Past, present, future blog – Stephen Walker, The Balmoral Hotel

The Past, Present and Future blog will look at what life was like before Coronavirus, during it and how people are preparing for its aftermath. It will consider what marketing and communication strategies are being deployed, how businesses are reacting to the current situation and what they plan to do after the lockdown. The Word Association, an established PR and marketing agency based close to St Andrews in Fife, interviews leading lights in golf, tourism and hospitality about these challenging times.

This week’s interviewee is highly regarded as a skilled communicator and practitioner in the Scottish hotel sector. Stephen Walker, Director of Sales and Marketing at The Balmoral in Edinburgh, discusses the impact Coronavirus is having on the business and his marketing strategy for what happens next.


Stephen Walker, The Balmoral Hotel, 20/04/20, 2:30pm


Past – If you could cast your mind back to the start of the year, what were the objectives for 2020?

“Our financial year runs from the 1st May to the end of April. So just before Coronavirus appeared on the horizon, we were in the budget cycle for what would be our fiscal year of 2020-2021. We were coming off the back of one of the hotel’s most successful years ever. We were relatively on a crest of a wave and all the signals were this wave was going to continue. It all looked very positive moving into a new fiscal year with a strong business base in all segments. We are a business that thrives on the US market, so when things are going well, our focus is very much on the group and leisure business from North America, much of which books with long lead-ins – anything from 18 months to three years. And then there’s the high-end transient business that has a shorter booking window generally from October through until February. We were well into that booking window when the Pandemic appeared on the horizon. At that time, all of our marketing efforts in the key segments we work in seemed to be working very well.”

Past – It was a positive start to the year.

“Yes, but that was on the back of a very good year and a positive set of economic circumstances in which people were enthusiastic to travel. A year in which The Balmoral was voted the best Hotel in the UK by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine, underpinning our market position in Edinburgh.


Present – What has life been like for you and your team since then?

It all came about relatively quickly. We went from seeing a potential short-term downturn in business to going into mitigation mode and looking at areas where we could save money as well as areas where we could drive short-term business on a more local basis. And then circumstances overtook us completely and we were forced to close the business. Like many businesses, we were extremely relieved when the furloughing process became available. We furloughed most of our staff and have a skeleton team of 16 people working across the business. With a historic Hotel like The Balmoral we have to have a constant eye on the maintenance of the building. The rooms have to be checked on a regular basis.”

Present – How did the shutdown specifically affect the Sales and Marketing team?

“Most of my team is furloughed. Of those left, We have one in groups and events, one in reservations and one in revenue management so there are four of us still working but from home. We have a Zoom catch-up generally every other day.”

Present – How is the team coping with the shutdown?

“It’s a very odd scenario because you have our team, but they’re not working with us anymore because they’re furloughed. One thing we’ve tried to keep going is some community spirit within the team, which is about 20 people in my case. Once a fortnight we get together on a Zoom call. The first one was purely social because we had to close the business down so quickly, we never had a chance to say goodbye, so we got together and had a few cocktails. We followed that up with a business focussed update. A lot of the team are very connected with customers and pieces of businesses which, all of a sudden, they are disconnected from, so they wanted to know what had happened to those events, weddings and conferences. For the next one, we’re bringing in a motivational speaker who will talk to the team about keeping a positive mind-set during all of this. The objective is to keep some degree of community.”

Present – How have you approached your marketing during the shutdown? Is it a case of batten down the hatches or continued communication?

“It’s a bit of both really. Where a structured relationship exists, then yes, we are very much in contact with our clients. In terms of proactive marketing, yes we do have offers out there but most of our communication is informational. You will have seen plenty of examples. Whether it’s Italian cooking recipes from one of our chefs in Italy or a supplier story from The Balmoral; it’s not overly commercial – it’s mostly content-driven. It keeps our brand name out there with some relevant content we think our customers will be interested in. And we’re not the only brand doing that.”

Present – There’s definitely been a shift to more considered communication.

“Rocco Forte is a family company. Both Sir Rocco and his daughters Irene & Lydia have both suffered from suspected Coronavirus and have now recovered. There has been a lot of emotional connection from our customers globally with the company because Sir Rocco is a true icon of the hotel industry. Saying that, we decided not to connect our content directly to Coronavirus, if that makes sense. We’ve not been talking about the pandemic directly or what the world is going to look like when we come out the other side. It’s very here-and-now-type content.


Future – People are starting to think beyond Coronavirus. Are you starting to plan your communication strategy for that point?

“We have to review our communication strategies on a very regular basis. That said, no matter what happens – even if the hotel reopens on the 1st of June as we plan it will – the summer of 2020 will be very different. There will be very few Americans and international guests travelling, the Edinburgh Tattoo and Festivals are already cancelled so we need to have a strategy that takes us through to where our business would normally be by November. From then we’ll look at a longer-term strategy. We have some ideas for this summer and where we think our customers will come from – probably within a four-hour drive or train journey of Edinburgh. And then we’ll take a slightly more normalised view on everything beyond November. The mix might be different which will depend on where we are with gatherings. But as far as the longer term is concerned, we understand there will be a normalisation over a period of time from the North American and international markets, but that doesn’t mean to say we need to rip up our tariffs for 2021 at this stage. We have been very proactive in moving large groups out of summer 2020 to 2021 and 2022 for that matter. That gives us the longer term base to hold our pricing.”

Future – Is there anything you will actively avoid when things return to ‘normal’?

“One thing that we’re very keen not to do is join the race to zero by selling our rooms at extremely low rates, maintaining our market position as the best Hotel in Edinburgh is key; adding value more than discounting. Many of us have been through these scenarios to know that makes for a long and hard way back.”


– Ends –


The Balmoral is a globally iconic hotel with a landmark clock tower. With 187 bedrooms, including 20 suites and prominent city centre location, the hotel has become one of the most recognised in Scotland. Incidentally, the clock is set precisely three minutes fast so that you don’t miss your train. In fact, the only day the clock is set correctly is Hogmanay.

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Check out the previous Past Present Future blogs –

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