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Newcastle and Gateshead venues play their part in Covid community response

Swapping serving fans for supervising Covid testing, 12-hour shifts to serve key workers and live-streaming church services – these are just a few of the ways in which staff at venues across Newcastle and Gateshead helped their communities during the pandemic lockdowns.

As a major campaign designed to recapture the £150m a year events and meetings market in Newcastle and Gateshead continues, some of the 35 venues taking part have been looking back at how they coped when Covid first hit.

And as the Tyne To Get Back To Business campaign boosts confidence in face-to-face events again, they’ve been looking forward to welcoming back people from across the world.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, it was something of a baptism of fire for staff at the Maldron Hotel in Newcastle.

The venue, operated by the Dalata Hotel Group, had only opened in December 2018 so it had only been open to guests for just over a year when the first lockdown happened.

However, undaunted by the challenge, the staff at the hotel on Newgate Street rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in to the vitally important job of housing and looking after key workers.

Director of Sales, Jemma Cross (pictured above), explained: “We didn’t close the hotel; we had about 20 rooms or so per night for key workers: people who were working at the hospital, rail workers and others.

“We had a core team of around 10 people who were the senior management team here and we worked in pairs in 12-hour shifts.

“It was quite a change from what we had been doing previously. It was eye-opening in many ways and something of a crash course in doing everything from duty management to being on reception, cleaning the bedrooms, cooking in the kitchens – I can cook you a mean sausage sandwich these days!

“It was difficult at times, but it’s your job – no-one ever refused to do something and because we opened the hotel as a team, in many respects it felt like it was ours so it didn’t feel like a chore, it was just a case of ‘what do we need to do to keep the hotel running and help our guests?’”

Staff working at Newcastle United also proved their mettle when lockdown happened and the club had to close the doors.

Chris Reed, Catering Services Director at Sodexo, which operates the club’s catering and hospitality function on behalf of Newcastle United at St James’ Park, explained: “Sodexo is one of the largest employers in the world and it had secured a contract to help mobilise and run Covid testing centres so our team switched from serving supporters to helping in the fight against Covid.

“We helped to open the first Covid testing centre at IKEA in Gateshead and then later when it relocated to Newcastle Great Park.

“When the centre first opened, it was to test NHS workers and members of the emergency services who suspected they had Covid so it was a vitally important job.

“You might think that working in hospitality is very different to running a test centre but we have a lot of transferable skills like being able to deal with the public, working under pressure and following health and safety protocols.

“The team did such a fantastic job – no-one said they didn’t want to do the work, they wanted to help the community and help in fighting Covid and they came to work every day.

“I was incredibly proud of the team.”

Newcastle Cathedral also played its part in the community response to Covid.

Aside from its primary purpose as a place of worship, the cathedral hosts everything from charity events to orchestras, comedy evenings to conferences.

So it was a testing time for the staff at the cathedral when the first lockdown happened and they had to change the way they worked – and how people were able to worship.

Kate Sussams, Chief Operating Officer at Newcastle Cathedral, said: “All the staff were absolute heroes.

“People worked extremely hard from their bedrooms or kitchens to keep the Cathedral going, doing live streaming, which was a massive new skill, and planning new seating arrangements for services and events once we could start re-opening the building.

“We are a small team here at the cathedral so people stepped up more than we could ever thank them for to engage with our visitors and stakeholders in a completely new way.”

All three venues, along with 32 others taking part in Tyne To Get Back To Business, are now welcoming back business meetings and events and boosting organisers’ confidence in face-to-face meetings.

In a UK destination first, all 35 venues have AIM Secure accreditation, a Government-recognised quality standard for business meetings and events, enhanced to help venues deliver events as safely as possible in a world with Covid.

“We are really seeing the appetite for all kinds of meetings and events coming back in and it’s tremendous to see,” said Chris Reed.

In May, Newcastle Cathedral will host more than 400 delegates at the National Cathedrals Conference as well as guest speakers including the Archbishop of York and former Prime Minister Sir John Major.

Kate Sussams said: “It’s a huge event in our industry so it is fantastic that it is being held here in Newcastle.

“The organisers wanted a brilliant city with great infrastructure, great transport links, excellent hotels and fantastic dining places and they’ve got all that here.”

Jemma Cross added: “We want to encourage people back and welcome them again. I believe every business in the world should experience a business meeting in NewcastleGateshead!”

Tyne To Get Back To Business is being led by the NewcastleGateshead Convention Bureau in collaboration with industry body the Meetings Industry Association (mia) and has been funded by Newcastle City Council and Gateshead Council.

Further details on the campaign and the venues taking part can be found at: Tyne To Get Back To Business

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