Back to business

For all the finger-crossing and keeping an eye on government announcements as our industry tries to negotiate its way to a life beyond COVID-19, a huge amount of work is going on every minute behind the scenes.

From practical solutions for handling soiled linen to ‘hand-holding’ of customers fearful about the future of their own businesses, it has become a huge test of resilience and determination. Day by day new issues are added to the ‘to do’ list, but what’s clear though is that from the largest laundry operations to wet and drycleaning outlets, the initial shock has dissipated and lively minds are rising to the challenges. Janice Raycroft talks to industry businesses about their experiences and how they’re adapting on their road to recovery.

A good example of the hurdles faced by laundries serving the high-end city hotel market is provided by Royal Jersey, operating from premises in Dagenham. Director Wendy Westcott says that since reopening in July they’ve managed to build up to three short shifts a week, serving perhaps 25 per cent of the exclusive London market dedicated mostly to wellheeled overseas tourists they usually handle, and turnover has slowly but surely increased.

“With so many of the top hotels deciding not to open until perhaps mid-September it has been a difficult time,” says Westcott.

“We are remaining positive, though, and will look at the situation again after that, knowing that the full recovery may not be until next year.” Westcott and her husband Chris, who owns Royal Jersey Laundry, are determined to ride out the crisis, saving as many jobs as possible. While 100 or so agency workers have had to be let go, office staff have been furloughed and some employees are working, although not on their usual full pay. But the most obvious sign of how resolute they are is demonstrated by the fact that they have borrowed money to keep everything ticking.

Westcott reveals: “We’ve borrowed against the site by re-mortgaging and ploughed more money in. We believe in this laundry and what it does. That means there’s no alternative – it’s that or let the business go under after 105 years and we’re simply not going to do that.”

Overseeing the day to day running is MD James Lincoln, Westcott’s nephew, who is in constant contact with hotel general managers and housekeepers, providing advice and support as well as getting their input on the situation and predictions for the coming months to Christmas and beyond. It’s the optimism within this feedback from the industry ‘intelligence’ which has helped the Royal Jersey Laundry team to believe that at some stage much of normal life, including travel and hospitality, must return. They will be ready for that, even if some tough months are to come.

This positive outlook is shared at Birmingham-based Midland Linen Services, where they too face the challenge of studying an order book which is usually full of regular bookings from top class city restaurants and hotels. Director Duncan Myttion says they are back in production three days a week. Some 60 per cent of their client base has reopened, but smaller orders mean they are only handling around 45 per cent of the usual linen requests. “It’s still a tough time for those operating right from the city centres as the mixture of homeworking and reluctance to use public transport is limiting the number of people going out for meals, but you don’t need to go far to find that some hospitality operations are seeing increased business, in places such as Stratford-upon-Avon,” he says. Midland Linen do most of their deliveries and collections early in the week and then process the linen between Wednesday and Friday. They took advantage of flexible furlough schemes and made sure staff were kept fully informed of what was happening. “As they’ve returned we’ve found that many have missed the place, even if they hadn’t missed the work!” Myttion reveals. “It’s been 100 days or so and people like some structure and routine to their day.” The laundry reintroduced staff to new operating procedures by having in groups of 10 or so at a time for training sessions on the ‘new normal’, including everything from the need for temperature tests to operating protocols necessary for safe handling of linen during collection and on the premises.

Entrepreneur Daniel Shepherd, who runs CanDo Laundry Services in Port Talbot, is always looking for silver linings and opportunities in any circumstances. While he believes “the mood in the industry has uplifted a degree” this lover of change is hoping that at least one ‘blessing in disguise’ from COVID-19 will be a fresher perspective and willingness to consider different ways of doing things, from how you engage with both customers and employees to more collaboration within the sector.

At the height of the pandemic Shepherd saw the hospitality side of his business ‘die overnight’ so swiftly took a temporary diversion into work for the NHS and care sector, but with the Nightingale hospitals empty this wasn’t going to be enough.

Then it was on to producing face coverings, ‘upscaling’ rather than scrapping waste sheets, which suited his mindset perfectly: “You either find something positive to do, or take the negative route and sit crying in the corner – I wasn’t prepared to do that.” A good chunk of the downtime at CanDo was used to revaluate processes and procedures. “We were thinking about how and why we do things, seeing this as a blip or speed bump to be dealt with before developing a new long-term perspective.”

Now he reckons around 60 per cent of the normal hospitality clientele has returned, boosted by the staycation market. “Essentially it might be called ‘somewhat normality’ but we are only up to about 1.5 shifts when we’d usually have two or three,” he says.

At CanDo Laundry in Port Talbot, owner Daniel Shepherd is hoping that the smiling faces of his staff will reflect positive changes throughout the industry.

Adapting to change – both the positives and negatives – is greatly demonstrated by the experience of Guarantee Laundry in Stalbridge, Dorset. Situated in the southern heart of the British tourism sector, they found themselves with not having any laundry to wash for three months. Tough decisions had to be made and managing director Faith Foote announced the closure of their secondary Corsham site, including job losses. But at Stalbridge there was expansion and they were back in business in July, having had two new ironer lines delivered the previous month.

CLEAN are scrupulous when it comes to their collection and deliver service, with disinfected cages and vehicles.

The appliance of a bit of science: swab tests on washed linen at CLEAN.

CLEAN staff are coping well with changes to their working experience, including screens and PPE.

At CLEAN, operating from seven laundries across England and Wales, head of group marketing Ted Walker says: “Things are looking positive in that our teams are back and working and we’re delivering out to customers. Orders are increasing, although obviously it’s not where we would want it to be.” Tourism facilities in south coast areas have been among the first to come back on line as staycation bookings rolled and for CLEAN it’s been a case of ‘hand-holding’ as both they and customers become used to some new company protocols for dealing with used linen.

They decided to go ‘above and beyond’ the impressive TSA Pledge developed with UKHospitality on COVID-19 and use their network of laundries to move capacity about when needed. Flexibility has been key as CLEAN manage sudden changes such as hotels needing to increase or change orders at the last minute and Walker says their customer services team have been ‘living and breathing’ this experience alongside hotel general managers and housekeepers as staff return from being furloughed. They are in regular contact with hotels that have yet to open as well as working with those which have restarted, particularly in coastal and holiday centre settings, to gauge expected laundry requirements in the coming months.

With eight consecutive ROSPA gold medals to their credit, CLEAN have been determined that the safety of their own employees matches the new protocols operating within hotels. They require used linen to have been quarantined on site for at least 24 hours before collection, with tickets attached to cages recording when it was removed from guest rooms. During washing linen, towels and garments are both thermally and chemically disinfected, with the 71°C threshold temperature held for more than the standard three minutes to ensure textiles are safe and fit for purpose. Stringent rules also apply during drying and linen and towels are swab tested to validate thermal disinfection, while garments are routinely lab tested. All stock is then packed in shrink wrapped plastic to maintain hygiene levels. Their drivers operate full two metres social distancing at both customer sites and laundries and sterilisation of laundry cages, vehicle interiors and loading areas takes place before any clean linen is loaded.

Those who supply equipment, chemicals or other services to laundries have also seen a dramatic change in their working lives. Andy Robinson of AR Materials Handling Ltd, who acts as a consultant as well as supplying specialist materials handling equipment, sometimes thinks ‘If only I had a crystal ball’ as he drives around the country, but reckons few of us would believe its predictions for 2020. “You might do four months turnover in two months, but never know what is coming next as businesses adjust,” he says. ‘Mass panic and buying everything was one thing, but then I found myself asked to design and produce body bags for the NHS. At first you think ‘Do I really want to get involved in this?’ It took some quiet consideration, but I realised that coming up with something providing dignity was supportive. None of us would like to have our relatives wrapped in sheets in a temporary mortuary.” Other work has helped to get the country moving, including providing bespoke desk or reception area separators for businesses including hospitality and hairdressers.

Also adapting to change are specialist hygiene chemical manufacturers such as Christeyns UK, known to most of us for work in the commercial laundry sector but also operating in many other areas. Operations director Justin Kerslake says that collaboration between their various teams was vital in supporting all customers: “Surface and hand hygiene became a focus for all of us and we were able to put together a comprehensive solution package for customers, be that laundries, OPLs, high street launderers as well as companies across our other industry sectors that needed hygiene support and advice.” During lockdown Christeyn UK’s food hygiene division became the first company to achieve a BSI standard for its hand sanitising product, Phago’rub and they also produced hands-free dispenser posts and other items to safeguard employees, customers and visitors. Kerslake says: “One potential cause for concern has been the transportation of linen and the opportunity for reinfection. Research over the past few months has shown that COVID-19 can remain on hard surfaces for up to 72 hours, therefore infecting anything which then touches that surface. There are multiple ‘touchpoints’ as the linen moves from the wash and dry process to its final destination. This includes linen cages, hands of laundry staff, drivers and receiving staff at the hotel or hospitality outlet as well as any vehicles or trolleys used in the process. This is an area of hygiene practice that now requires additional attention with the use of specific cleaning chemicals and routines. “Whilst the laundry delivery vehicle may seem like a mobile insulation unit, it is not risk-free for the driver or the linen and so set procedures should be put in place. Christeyns has been working with commercial laundries such as Johnsons Hotel Group to introduce new hygiene protocols for their vehicles and cages based on the effective use of Bacticlense.” Bacticlense has demonstrated viricidal efficacy under BS EN 14476 conditions and enables users to disinfect all common hard surfaces, leaving them safe to handle. Applied using a pressure spraying unit, or a hand spray for smaller surface areas, it provides a thorough hygienic, deep clean of vehicles, inside and out, as well as linen cages. Kerslake concludes: “We have all learnt a lot from the sharing of information and as such have a better understanding of hygiene options and methods. Without doubt, sanitation is here to stay. Cleaning and disinfection are not the same thing. Implementing the right routine and chemicals goes a long way in providing a level of reassurance for the launderer and hospitality owners to move forward confidently.”

CLEAN are scrupulous when it comes to their collection and deliver service, with disinfected cages and vehicles.

The appliance of a bit of science: swab tests on washed linen at CLEAN.

CLEAN staff are coping well with changes to their working experience, including screens and PPE.

With 40 branches across London The American Dry Cleaning Company has had plenty of experience dealing with landlords throughout COVID-19, a relationship which he now has changed forever.

For drycleaners and similar smaller operations, an issue highlighted by Julian Stone, managing director of American Dry Cleaning Company, with over 40 branches across London, is the relationship with landlords, which he now believes has changed forever. Significantly, he highlights the difference in response received from smaller landlords to that offered by larger institutions when seeking to renegotiate terms for premises in Britain’s already struggling high streets. “Initial discussions threw up a lot of surprises.

Many of the smaller landlords, such as family owned businesses that had under five shops, or retirees relying on the rental income as living expenses, were extremely understanding and accommodative from the outset.”

They saw good reliable tenants of many years’ standing, abiding by obligations under the lease. Stone developed a formula that worked for a tenant with no revenue, whilst still allowing them to serve a large part of the landlord’s rent. “The dichotomy between the larger institutional landlord and the smaller ones during this crisis has certainly shown its ugly face,” Stone says. “To start with, larger landlords had no interest in entering any form of discussions, and just send out threatening letters as if the world had not changed. No sympathy that most of their tenants have lost 100 per cent of their income overnight, relying on government support for their sheer survival.” Indeed, he is critical of some pension fund or charity-mandated landlords who gave out a public message of concern while actually not taking into account the serious disruption to business and that many might never reopen without support. “The notion of rent deferment that some landlords are offering is effectively kicking the can down the road. From a tenant’s view of the world, it seems that the most hard-up landlords (the smaller ones) are applying the most genuine and commercial concessions, such as 50 per cent rent reduction for one year, written off without deferments. “The smaller landlords seem to have got to the issue quicker and appreciated the gravity of the situation. They are taking more of the pain and supporting the high street and therefore the economy, versus the larger players, which still haven’t woken up and smelt the coffee. My simple response is for these landlords to exercise their fiduciary responsibility, as if they do not do so soon, many of their tenants that provide income to their pensioners will not be doing so much longer.”

We are all still facing challenges, some shared others determined by our area of operation. Rest assured that Laundry & Cleaning Today will continue to support all sectors of the industry and join you in championing your work throughout COVID-19 and beyond.

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