During February, we watched the spread of COVID-19 around the world, and the scenes from Italy, in particular, were horrific. At the same time, we counted the slow and gradual rise of cases in Australia and started to make plans for the pandemic reaching Lord Howe Island. But in all honesty, there wasn’t much we could plan for, other than ordering hand sanitiser, masks, goggles and gloves, and waiting to see what happened next. We didn’t think of ordering extra toilet paper – that madness came later.
By mid-March, as we reached 130 cases in Australia – mostly from travellers – we knew COVID-19 was coming to Pinetrees at some stage in the next few months, and we felt like a rabbit in the headlights. We had no answers for the obvious questions like: how do we provide a safe workplace for our staff; how do we provide a safe holiday for our guests; how do we host and feed our guests if our staff go into 14 days of isolation; how do we look after guests if they have flu symptoms and go into 14 days of isolation; what happens to flight bookings if guests can’t travel; what happens to future bookings if rooms are no longer available; who pays; what happens if guests or staff need intensive care treatment (we have none on Lord Howe); and so many more. It was a horrible time to run a hotel business.
Then on 21 March, Lord Howe was closed to non-residents by the NSW Government and we all breathed a large collective sigh of relief. Yes, we had our most profitable month of the season ahead (the month that always funds our annual renovations) and for the first time ever, we were chock-a-block full in May. But despite losing a large chunk of our revenue, we had never been so relieved to close the lodge. The prospect of watching our staff, guests, family or friends succumb to COVID-19 on remote Lord Howe was overwhelmingly scary. That same day, we stood down our staff and hassled them to travel home as soon as possible before more borders closed. Some left that day, while others unpacked two weeks’ worth of food from our supply ship, which was intended for 75 guests who never arrived. It was probably the worst day we’ve had at Pinetrees.
Luckily, the vast majority of our guests who were booked to visit in April and May were happy to convert their bookings to credit, which allowed us to spread our losses over 2020 and 2021. This arrangement has saved us from an uncertain future and we’re now in a good position to survive for as long as needed without revenue. To those 700 or so guests – thank you – you’ve done more to help us than you probably realise.
Once our final guests departed on 26 March, we all dropped tools and left the lodge for 12 days – just to let the dust settle and see if COVID-19 had arrived on Lord Howe with any number of international travellers during the final frantic week. Luckily, after a few weeks of isolation, it became clear that Lord Howe had been spared for the time being.
In early April, we were more confident that the travel restrictions and mandatory quarantine periods for returning residents had kept COVID-19 at bay, and while we still diligently followed the NSW regulations, the community appeared happier (at least from a distance). The best news was the JobKeeper program. Only three weeks after standing down our staff, we re-engaged them for three days a week and kept them on life-support. Some had already travelled home, and they’re now working remotely on all sorts of projects that we’ve always wanted to do, but never had time – spreadsheets, SOPs, marketing ideas, procurement, recipe cards and more. The staff on Lord Howe, including most of our internationals who had nowhere else to go, continue to work at Pinetrees – and our gardens and grounds have never looked so good!
At this stage, we’ll re-open on 31 October 2020. We’re developing detailed plans and procedures to change the way we serve food (but keep it just as good), increase the frequency and depth of cleaning, reduce our interaction with guests (and each other), and manage the flow of people to help ensure social distancing. If we can assume that people will take some responsibility to wash their hands regularly and keep their distance, then Pinetrees will feel like the high-end adventure experience that guests expect. If we have to protect people from themselves, then it’s going to feel a bit sterile and unfriendly. Sadly, that’s the new reality. The ideal scenario is that guests will feel relaxed, well-hosted, and blissfully unaware of all the extra things we’ll be doing to keep them safe.
Thanks for all of your support and please take care!
Dani & Luke