If it isn’t arduous enough to fully refurbish a large hotel housed in a B-listed Victorian building, then try carrying out the bulk of the works during a global pandemic.
That gives you an idea of just how challenging the last few years have been for the Kirkwall Hotel team. At a time when business has been uncertain, income has fallen considerably and customer confidence across the entire tourism sector has been shaky at best, millions of pounds have been spent on the hotel overlooking Kirkwall’s harbourfront.
And what a transformation it has been. Vintage revolving doors slowly spin you into the spacious foyer, and the new-look Highland Park Bar and Harbour View Restaurant offer stylish seating as well as delicious food and stunning views.
But perhaps the greatest changes have taken place upstairs, throughout the hotel’s 37 en-suite rooms. New fixtures and fittings and plush interiors greet you as you step in through your door, with some welcoming personal touches in place.
“The whole hotel has been refurbished,” says manager, Leanne Rendall. “We’ve renovated all the rooms, bathrooms, public areas and corridors. It has been a huge project, and behind the scenes we’ve improved the water pressure and updated the electrics too. It has all been worth it though, as it looks fantastic and we’re already getting some really positive feedback from guests.”
The Kirkwall Hotel has long been one of Orkney’s most popular destinations for both locals and visitors alike. However, along with many other businesses worldwide, that all changed in March 2020 when COVID-19 started to spread throughout the UK and the country went into its first period of lockdown. For the hotel that meant booking cancellations, closed doors and a refurbishment project frozen due to restrictions on travel and trade.
But, when things finally began to tentatively open once again, the quieter times ahead offered opportunity. “The renovation work was originally set to take place over five years,” says Leanne. “But due to the closures over the course of the pandemic, we were able to fast forward it all without causing major disruption to our guests.”
A silver lining perhaps, but the pandemic also posed other problems for the hotel, including new cleaning protocols, extra staff training, recruitment challenges and the need to make sure guests all felt as safe as possible.
“It has been hard for everyone. It’s tough on the staff who have had to wear masks for long periods of time, and nobody’s job is exactly the same as it was pre-pandemic,” says Leanne. “We’ve all had to adapt and introduce new systems, but we’re hopeful we can look forward to this summer season with a degree of optimism and more of a sense of normality.”
The hotel has invested in special UV lights for rooms to make sure they’re cleaned thoroughly between guests, and there’s an hourly touch surface cleaning routine in place too. For Leanne, making sure visitors feel safe is paramount. “Everyone has dealt with the pandemic differently, and we’re well aware that some people may be slightly more cautious than others,” she says. “Hopefully they’ll find the hotel a safe and clean environment for them to stay in, and everyone will be able to enjoy their time with us as comfortably as they would have done in the past.”
Last year the hotel saw a steady stream of bookings with many visitors heading to Orkney on staycations. The appetite for holidays after pandemic cancellations even saw the season stretching into October, and it looks much the same this time around. It’s also expected more guests from abroad will be arriving in the islands this summer.
As the Kirkwall Hotel looks forward to the future, Leanne hopes that Orkney in general will be able to do the same. “As time goes on, we’d all like to see prevalence of the virus lessen and vaccinations continue to do their job so people can become more comfortable with the situation.
“If that happens, and we can keep everyone as safe as possible, we’re hopeful business and tourism in the islands will be steady once again. It’s all needed after the last two years.”