Hospitality. It’s at the core of most businesses that deal with the public. At its most basic level, it is conveyed by a warm handshake and a sincere smile. Books are written, and courses are given on reading expressions to interpret a customer’s level of comfort or happiness. So, what happens when faces are partially covered, touching is discouraged, and distance is mandated?
Living through a pandemic has uprooted all business. Many have been able to turn to video conferencing as a way to continue the personal touch. Other, have had to come up with innovative ways to manage inventory and sell product. But what if the product is a luxury hotel? How do you show hospitality, ensure comfort, feed, and entertain your guests even as new rules are being written? If you’re like Lauren Catterton, who rose up the ranks of the hotel business to become the current General Manager of the Tidewater Inn in Easton, you’re up to the challenge.
Noticeably, the hotel/restaurant/bar industry took a significant hit when COVID struck. “As soon as it happened,” said Catterton, “we just started researching as much as possible and rewriting hospitality, because they don’t hand you a book. No one said, ‘this is what you guys are going to do when you reopen.’ We had to make it up on our own. We had also been in the midst of some renovations when it all hit.”
Historically, the hotel does a major renovation every winter, their slow season. However, this past winter was even more special. Besides completing the elevation of the third-floor guest rooms, they were building the carriage house behind the Tidewater House (previously Inn at 202 Dover) and adding the Terrasse Spa to their long list of amenities.
The renovations are now completed, but nothing is now as was expected then. Catterton: “We had to make the properties’ COVID-Friendly’ following all the CDC guidelines. Hunter’s Tavern, the ballrooms, and the Terrace are all on a socially distant floor plan now.” Not only that, if visiting the restaurant, expect to be asked for both your name and your phone number as part of their contact tracing efforts, should they need to get in touch with you.
Weddings will have a different look, as well. Besides the tables being six feet apart, there can be no more than six people per table, unless they’re a family of eight. Cocktail reception and dancing will be done outside.
Remember turn down service? How about having your room cleaned while you were exploring the town? Not anymore. “Guests can call the front desk and let us know anything they may need,” says Catterton. “Housekeeping will put a little bag together for them and leave it on their door. When guests depart, the hotel rooms are left dormant for 24 hours, then we go in, and we fog it with like a, basically Lysol Ghostbuster. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, and we let that sit for another 24 hours. Then we strip it using CDC certified cleaning products. So, the room has to remain vacant for 72 hours before another guest can use it.”
Obviously, the safety of the guests has been a top priority, but there is that ‘hospitality’ factor that can’t be mandated or controlled but needs to be demonstrated in their line of work. Catterton has spent time thinking about how to deal with all of that. “It was the first thing that we discussed when we knew our guests were coming back: how do you let them know that you’re smiling under your mask? How do you project a specific tone of voice because you’re muffled? I think our staff is instinctually warm and hospitable, and I think that’s reflected, whether with a mask on or not. We’re a very small team, and we’ve been through a lot, but we are genuinely happy to do what we do, which is to take care of our guests.”
But it’s not just letting guests know how you’re feeling about them; it’s also learning to read their guests. “We already know when people tell us, ‘hey, I’m smiling behind my mask,’ because we hear it in their voice. But we’ve also had to learn to read people that are cautious and adjust our behavior accordingly, to focus on just making them feel very comfortable.”
Comfort, safety, and new ideas are something the Tidewater is committed to adding to their catalog. They are currently also partnering with the Avalon Foundations on Wednesday evenings through July 8 for a Sunlit Summer Song Series, which features al fresco style dinner and concert.
Then there is Terrasse, which opened just last week. Billed as a full-service spa destination, it offers massages, facials, body treatments, Reiki, etc. It occupies the space originally held by the John Moll Board Room and Dover Club. As promised, everything about it is both luxurious and relaxing. Best yet, you don’t have to be a Tidewater Inn guest to enjoy the services. Keep an eye out for their Locals for Locals special for Talbot County residents and their First Responder discount.
To Lauren Catterton, all these changes are inevitable and not always as planned. But she’s got new ideas and a new mission: “We have to have a different focus. Our efforts are now on recreational tourism and how we can be a more walkable/bikeable community that will bring people in. We are giving a lot of emphasis and energy to the outdoor dining experience and other things that we can do. We’re no longer just Easton focused. It’s what you can do in St. Michaels; what you can do in Oxford. After doing all the wonderful things you can do in the area, you can just stay here with us at the Tidewater.”
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.