NEW ORLEANS—With Tropical Storm Isaac bearing down on New Orleans and expected to make landfall early Wednesday as a Category 1 hurricane on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, GM Stanley Mascair is trying to keep things in perspective.
At least hurricanes are easier to deal with than tornadoes, he said. “We’ve had a couple of days to prepare.”
That been-there-done-that sense of calm is a recurring theme when speaking with hoteliers throughout the city. Whether at the Quality Inn & Suites on O’Keefe Avenue, where Mascair is walking the property checking in with employees, or at The Wyndham Whitney, where GM Casey Callais is quietly walking through the team’s hurricane preparedness manual, business is progressing almost as usual.
“Basically the motto is: Be prepared and stay calm,” Callais said. “If you’re prepared, you are calm.”
And in most cases, hoteliers are prepared in New Orleans. Of course, many thought the same thing before Katrina hit—a fact about which many, including Mascair, now admit they were wrong.
But that Category 5 hurricane was a turning point for the city’s hotel industry. It brought with it many lessons learned.
“Having been though Katrina, we have all sorts of plans in place,” said Mavis Early, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association.
The Wyndham Whitney
At the 100-room Quality Inn, for example, the front desk was reconfigured so it could be broken down into sections and easily transported to a higher floor so as not to lose important files. Mascair also has been stockpiling wooden pallets from deliveries, which he intends to stack on top of each other to raise expensive fitness equipment should standing water once again creep its way back into the property.
The biggest change, he said, is having a better communication plan with employees.
During Katrina, “we didn’t know exactly where everybody was going,” Mascair said. After the staff realized the water wasn’t receding and it would take weeks or months for the city to rebuild its infrastructure, the hotel closed temporarily and employees scattered. Mascair and his management team did not know who went where and for how long.
Since then, the team has developed a detailed “contacts” list of every employee’s mobile numbers so they can be reached in case of emergency.
The communications document at The Wyndham Whitney also includes “every phone number we could get,” Callais said. Taxi companies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, restaurants, back up food-and-beverage vendors, employee names—the plan includes numbers for them all, which are reviewed and updated every two weeks, he said.
“There’s just so much more communication than there was seven years ago. We’re so much more prepared,” Early said.
The Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association will help disseminate information as well, she said. The group is partnering with various organizations, including the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, to form a single conduit of trusted information.
“That will be the CVB’s website and Facebook page,” Early said. “The official updates will be posted on those sites.”
Planning and people
Callais spent a lot of his day Monday walking around the 93-room Wyndham Whitney. Much of that time was spent inspecting the physical property, securing outdoor furniture and removing any debris from the rooftop.
But just as important was inspecting his people, Callais said.
“On a day like today, I make it a point to get out of my chair, get out of my office and walk around the hotel slowly … and just talk to everybody and make sure everybody’s here in spirit and not too worried about what’s happening.”
The first question Callais asks his employees is about their families, wondering what they plan to do during a hurricane.
“We’re all dealing with the same thing. … Surprisingly everybody has a plan. I was surprised with that, and I guess I shouldn’t have been,” he said.
Everyone was calm, cool and collected as of Monday, he said.
“Everybody wants to work, and that’s what’s really amazing and the biggest difference between what I saw for Hurricane Katrina,” Callais said. “No one wants to disappoint. Everybody wants to make sure the hotel is open and runs.”
Guest safety a top priority
“As a hotelier, there are two main objectives. The first one is guest and associate safety. We make sure that we have a staff that can handle any kind of emergency,” Callais said. The second, he added, is getting the property back up and running as soon as possible.
That means stocking up on all the essentials: non-perishable food, extra batteries and plenty of water.
Mascair opts for disposable flashlights. The worst thing guests could do is start lighting candles in their rooms should power go out, he said.
But beyond having the bare essentials, hoteliers also must keep guests calm and informed, sources said.
“We’re just trying to keep them abreast,” Mascair said, adding staff provide guests with a list of local news stations that provide the best hurricane coverage. “‘We want you to have as much information as we have.’”
If that means guests feel more comfortable leaving the property to move inland, so be it, he said.
“We want to make the best decision that we can make. We certainly want to keep you involved. But if you feel like you haven’t gone through this and need to leave, we’ve given them the number for Choice Cares that in situations like this can give them the closest availability.”
Choice Cares is parent company Choice Hotels International’s disaster call center that coordinates communication and relief efforts with the chain’s more than 6,200 hotels worldwide. It also helps relocate guests.
But so far the Choice Cares staff has yet to take significant action.
The same was true at the Wyndham, where Callais reported no cancellations as of Monday.
“Right now, it’s pretty much everything is normal,” Early said. “We know that we’re going to have some bad weather. Hotels are open at this point. Each hotel of course can make an individual decision of what they want to do, but as far as I can tell, most are open. We expect that by Thursday when people start coming in for the (Southern) Decadence Festival that the weather will be fine.
“Like after any tropical storm, there will be blue skies, sunshine. There’s good weather on the horizon.”
Of all the cities I know and all the hospitality communities, New Orleans is MOST prepared. After Katrina, the communications systems and action plans in which Donna Karl at the CVB was so involved are remarkable. It is a very stressful time and like everyone in this country and certainly in our hospitality community, we are holding our breath that all goes well and that NO one is hurt or homeless after Isaac. Safety!
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