Night was drawing in as I arrived at the Adria Hotel, a few hundred yards from Hammersmith tube station. Besides the traffic and a youngish couple smoking guiltily at a bus stop, there was little sign of life. Like most evenings in Lockdown 2, this one was well on its way to becoming the sort where boredom hits like a physical ailment.
The Adria is a fairly typical example of its kind: one of the hundreds of cheap and sometimes cheerful family-run guest houses dotted around London. The hotel doesn’t promise luxury, but it does offer a decent price (rooms run from around £50 a night) and a cooked breakfast for a few extra pounds. Blessed with convenient transport links and proximity to the Hammersmith Apollo and Lyric Theatre, business is – or was – mostly steady all year round.
However, the situation is not what it once was. To call 2020 a challenging year for the UK’s hotels would be something of a soft sell: the immediate outlook for the industry is unprecedentedly grim. In the year of the pandemic, foreign tourist numbers have dropped by three-quarters, while business travel has almost entirely evaporated.
At the end of October, forecasts by accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers pointed to crumbling daily revenue per hotel room, the industry's preferred performance measure. Even with COVID vaccines edging into reality, these figures aren’t expected to recover to 2019 levels until 2024 in London, and 2023 across the rest of the UK.
If the coronavirus “staycation” boom – a supposed uptick in internal British tourism – was ever anything more than a broadsheet construct, it certainly wasn’t an urban phenomenon. City hotels have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, and London’s hardest of all. Daily room revenues in the capital have sunk to £29 in 2020, less than a quarter of their 2019 level – by far the worst drop off since comparable data began to be collected in the 1970s.
Having shut in March, some hotels were used to house rough sleepers during the first stages of the Everyone In scheme. Others remained empty, right through to the summer re-openings, which did nothing to bolster spirits or bank balances. Now, after another month of national restrictions, the picture is increasingly desperate, with many smaller independent hotels teetering on the edge of financial ruin.
“Yeah, it’s just you tonight,” confirmed George, the Adria’s long-time owner and proprietor.
Before the Adria, George – a raffish man in his late sixties – had the Dalmacia Hotel on nearby Shepherd’s Bush Road. Shuttered in 2014, the hotel attracted some notoriety in the early-1990s as a favourite haunt of early-career Nirvana and a few of their grunge contemporaries, who enjoyed its no frills charm, as well as George’s company.
After some small talk, George pointed up the narrow stairs to Room 405, two floors up and a sharp turn left. I’d been put in the Adria’s smallest room, which seemed ample reward for the £35 I’d spent under their pandemic discount. Having unpacked my bag, I kicked off my shoes and pushed open the window to let the sound of traffic drift back in, for a bit of company.
The plight of London’s hotels isn’t something that has exactly captured public imagination or sympathy this year – and that’s understandable: there have been a thousand other things to worry about, from staying healthy to making rent. At the best of times, in the most ordinary years, hotels hardly factor in day-to-day social lives in the same way as other limbs of the hospitality industry. The ongoing travails of pubs and restaurants are well documented. After all, these are the places in which we live our lives.
Like anything else even tangentially connected to London’s property market, the hotel boom times weren't long ago. In 2017, investment in the capital’s hotels hit £1.1 billion, which came after an exponential rise in hotel openings, with 7,000 new rooms added over 2015, mostly in the outer London budget sector dominated by Premier Inn (owned by the hospitality giant Whitbread) and Travelodge, the UK’s largest “independent” hotel brand.
That same year, London was declared Europe’s most expensive city for hotel rooms. For investors, this was a point of civic pride – for everyone else, it served as a reminder of how overheated the city was becoming.
Working conditions for front of house and cleaning staff have been notoriously bad for decades. Long hours, low pay and unstable contracts are often the norm. Challenging and relentlessly busy, it is hardly an industry for the faint hearted. But one small benefit – at least in London – was that work was often available. With the current squeeze, even this vestige of flexibility has evaporated. In September, Whitbread announced 6,000 job cuts due to plunging demand.
After a couple of hours in my room at the Adria, I made my way back down to reception and pulled up a leather chair to hear a bit more of the hotel's history. There was no getting around it: 2020 had been the most challenging year in a long life spent in the hotel trade, George told me with a sigh. “It was actually alright until about March the 20th,” he laughed, “when everyone started cancelling left, right and centre.”
Born and bred in west London to Croatian immigrants, George spent his adolescence helping his parents maintain serviced rooms in the family home for workers who rented them for cheap rates dictated by the local authority, so long ago that they were measured in shillings rather than pounds. But that was the past.
“Luckily for us, two-thirds of [this year’s] cancellations have rebooked for next year,” said George. “I’m assuming it will all be over by April, [providing] the poor buggers who first take the vaccine don’t turn into frogs by then”.
Life at the moment is a blur of mostly empty days and sleepless nights, worrying about where the money to carry on is going to come from. “We’ve applied for so many government loans, but it’s always, ‘Oh, it’ll happen in two days.’ We did get the first one that was announced at the back end of May, so at least the government wasn't dishonest there. It pulled us out of the doo-doo for, what, ten weeks? It didn’t cover our mortgage payments [after that]. Needless to say, the bank is on our case, but that is what it is.”
George isn’t sentimental. “All businesses take risks, and if you don’t have the money, you need to borrow it, simple as that,” he said. Even with all his experience and nous, there is no way to predict what 2021 might have in store. Right now, it’s about clinging on.
A few days after my stay at the Adria, I spoke with Ezio, receptionist at Regency House Hotel, a well reviewed B&B in the heart of Bloomsbury. As with the Adria, they didn’t think to close the place down even during the height of the first wave.
“We’ve had key workers staying [the] whole way through”, Ezio explained. “People that have needed to isolate or be closer to their work. [Some] have stayed for quite a long time, but occupancy rates are a third of what they’d normally be.”
No, it isn’t easy – and yes, uncertainty is the operative word, he said. But when it comes down to it, Ezio’s just relieved to still have his job. “[But] I can only say what I see with my own eyes. I suppose we will just see [next year] how things go.”
As the night drew on at the Adria, George told me he’d never been in the trade to get rich. It was about meeting people, and the variety of the job. Of his last few guests, one was an unstable man who trashed a room, ripped a mirror from its hinges and slashed a pillow to shreds with a knife. The old days were good days, he told me.
“[The bands] started turning up between 1989, 1990. They looked rough and wore ripped jeans. I thought, ‘Can’t they get some decent clothes?’ For four or five years we gave them the basement. I didn’t care [what they did], and charged them £10 a night, flat rate. They were happy and I was happy, and it didn’t disturb the guests upstairs.”
Business was something else then. But memories of a better past won't keep the Adria – or any establishments of its kind – afloat indefinitely.
After another half an hour or so, George and I said goodnight and I made my way upstairs. In the morning, I woke early and walked down to an empty reception. On the tube back to King’s Cross, I read a trade story – published on the 12th of November – that speaks to the grimness of the year. Whitbread’s announcement that they would be going through with only half of the 6,000 proposed job losses across their hospitality empire, it read, could be construed as relatively good news.
It was about 10AM as I climbed back up to street level and a deserted Euston Road. Before my connecting bus home, there was another visit I wanted to make. If you cross the road from the Victorian bombast of the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel and carry on to the roads just behind the run of corner shops and fast food outposts, you arrive at a row of converted Georgian properties. Here, you’ll find perhaps London’s densest concentration of cheap boarding houses, with names like the Belmont and Belgrove Hotel, which speak to the area's historic Scottish connection.
Normally, there’s a certain kind of energy in the air. Backpackers and exhausted-looking tourists checking in and out against a clatter of wheeled suitcases and delivery vans. But there were few signs of life behind any of the closed doors that morning.
On the 63 bus home, my thoughts turned back to George, limbering up to another day and night manning the reception of a hotel without any guests.