While many of us were slow to realise how big the COVID-19 pandemic was going to be, Lyndsay Stanistreet-Tyer, general manager of Suites Hotel in Knowsley, cottoned on quicker than most.
“Because of where we are in Knowsley, and the business density we have in the borough, we are a major destination for corporate travellers,” she said. “So before we even had many cases in the UK we were already seeing cancellations from overseas clients. I knew this was going to be big.”
And so it proved. Three national lockdowns have been devastating for whole swathes of the UK economy and the hospitality sector was among those hit hardest. When the Prime Minister announced the first lockdown, Suites Hotel had to shut its doors. However, those doors were unlocked again just two days later.
Lyndsay explained: “At that point we had 106 staff and we had to put our whole team on furlough. It was a really difficult and emotional time. My connection with the hotel goes back many years and a number of our staff had been here a long time. Prior to COVID-19 business had been fantastic.
“However, we then got a call from Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool, who were already a client of ours. They wanted somewhere for their medical staff to be able to stay and isolate and asked us to reopen. So we did.
“For months we had staff from Alder Hey, and the Walton Centre, staying at the hotel. We asked some staff to come back off furlough, which a few agreed to do. It was a big learning curve because everything had to be done differently. The staff couldn’t have contact with the guests so we had to leave towels and other essentials outside the rooms.”
Suites Hotel remained open for medical staff through 2020 and that was then extended to people from other business sectors as the economy started to open up. But the impact on the hotel was still devastating. Lyndsay estimates revenues plummeted by around 80%.
It was Lyndsey’s family who originally owned the hotel, previously called The Bell Tower. In 2000 it launched as Suites following a major upgrade and became the first hotel in the UK with rooms comprising entirely of suites. The family also owned other Merseyside hotels.
In 2014, Lyndsay’s father fell ill and she returned from working overseas to help run the hotel. She added: “I first worked in the hotel industry when I was just 12 at my dad’s Derby Lodge Hotel – it was a proper family business. I left Suites when I was 25, working around the UK before moving overseas.
“I actually left the hospitality business and ended up in Gibraltar working in the gaming industry. That was a valuable learning experience for me as I learned so much more about customer satisfaction and client retention. It’s so valuable when people come back.”
On her return in 2014 she became managing director of Suites Hotel. Her mother died and in 2018, her father’s cancer returned and he decided to sell the business. It was acquired by three private investors and they brought in a national operator, Compass Hospitality, to run the hotel. One of those three investors also owns Compass.
The new operators recognised the value of Lyndsay and her team and the institutional knowledge and experience they offered. She was asked to stay on as general manager, and agreed. She said: “That was a really good change for me. Rather than stepping back and running the business, I was dealing with guests again and I loved that.”
The hotel underwent another transformation and entered a period of sustained growth. It was popular with both business travellers, offering excellent conference facilities, and with the leisure market. Its suites were ideal for families.
Its spa became a destination attraction for people from all over the country and its fitness studio is also very popular. And, stretching back to the Bell Tower days, the hotel is renowned for its cooked breakfasts – especially its sausages.
“We were flying,” added Lyndsey. “People were coming from all over the UK and overseas to stay in the hotel. This place has been part of my life for so long which is why I found the devastating impact of the pandemic such an emotional experience.
“Last year I looked around and wondered how this business was going to survive. We had to consider redundancies or reducing hours to keep staff on. Some of our team had been here 10, 12, 15 years. There were some dreadful periods and it was awful seeing people leave.”
However, as 2021 has progressed the hotel’s fortunes have turned around dramatically, particularly since the corporate market returned in February. And the opening up due to the Government’s roadmap in April and May has accelerated the recovery.
“One of our biggest issues now, and an issue for the entire hospitality sector, has been finding skilled and experienced staff,” said Lyndsay. “The best people are going to the highest bidder. So many people left hospitality in 2020 and didn’t come back.
“But it is fantastic now how everything is opening back up. At one point we had to restrict conference events to 15 people. Now we can have 30 and, in May, we hosted our first wedding since the pandemic.
“The corporate market is now very positive and we are seeing a rise in leisure bookings too. Our spa is a real destination space and people travel from all over the country to use the facilities. Everything is opening up again, the fitness studio, the restaurant. After such a dark period, I am now feeling so positive about the future.”