How to reopen a resort in cottage country: Frisbee golf, room service and curbside check-in

How to reopen a resort in cottage country: Frisbee golf, room service and curbside check-in

Like many industries affected by the pandemic, the hospitality sector faces an uncertain future, particularly given that its business model depends on an endless turnover of strangers packing into shared spaces. But as locals emerge from an extended lockdown, the collective impulse to ditch the city for a resort in cottage country might be stronger now than ever. For Jesse Hamilton, the general manager of Deerhurst Resort in Muskoka, the most recent challenge is jump-starting operations while keeping his guests safe and happy. Here, we spoke to Hamilton about the complexities of reopening a resort during a global crisis.

What was your initial reaction when the lockdown started?
At the start, I was hopeful. I thought it was only going to be a 30-day shutdown. When we officially closed in mid-March, we still had 800 guests at the resort, all of whom we had to ask to leave. I was heartbroken, both for them and for our staff. Once the initial shock of turning our guests away had passed, my biggest focus became, When do we get the team back to work again? This business is entirely about people. We had 300 staff employed before the pandemic, and within 14 days of closing, we had to lay off the vast majority. We were down to 12 employees, including senior positions.

How did you expect it to impact business?
July and August make up about 33 per cent of our annual revenue. The thought of losing that much business was overwhelming. That said, we’re also really busy during the winter season, since we can host conferences of anywhere from 250 to 700 people. The corporate bookings we had for September and October all moved to 2021, which is great news. Plus, there’s still a chance we’ll be able to conduct business in September and October, pending restrictions on large gatherings. The groups that have booked during those months are willing to wait until 30 days before the event to make a decision about whether or not to cancel, which we really appreciate. We’re being cautiously optimistic.

When did you plan to reopen?
In the early stages, our heart was set on the May long weekend. When that didn’t happen, we shifted to June. It took a little longer than expected, but we were very happy to have officially reopened at partial capacity on June 12.

The hospitality industry is dependent on a lot of people, from the guests to the employees, being close together. Obviously that’s not ideal during a pandemic. Which aspects of the customer experience did you have to change? 
Now we’re offering curbside check-in. When you arrive, each parking spot has a clearly displayed phone number. You call that number and let us know what spot you’re in. Then, our front-desk agents come to your car with everything you need for your stay and check you in right there. And then you’re on your way. But for the handful of people who still like to walk in to our front desk and be checked in, we don’t stop them from doing that. We’ve put plexiglass barriers in front of those desks, and all our staff are mandated to wear masks. We’re also going cashless. Very little cash gets used in the resort environment anyway, since most transactions are charged to credit cards or another form of payment when the guest leaves.

What do you do about food service, considering restaurants are supposed to be closed?
Our first patio opened on June 19, with the other two set to open on June 26 and July 3. The provincial government has asked that patios operate at 50 per cent capacity, with a minimum of six feet between tables. But since our indoor restaurants are closed, we’ve started offering room service for the first time. We had to set up a call centre in our food and beverage offices, staffed by hosts who have recently come back to work. There’s also an online ordering system. That’s one of the changes that I’m confident will remain after the pandemic, since our guests are really enjoying it. We’re also offering curbside food pick-up, both for guests and the general public.

Will you still have housekeepers going in and out of the rooms?
We’re only cleaning rooms before guests check in and after they check out, as opposed to the daily cleanings we offered before. We figure our guests feel safest if they know they’re the only ones who’ve been in their room. But now, a room takes longer to clean, because we’re sanitizing things that weren’t necessarily a focus in the past: light switches, lamps and remotes. But that’s the extra attention to detail we need to have to make sure our guests feel safe and comfortable.

Did you also have to create more social-distancing space for guests?
We wanted to give people more things to do outside, since the indoor parts of the resort will be slower to reopen. We have two golf courses: a larger course, which tends to be used by more serious golfers, and a smaller lakeside course for everyone else. We closed half of the lakeside course, making it nine holes, in order to create more green space for our non-golfing guests. That’s helped increase the amount of walking space. We also put in a brand-new 18-hole disc golf course in that area, with the walking paths arranged so that there’s no risk of being hit by an errant Frisbee. At the beach, we’ve spread the lounge chairs much farther apart and we’ve started sanitizing things like paddles and life jackets after each use.

How do these changes affect your pricing model?
The changes we’ve implemented, like our enhanced cleaning services, room service and so on, have definitely increased the cost of business, but our room rates have remained unchanged for the time being. Regular rooms in our hotel start at around $170 a night, while our home-style accommodations, which typically come with a full kitchen, start around $230. I don’t know what it will look like going forward, since we don’t yet know the impact of all these changes, so it’s hard to say definitively whether our room rates will go up or down.

How has all of this affected your staff?
As of today, we’ve brought back 200 staff. Our hourly wages have not changed. Everyone gets a “return to work” package that outlines all our new policies. The biggest one is the requirement to wear a mask or face shield. That package also contains a questionnaire with specific questions around symptoms and recent travel—if there’s any cause for concern, they’re not allowed to return to work until they pass a Covid-19 test. The document strongly encourages staff to wash and sanitize their hands consistently, but there’s no specific time requirement. Hand-washing is already a huge part of working in hospitality.

Have you gotten any feedback from customers in the first couple of weeks?
We’ve gotten really positive feedback and, so far, no complaints from people about the recent changes. In some instances, like with our curbside check-in and the ability to order room service, I think things are even more convenient than they were before. In general, I think everybody understands that things are different. This pandemic has impacted our whole country. People are just happy to be doing the things they love: play golf, get outside, jump in the lake—even if that means spacing chairs apart.

Have you had a lot of bookings this year?
We’ve limited occupancy for the June 12, 19 and 26 weekends to 25 per cent, 35 per cent, and 50 per cent capacity, respectively. Right now, our plan is to sell up to 100 per cent of our rooms starting on July 1. We’ve hit all those limits so far, and I would say the demand we’re seeing is even stronger than the same time last year. Which isn’t much of a surprise. We’d been getting a lot of calls prior to announcing our official opening date. People were wondering when we’d reopen. I think Canadians are taking more time to explore their province, given other travel restrictions. I think that’s fantastic for Ontario. And obviously for a business like ours.