Grand Central Hotel, Belfast
THE HOTEL:The Grand Central Hotel is part of Hastings Hotels. The group's other Belfast hotels include The Europa and Culloden Estate and Spa. This five-star property is very centrally located and, with 300 rooms, is the largest hotel in Northern Ireland. With Stephen Meldrum, the hotel's GM, president of the Northern Ireland Hotels Association and a key member of the country's Tourism Recovery Group, Grand Central has been centrally involved in developing new guest experiences in the age of Covid.
COVID STRATEGY: The hotel stayed open during the summer lockdown and housed NHS staff and other key workers. When it reopened to paying guests on July 3, it did so with health and safety protocols in place that had been developed and assessed by the Belfast Hospital Trust. These include hand sanitising stations in the lobby and clear social distancing signage and guest lifts limited to a maximum of two people or one family group (although this is very much down to the guests to adhere to). The rooms are cleaned with particular attention to sanitising all 'touch points'. An innovative 'ozone machine' fully sanitises the room by extracting all dust and any germs from surfaces and 're-oxygenates' it with 100% fresh air. Members of staff then stay away from the rooms - no evening turn down - unless otherwise requested by guests.
THE CHECK-IN: New measures in place made this very speedy. I arrived at 3pm and my key was waiting for me in a 'sanitised' envelope. There were none of the usual protracted registration details required as these had been done in advance. While this offers customer reassurance, it necessarily lacks the warmth and customer service levels for which the hotel has won many 'Best of in Irish hospitality' awards. "Getting the balance right in providing customer safety and not losing the integration that is the essence of the hospitality industry is a challenge," admits Meldrum.
THE ROOM: My executive suite (2203) opened to uninterrupted views over the city's historic red-brick buildings and, in the distance, Belfast docks and the Titanic-themed hotel and museum. It was spacious - full of tactile green, brown and beige hues - with a king-size double 'Cloud Bed', a writing desk and walk-in rain shower. ESPA amenity products featured in the bathroom.
THE FACILITIES: The stylish Seahorse on the ground floor is three spaces in one: restaurant, lounge and bar. It is bright and airy, with high ceilings and walls of windows flooded with light creating a feeling of 'relaxed space'. The tables are set with plenty of distance between them and breakfast is served directly to the table (no menus or buffets stations). Staff, although not wearing masks, spray-cleaned tables (with a two-chemical liquid) immediately after guests left. Unfortunately, The Observatory, a cocktail lounge with fantastic views of the city - it's the tallest bar in the whole of Ireland - was closed. Valet parking is available at a hefty £25 a night, although free and meter parking is available on nearby streets.
THE BUSINESS: During the pandemic The Grand Central's corporate business has, unsurprisingly, dropped away and been almost non-existent outside of Northern Ireland's domestic market. But the hotel is well geared for the business traveller, with two meeting rooms - the Blackstaff and the Farset, named after the rivers of Belfast - two boardrooms and the Panorama Suite, an 80-seat reception room that comes with distracting views. Each event space can be adapted for business and social events: from meetings to conferences, private dinners and media events.
THE VERDICT: This classic and timeless hotel has done everything possible to offer a seamless, enjoyable and worry-free experience in this age of living with Covid. There is a general sense of space and distancing throughout, and all the staff were warm and helpful - starting with the doorman who walked to a street corner with us and kindly pointed out a place where we might park for free.
THE DETAILS: Grand Central Hotel, 9-15 Bedford Street, Belfast BT2 7FF Tel: 028 9023 1066 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.grandcentralhotelbelfast.com Rates start from £130 for a midweek stay in an Executive Double room in January 2021. There's no deposit required and the hotel offers free cancellation up to 24 hours before arrival.
NOTE: Since this visit there have been rising numbers of Covid-19 cases in Northern Ireland, so the hotel temporarily suspended all services on October 16.
Reviewed by Steve Hartridge (2020)