Each Christmas the Sodexo Prestige team at Knebworth House caters for an incredible 6000 partygoers and is always confident that its guests will have a great time. In 2009, however, it had to contend with some extraordinary circumstances. When the snow hit the south of England in December the Christmas party season was in full swing. The snow started sheeting down about 9pm on Thursday 17th December while parties catering for 300 were well underway in both the Manor Barn and the Lodge Barn. While diners tucked into their main courses our DJ Ken started to put out updates and later on travel warnings for guests at GM Richard Lymbery’s request.
It was lucky that around half the guests heeded those warnings and left after the main course because by the time the meal was finished things had become a lot worse. As they attempted to leave at least 5 cars got stuck on the exit driveway – blocking the exit for everyone behind. Some attempted the second exit via Knebworth village but the road to Stevenage quickly became cluttered with abandoned vehicles. By 1.30am when 150 hardened partygoers were ready to leave, they really were stuck – along with all the staff!
All evening the Sodexo team were madly fielding questions, updating guests on travel and weather warnings and helping the most hardy guests to wrap themselves in extra tablecloths to keep warm on the 1½ mile walk down to the nearby Novotel. Meanwhile the Knebworth House estate team swung into action with their tractors to help get traffic moving. Quite heroic – they were in the middle of their own Christmas party that night! Inevitably, feelings were running high (although we could perhaps have done without one guest who threw a beer bottle creating a nice dent in a brand new tractor). One company had booked rooms at the nearby hotel in advance – but there is no way the minibus would have made it back and forth without those tractors!
Hot coffee, tea and mince pies courtesy of Sodexo Prestige kept everyone’s spirits up throughout the night, but it was 3.30pm by the time that the last guest was evacuated, and an exhausted general manager fell into bed at about 4pm.
So all’s well that ends well. Except for the fact that the following day, with snow lying over 12 inches thick across the estate and nearly invisible driveways, another 500+ guests were due… Although about 20% cancelled, the team still had to face preparing for and supporting a potentially even more challenging event. With some staff snowed in at home, and others without their abandoned cars from the night before, there was a real staffing problem to deal with. The prospect of feeding hundreds of people with no supplies also loomed, because a venue the size of Knebworth House relies on daily fresh food deliveries. In fact, only 2 food suppliers even made it onto the site, and of those the butcher’s van got thoroughly snowbound and had to be tractored free. Chef Andy Ives managed to pick up some of his staff from the local hotel. The hotel became a goods market as it featured the handing over of the vegetables, dried goods and all the bakery items retrieved and shuttled back to the House on multiple trips – even the laundry truck had to stop there, 1½ miles from the house. Needless to say, the whole operation was managed in the end, with lots of positive feedback from the guests who braved the arctic conditions to party on down at Knebworth that night.
It’s now January and it’s snowing again – the team has this time equipped itself with thermal undies and extra supplies, of course, but is steeling itself to do what it does best: face whatever is needed to make sure its customers get the event they deserve.