25 May 2022

The long journey back to business ends tomorrow for award-winning Derry hotel

Final preparations being made for reopening of Bishop's Gate Hotel

Ciaran O'Neill

Ciaran O'Neill is looking forward to welcoming visitors to the Bishop's Gate Hotel.

The managing director of an award-winning Derry hotel which reopens tomorrow said making his guests feel comfortable and safe will be the key to rebuilding the business.

Bishop's Gate Hotel on Bishop Street closed its doors on Thursday, March 19, when lockdown was announced across Northern Ireland.

Managing director, Ciaran O'Neill, said he will never forget breaking the news to his 91 staff, many of whom have been with the business since it opened four years ago.

“When I met with my team at the hotel on the Thursday morning to tell them that we would be closing the following day and I didn’t know when or if we would reopen, I will never forget the anxiety and shock on their faces," he recalled.

"At that point our priority was to protect life, to keep our employees, customers and community safe.

“On the Monday morning as I stood in the foyer of an empty hotel, on my own, the reality of the situation started to hit home.

"Despite having over thirty years’ experience of managing and running businesses, I wasn’t prepared for this scenario.

"In contingency planning you’ll often consider how different issues could impact your business, but given there hasn’t been a pandemic of this scale in the last number of decades, it wasn’t something that we had a plan for."

The speed and scale of the lockdown was something no one had predicted and it turned the hospitality industry on its head.

“Covid-19 has and will continue to have a seismic impact on the hotel industry," said Mr O'Neill.

"From a business perspective, the impacts of the crisis have reached every industry in the world, with travel and tourism taking a massive hit.

“In the future when we reflect on the pandemic, we will be doing so with the benefit of hindsight and our interpretation of events may be very different to what it currently is.

“Personally, at the start of March, if someone had told me that the country would be shut down by the end of the month, I wouldn’t have believed them.

"The pace of announcements and developments is hard to fathom.

“Government leaders and officials had to make quick-time decisions.”

Mr O'Neill said he had no option but to put the business into what he called an 'induced coma' throughout lock down.

“We decided that the best option was to put the strong trading business that we had currently in place into an induced coma in order to survive and reopen when we believed that the opportunity was there to do so and that it was safe for our employees and guests," he explained.

“Government support and information was unclear.

"The job retention scheme was a blessing for our 91 staff and gave them security but with the exception of rates relief, we were unable to avail of any other funding.

"We needed to be creative and flexible in our thinking and focus on the opportunities for the future.

"To do this successfully we reached out to others and formed alliances to ensure the government was aware of the challenges facing the hotel sector. "

"The goal was to ensure that our position was reflected in the policy decisions.”

Mr O'Neill and his team have now focussed their efforts on making Bishop's Gate Hotel as safe as possible for both guests and staff ahead of tomorrow's reopening.

Hand sanitiser stations have been installed at all entry points and disinfectant 'fogging' machines will be used to sanitise guest bedrooms.

Bishop's Gate has also implemented a contactless payment policy where possible, and has reconfigured the bar and restaurant areas in line with social distancing guidelines.

“Now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, with a date for reopening, and the subsequent recovery of our industry," said Mr O'Neill.

"Undoubtedly, it will be slow and in order to comply with restrictions, we will not be able to pick up where we left off at the beginning of March.

“We started from scratch four years ago and I am confident in the skills and talents of my team.

"I believe we can replicate the process and build a successful business all over again.

“It really is like trading in a new world.

"We have embraced the challenges and we have worked to ensure that we have a safe environment for our employees and guests, while still maintaining the Bishop’s Gate magic that we are renowned for."

Mr O'Neill acknowledged that customer confidence will be the key to rebuilding the tourism sector.

“The legacy of this pandemic will be difficult for all businesses and for tourism based enterprises in particular," he said.

"The hospitality industry will have to learn to function in a way not seen before.

"As the relationship between each brand and consumer starts by building trust, regaining customer confidence will be the first step in overcoming the crisis,” said Mr O'Neill.

"Life will return to normal.

“Our industry will bounce back and I can’t wait to get started!”

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