GLOBAL REPORT—Disaster planning has been top of mind for the industry as the COVID-19 pandemic has made its way across the globe and parts of the world have been faced with their fair share of natural disasters. Today, hoteliers are finding that their careful planning was not time wasted.
But the question becomes: Were hoteliers prepared for such a catastrophic event like the current pandemic? Chuck Kelley, a partner with Cayuga Hospitality Consultants who was also part of Marriott International’s crisis committee for 10 years, said they should have been.
“We had the swine flu, SARS and a couple of others,” he said. “The first time you get surprised. The second time, it’s shame on you if you get surprised.”
Whether facing an infectious disease or natural disaster, experts said there are certain guidelines hoteliers can follow to ensure they aren’t left scrambling when a disaster strikes.
What’s in the plan
Cayuga’s Kelley said no matter what the emergency, there are key components every plan should include.
“You have to define what your priorities are, and then you have to have some policy that is driven off those priorities. Then, you need some procedures that will implement that policy,” he said.
For example, a hurricane plan might include three main parts. First, he said it would look at the people—that is, how to protect guests and employees. Can they shelter in place? Is there an evacuation plan? Kelley shared an example of a Caribbean property that signed a contract with an airlift on demand service for a fixed price. The fee was paid whether the service was used, but operators knew that if a hurricane hit that required evacuation, there was a plan in place to fly out guests.
Once people are protected, Kelley said the plan can then move onto the asset.
“You can always repair an asset, but you can’t repair a human life,” he said.
After that, the plan can delve into recovery.
“Any good plan has a recovery component to it. The variable here is how severe the event was,” he said.
For example, Kelley pointed to recovery post-9/11 when the drive-in market was the first type of business that started returning to hotels because people were more comfortable in their cars than on planes. But he said not every market will benefit from the same type of recovery. In the Caribbean, for instance, where drive-in business is impossible, hoteliers would consider marketing to their loyalty base. And, as hoteliers look ahead to recovery after the pandemic, Kelley warned against dropping price.
“The last thing you want to do in a crisis situation is drive business by price. If you drop price, then your competitor drops price and you end up with same occupancy at a lower rate. It doesn’t help anyone,” he said.
While disaster plans for a pandemic versus a natural disaster might include some overlap, Guido Kerpel, COO of New Castle Hotels & Resorts, pointed out that the two aren’t created equal. The main difference?
“Natural disasters we are somewhat accustomed to as they are more regional and geographically concentrated,” he said. “You can work toward getting ready for that. It’s on the news, and you can see it coming. And then when it hits there is a physical presence of the impact.”
The problem, he said, with a pandemic is that it is not as easy to prepare for.
“It happens so seldom, and it’s invisible,” he said. “In our emergency plans, we obviously up until now had a smaller section on dealing with infectious disease from a hygiene perspective. We had the basics to deal with that. Then, we scaled up as more news became available out of China and Washington State.”
Kelley agreed that disasters such as hurricanes are more predictable.
“Hurricanes are an annual event, so you can have a very detailed plan for them that can be reviewed and updated on an annual basis with mock drills being performed on properties,” he said. “For a pandemic, security incident or earthquake, you can take pieces of the hurricane preparation plan and tweak it. With a few applications and changes in wording, your hurricane plan becomes pandemic-related.”
How to communicate an emergency
Whatever the plan, no matter what type of disaster strikes, sources agreed that communication is a top priority.
“The nice thing about the era we live in is that it’s a lot easier with technology,” New Castle’s Kerpel said. “We have the ability to push out messaging through various platforms before a guest arrives. When they are on property, we can call their room, inform them at the front desk, email them, or do some texting. There are all sorts of opportunities to communicate with guests.”
A communication plan—and a backup plan—is imperative, according to Scott Goldsmith, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney in its southern California office.
“Text messaging is one of those means of communication that helps in an emergency. Studies show recipients of texts are more likely to interact with it than phone calls and voice messages—and texts are inexpensive to send,” he said, adding that sometimes in emergency situations, there can be a network lag that prevents phone calls from going through while a text might. In general, he said phone calls take more time even when assisted with rapid dialing or prerecorded messaging.
Additionally, Goldsmith said hoteliers should obtain good contact information from guests at check-in and then maintain those lists. Acquiring emergency contact phone numbers for guests might also be a good idea.
Furthermore, communication with team members is critical.
“It’s important that you have a communication strategy for employees,” Kelley said. “You need single points of contact and decision-making authority at various levels.”
In a hurricane situation, for instance, daily briefings from weather experts provide teams the opportunity to make science- and data-driven decisions, Kelley said.
“You can hold daily briefings with properties and the crisis committee at the regional and property levels. Then, you need various forms of communication, such as phone and email. But in a hurricane situation, we have satellite phones because if the power goes out and landlines go down, you need a way to communicate,” he said, adding that the plan needs to include every detail down to a list of phone numbers and who is responsible for the phone and the communication. He added that the crisis plan needs to be housed digitally as well as available via a hard copy.
“There is success when dealing with multiple locations when you have centralized leadership,” Kelley said. “You can’t allow the properties to make decisions like this on an ad hoc basis. There may be nuances from property to property, but as a whole it needs to be coordinated with everyone on the same page.”