The grand old fluke of Yorkshire

Scarborough is the birthplace of the postcard; and the landmark that’s probably graced more postcards of the town than any other is the 150-year-old Grand Hotel. But while it’s been an integral part of Scarborough since 1863 – at a time when recovery is crucial for the town, it's become more of a curse than an asset.

Coastal areas, many of which are already deprived and neglected, were hard hit by the pandemic. Almost half Scarborough's population works in tourism, and during the pandemic, when visitor numbers dropped by up to 80%, almost half of its workforce were on furlough. The ‘original seaside resort’, as it calls itself, is now in desperate need of a resurgence in domestic tourism.

Right now, Scarborough is having a “watershed moment” as it comes back to life, says John Senior, chairman of the town's South Bay Traders Association.

Local hospitality businesses are reporting having a good time since pandemic restrictions lifted, reports Nick Taylor, former ‘renaissance manager’ for Scarborough, who has previously run hotels in the town.

Andrew Clay, chief executive of the Scarborough Museums Trust, says Scarborough has been very busy this year, and rebookings for next summer are quite high.

But the reputation of its most iconic building, the Grand Hotel, is plummeting, and is a “local embarrassment”

that will eventually fall apart if it isn’t properly renovated, says Senior.

In recent years, a relentless stream of bad press and TripAdvisor reviews has drawn attention to food poisoning incidents, pest infestations, huge check-in queues and bad management. North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service is a carrying out regular inspections at the hotel after becoming aware of ongoing fire safety issues.

The Grade II listed building is still “astonishing” from an architectural perspective, says Clay.

“A lot of people think of the Grand when they think of Scarborough, but it certainly doesn’t offer the opulence it did when it was first built,” he says, adding that this has had a knock-on effect on the town.

Local experts say the hotel’s staff are probably underworked and overpaid, and blame the grand’s owner, Britannia Hotel Group, for its failings. The chain, which was given one-star ratings in a Which? survey last year, made a £7 million refurbishment two years after buying the hotel in 2004 – but it just sees the Grand as a commodity, says Taylor.

“Britannia sees it as a good cash turnover. It’s not an issue to them if some people go away unhappy,” he says.

However, Taylor says the hotel attracts a lot of visitors to the town, and if it wasn’t for Britannia, the building would be derelict.

“It doesn’t do Scarborough any good, but it’s such an important building that we have to ask ourselves: what do we prefer? A derelict, deteriorating building, or a hotel that operates wonderful levels of occupancy?”

No one is more aware of the damage that such a badly reputed hotel can do for the town than Scarborough Council, who has pointed out that review websites like Trip Advisor leave little room for poor quality service.

As part of its plans to grow tourism in the district by four percent every year over the next four years to beyond pre-pandemic levels, it has encouraged businesses to get ‘Covid-19 secure’ status to reassure and encourage visitors. But Visit England, who launched the scheme, has taken the status away from Britannia after concerns over its measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

The council is currently waiting to have a meeting with a senior member of the Britannia team to discuss the problems it’s having.

“The hotel has an awful reputation, and a number of issues that don’t seem to go away, whatever management do. Something must be wrong, because it’s forever in the press in some kind of strife,” says a spokesperson at the council.

“We want to understand, and see if there’s anything we can do to help – clearly, it’s got issues that aren’t going away. It’s in our interest to make sure all visitor attractions do well and don’t have any underlying problems.”

The council knows that nostalgia is a powerful motivation for visitors to the town. This is certainly true for the Grand, which seems to rely largely on visitors who come in their coachloads to relive the hotel’s glory days from the 1960s.

Clay agrees there’s a nostalgic element to Scarborough, and that a lot of people come for the heyday Victorian seaside holiday. However, the town’s tourism industry is modernising, he says, with newer, more modern venues catering for a new type of visitor who comes on walking and cycling weekends.

And, juxtaposed with its faded interior – and its reputation for not caring – the Grand is currently hosting Afghan refugee families, in an agreement with the Home Office, while they wait for permanent housing elsewhere to start their new lives. Even in the town’s most aged attraction, there are some flickers of a future.