When the InterContinental hotel, a landmark property in Dublin 4, reopens for business next week, there is one guest room you definitely won’t want to find yourself in. It’s not that room 240 is small, or has a poor view. Quite the contrary, the junior suite is spacious, and has a small balcony to allow fresh air in. This is the hotel’s isolation room, where a guest who shows signs of having contracted Covid-19 can be kept apart from other guests and staff.
"If anyone gets sick in-house, we have this room ready," explains director of housekeeping, Ann Ryan. "Location is very important, there are just two rooms adjacent here, so we'd block off the other room as well, and the lift is right there. It's a big space, and there is a larger stock of towels, extra toilet paper, toiletries, water, tea and coffee. It's important if someone is in isolation that they have a bit of comfort as well," Ryan says.
Her meticulous preparation of the suite is just one tiny element of a comprehensive action plan across the hotel’s bedrooms, restaurants and public spaces designed to reassure customers and get them back in the doors from Monday morning onwards.
In the lobby lounge, director of engineering Robert Wright is overseeing the laying of a giant green and gold rug, weighing 750 kg and airfreighted from India so it would arrive in time for the reopening. It is the centrepiece of a renovation of the ground-floor space that was already planned before the crisis shuttered the hotel on March 20th.
In the adjacent whiskey bar, father and daughter John and Rachel Murphy of Wexford company NP Liquid Glass Systems are spraying a liquid glass coating on the reupholstered chairs and sofas. It's a bacteria resistant, medical-grade, invisible coating mostly used in nursing homes and medical centres.
There is a sense of urgency and anticipation pervading the unusually quiet ground floor areas of the hotel. Small teams of workers are going about their tasks, but there are no business deals being hatched over pots of tea, no groups enjoying afternoon tea in the reading room, and the whiskey bar is devoid of daytime drinkers.
Less than a week before the 208-bedroom hotel welcomes its first guests in more than three months, the business is in the final stage of a minutely choreographed reopening plan.
Nicky Logue, general manager
Logue, a Clare man who held his first general manger position while still a student at Shannon College of Hotel Management, has been in charge at the InterContinental since November 2016. He has been working at the hotel five days a week during lockdown. "We had a bit of a sense that the opening date might be brought forward, so we are ready to go and excited to open the doors."
The hotel will be reopening with about 40 per cent of its staff back in the building, Logue says. “The first night, I think we’ve five or six rooms booked, and as the week goes on, it gets busier and then for the weekends it starts going up to 25/30 rooms.” Restaurant reservations are going well, he says.
With overseas visitors normally accounting for 60 per cent of the business, Logue says his biggest challenge is “just making sure that the business is going to be there when we open”. The first customers through the doors next week are leisure guests. “ In the first week, we’ve got a lot of regulars back in. There’s a couple coming in that stay here every three or four weeks; they’re here for two nights. They’re from Donegal. I think they’re just dying to get away from the house.”
Two of the hotel’s four long-term residents, Irish guests, who live in the hotel’s guest rooms year round, will also be among the first guests to check in when the doors open on Monday.
Ann Ryan, director of housekeeping
It's not just humans that have to deal with quarantine restrictions; every time a guest checks out of a hotel room, all unused supplies – toilet paper, toiletries, even the sugar sachets – will have to be removed from the room and kept in quarantine for 72 hours, before being restocked.
The person charged with that logistical nightmare at the InterContinental is director of housekeeping, Ann Ryan. Ryan has been working at the hotel throughout lockdown, preparing for the day the hotel could reopen.
“There are certain chemicals now that we have to use and there are colour coded cloths for each room – pink for the bathroom, yellow for disinfecting the bedroom and blue for the glass.”
Additional tasks will add 15 minutes to the time it takes to clean each room, Ryan estimates. Guests will be asked to leave their room while cleaning is being done “for their safety as well as ours”.
Cushions and throws have been removed from all of the bedrooms, but it is the little touches that Ryan misses from the newly-streamlined bedrooms. “The toilet roll covers are gone, and the beautiful satin hangers had to come out as well.”
Ciara Hanley, director of sales and marketing
"A lot of our business is international, but now we are flipping, we are going back into the domestic market and trying to come up with ideas to drive that business," says Hanley, who has worked at the hotel since 2013.
So with all that availability, can Irish guests expect discounted rates and deals? “ No, we don’t want to discount. The premise is that we keep the rates and manage the integrity. We need to generate revenue to keep people in jobs.”
There may not be discounts on offer, but guests booking suites can shop in the ultimate comfort. “We’ve teamed up with Brown Thomas so you can do a virtual shopping experience from your suite and they bring the clothes out to you here, if you don’t feel comfortable going to the shop.”
A new revenue stream has also been identified. “We are getting small wedding inquiries. We’ve picked up a wedding for August for 80 people; they were supposed to get married abroad, but they still want to have their celebration. And the Communions and Confirmations have just been announced again, for September, so all that business is starting to come back.”
Abiding by InterContinental Group guidelines, as well as those issued by Fáilte Ireland, and keeping guests happy, is the balance the hotel's management team is working to achieve. "We are trying not to compromise the luxury experience, because you're paying a premium for a reason," Hanley says.
Alberto Rossi, executive chef
"I have opened maybe three kitchens, during all the time that I've been working, but I've never closed one. It was a bit sad, turning off the gas, the electricity," says Rossi, who is originally from Milan. Now, three months later, the kitchen is preparing to cook again, initially with seven of the 28 staff on duty.
The hotel's flagship restaurant is exceptionally spacious, normally seating up to 160. Social distancing will be managed by placing reserved signs on tables that are not in use. "Even with 2-metre social distancing, we have 94/96 seats. We are blessed with space," Rossi says, hoping this will reassure potential diners. Outdoor dining will also be available, weather permitting, and head gardener Nick Sharkey has used the closed period to deal with a drainage problem that persisted in the grass area at the rear of the hotel, making it suitable for use year round.
“We have reduced the dinner menu a bit to make it . . . ‘simpler’ is not the right word to use, but having less staff in the kitchen, we need to make sure that we can execute it at the right level. People understand that we have been closed, but once they come through the hotel door, it is a different world and they want to be looked after, they want to leave the dirty dishes on the table and go home.”
The reopening menu will feature “tomato gazpacho, to reflect the weather, then we have scallops served with pork belly and a carbonara foam. On the main courses we will have beef fillet, and probably halibut served with mussels and clams and saffron stock, something light and refreshing.”
He says: “We only have one opportunity to reopen the hotel, so we really have to grab it and do the best that we can.”
What to expect
Pedro de Haro, assistant front office manager, may be the the first visible face that will greet arriving guests, as porters will be wearing masks and gloves. Screens so discreet as to be practically invisible, shield staff at the check-in and concierge desks. Masks will be optional for guests and staff, except porters and housekeeping staff, de Haro explains. “We want to keep if safe but at the same time guest-friendly,” he says.
Safety will also be the concern of head of security, Michael Walsh, whose job it will be to ensure that guests adhere to health and safety guidelines. Non-compliance will not be tolerated. "If they are staying in-house, I will ask them to please go to their room and if they are not staying, they will be asked to leave."
There are no bright yellow floor markings reminding guests to keep their distance in the entrance hallway, that job will be done by use of thick red ropes hung from shiny brass poles. The Covid-19 health and safety guidelines that are dotted around, are similarly discreetly displayed. The check-in process will be slightly different from normal too, with guests being asked if they would like to have their room serviced, or not, during their stay, and time slots for breakfast will be allocated.
Once in the guest room, the absence of throws, cushions, ice buckets, pens and notepads, and amenity kits may be noted, though some of these are available by request. The mini bar will be empty too - even the three-bedroom penthouse James Joyce suite, with its full size, sit-up cocktail bar, has been stripped of its bottles of alcohol.
The telephone and remote control will be encased in a plastic cover, noting that it has been freshly sanitised, and instead of heavy leather-bound volumes for the room service menu and hotel information, these will be available by QR code, or on a disposable card.
One thing that won’t be disappearing from the guest rooms, according to director of housekeeping Ann Ryan, is real china cups and glasses. “I know some hotels are going to bring in paper cups and plastic glasses, but that’s not going to happen here.”
If guests want to visit the spa, they will need to book a slot to use the pool, jacuzzi and gym. Treatments will be available, for hotel guests only, from Friday of next week. Angelee Gunnoo, spa manager, says the full menu of treatments including facials and massages, will be available. “If the client wants us to wear gloves, we are going to wear gloves, if not, we will sanitise before we start the treatment.”
Arriving in Seasons restaurant for breakfast, apart from noticing the absence of the hotel’s buffet, guests may be surprised to find that their table is bare, with no starched linen, sparkling china, glassware and cutlery. “When you sit down, we will deliver everything uniquely for your table,” Nicky Logue says, noting that guest may be reassured by the knowledge that nobody has been seated at the table before them.