we are in a good position to be able to open quickly and effectively.”
James says a problem facing all hospitality businesses will be the need to have more staff to manage social distancing but fewer customers coming in – so more outlay and less income.
“It will be a difficult balancing act,” he says.
They had already assembled a good team of nine staff who are on standby to come back when national guidelines allow.
“We are anticipating being able to open in July, those are all the indications from government. I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts with being able to open a beer garden first, and at this time of the year that works for us.”
They have not followed the example of some pubs and restaurants in providing takeaway meals, because it was so quiet. But he says they might look at providing sandwiches and soft drinks as more people travel into the valley.
Despite the financial cost to the business, James and Tony have made lockdown a productive time.
“The building and business are looking good,” says James. “Our next objective is becoming more widely known and extending our appeal to the younger demographic.
“It is not all bad, at all. We have taken the opportunity to do things we couldn’t have possibly done another time.”
The Cumberland’s Grant Seaton said: “Hospitality has been one of the hardest hit sectors and it is also one of the most important to Cumbria’s economy.
“Tony and James have brought resourcefulness and a determination to keep moving forward to this incredibly difficult situation and we are proud to work with them.”