Who?
• Michael Gray, general manager of the Hyatt Regency London ‒ The Churchill hotel• Giorgio Locatelli, chef and co-owner of Locanda Locatelli in the hotel’s ground floor

What?
• Re-opening the hotel and restaurant following a gas explosion that put the building out of action for four months last November
• Gray speaks to Janet Harmer about getting the hotel business back on its feet
• Locatelli talks to Hannah Thompson about the importance of human interaction in his restaurant

Read the full interviews with both Gray and Locatelli in this week’s The Caterer magazine, out 10 April 2015. Get your copy here!

1. Check your insurance policy

“Do it now,” said Giorgio Locatelli. “We would have risked losing the business otherwise. If we hadn’t sorted out the insurance, that could have been it for us.”

Insure wages as much as possible ‒ and the staff tronc ‒ and make sure you have an insurance adviser who you can trust. Their support may be key if the worst happens.

2. Ensure guests take the bare minimum with them

While any fire warden would advise you to evacuate the building immediately, Gray said that many guests became desperate when they realised they weren’t allowed back into the hotel to collect their essentials- such as medication, passports and credit cards – despite needing to catch flights the next day.

He advised: “My advice for any hotel would be to make arrangements with a local pharmacy to be on call any time of the day or night as part of its emergency plans.”

3. Balance official advice with your guests’ needs

Pleasing 600 hotel guests in the wake of a disaster is surely no easy task.

Ever keen to go above and beyond, Hyatt team members entered the still-off-limits building to collect guests’ belongings, especially for those who were due to fly out of London the next day. They gathered up the items and put them away, with someone from every team lending a hand.

Gray praised their efforts: “Not one of them ever complained or looked miserable. I take my hat off to each and every one of them.”

4. Sign up to a scheme such as the Hospitality Action Employee Assistance Programme

Schemes such as the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) from the industry’s benevolent charity Hospitality Action can provide crucial help – both emotional and financial, if necessary ‒ for staff and businesses if the worst happens.

The Hyatt, a recent signatory to the EAP, was able to arrange a counsellor for staff just days after the blast, while Locatelli also invited a counsellor to see his workers, allowing them to chat individually or as a group about their post-incident reactions.

As Locatelli said: “I know chefs talk a lot of bullshit about family, but we really do run it like that. These are young guys. I realised how responsible I felt for their wellbeing.”

Gray was no less emphatic. “In the past few months I’ve realised how vulnerable we all are… The EAP scheme proved to be brilliant from day one,” he said.

5. See opportunity in disaster

You can say one thing for a gas explosion: it certainly jump starts your routine.

Staff from both the hotel and the Locanda didn’t exactly dawdle in their downtime: some from the Hyatt took the chance to do work experience at other hotels in the group, while Locatelli’s lot enrolled in English classes, service skills classes, and cookery workshops.

Locatelli joked: “Only a few of them manage to do the English classes usually, but this time I said if you don’t turn up to class, I won’t pay you!”

This approach also bore fruit in terms of menu items: the new dish with red prawns from Mazara, for example, came directly from a fishing trip the restaurant staff took in the interim.

6. It might make your hair go grey

Anyone would agree that evacuating the premises of a 400-bedroom hotel plus a 90-seat restaurant isn’t exactly ideal, and Giorgio Locatelli especially agrees.

Widely known for his mop of dark hair – most recently seen in the BBC television programmes Italy Unpacked and Sicily Unpacked – he cuts a more salt-and-pepper figure these days, and entirely blames the explosion.

“It has been stressful,” he said. “I was a chef without a restaurant…like a body without the blood. I’m used to having things the way I want, and this took me right back to zero. I didn’t have grey hair this time last year!”

It’s not a forgone conclusion though: Gray’s hair suffered no such fate.

7. Unexpected change can be a good thing

The twin juggernauts of the Hyatt and Locanda Locatelli have been chugging along quite comfortably together for 13 years – but this halted that train.

Normally loath to embrace change, Locatelli admitted that the forced closure gave him and wife Plaxy a chance to re-think.

Locatelli’s refreshed his menu and added a range of vegetable salads, while the Hyatt plans to introduce a new cocktail aptly named Never Give In.

“This is definitely a new chapter for us,” said Giorgio. Plaxy added: “It did give us a bit of time to have a stock take. It’s been quite nice to ask, ‘Is there anything we can do differently?’ There has to be something positive to come out of [an event like this].”

8. Keep things in perspective

Ultimately, said both men, it could have been worse.

No-one was killed (just one staff member from the Hyatt suffered a serious injury) and a lot of the damage – although extensive and problematic ‒ was mainly cosmetic or underground.

Said Locatelli, who once left a past business (Zafferano) in difficult circumstances, and who also lost his 52-year-old brother last year: “In reality, I’ve looked at [the gas explosion] thinking, well, at least I’m still here, fighting. If you can go through that, you can go through anything.”

9. Loyalty means everything 

They often say you find out who your real friends are when bad things happen, and for both Gray and Locatelli, that’s been an unexpected upside.“Our competitor hotels couldn’t have been more helpful,” said Gray, whose staff received flasks of coffee from Justin Pinchbeck at the Berkeley hotel, cupcakes from Stuart Bowery at the Grosvenor House, and were even welcomed into the staff canteen at nearby hotel the DoubleTree by Hilton London – Marble Arch. Others to help included the Hilton on Park Lane, the Landmark, the Langham, the InterContinental and the Andaz.

Locatelli, also, was moved by the loyalty of his staff, many of whom stayed at the Locanda despite compelling offers from elsewhere.

“I don’t really care about things,” the chef said. “I care about people. It’s not the chairs and tables [that make people happy]…It’s actually the team. It’s us.”

10. Have a motto

It’s safe to say a philosophical side has emerged in both Gray and Locatelli, with both men turning to a stoic statement in time of upheaval.

Locatelli turned to his native tongue for his wisdom: “Non avere paura di perdere” – don’t be scared to lose”.

Gray referred back to the hotel’s namesake: a certain former prime minister rather well known for his quite literal Blitz spirit.

He said: “Most important of all, I’ve adopted Churchill’s phrase. KBO: Keep buggering on.”