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The key to quell the ire of displaced guests
January 4 2013

Victims from Superstorm Sandy are being displaced from their hotels, as operators struggle to accommodate reservations already on the books.

The winds and waters of Superstorm Sandy might have receded but for thousands of people who lost their homes, the pain still lingers. And now some are claiming local hotel policies are throwing salt into the still healing wounds.

The sticky situation was featured in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, which detailed how many victims who are still living in hotels after losing their homes to the storm have had to move from one location to the next to make way for other guests with prior reservations.

The paper recounts one such tale:

Peter Perrella, whose home in Union Beach, N.J., was destroyed, checked into the Holiday Inn in nearby Hazlet on Dec. 19. He said he was given a room through Jan. 11 under the Federal Emergency Management Agency's hotel voucher program. But the next day, a clerk informed him that the hotel was hosting weddings that weekend and was full with guests who had reservations. He checked out on Dec. 21, Mr. Perrella said.

Though the situation itself isn’t necessarily alarming—many reservations are often made weeks, months or years in advance, which FEMA allows hoteliers to honor—but the reaction is another story.

Said Perrella when asked about the experience: “They just treat you like you're some sort of stock on the shelf.”

Representatives from the hotel in question declined comment, while a spokesperson for its franchisor said hotel policies are set by each individual franchisee. But perception trumps policy in this case. Though the hotelier was well within his or her right to turn away Perrella, the negative backlash that might arise from a prominent report in the Wall Street Journal is damning—not only for the property itself but also for the parent brand.

This is by no means an isolated case. Hoteliers often find themselves between the proverbial rock and hard place when a natural disaster displaces residents from their homes. As a hospitable enterprise, hotels often struggle to balance their aims of hospitality with the bottom line.

The keys, said Jim Hartigan of service consultancy OrgWide Services and HotelNewsNow.com columnist, are communication and planning.

In the case above, the hotel staff should have alerted Perrella upon check-in—or earlier, if possible—that the property was booked for the dates in question.

“The hotel knew that next weekend’s wedding was going to be a full house when they checked these folks in and they took them and their voucher,” Hartigan said. “Prior planning prevents poor performance. Effective communication is the key to eliminating or reducing miscommunication or hurt feelings or folks not being connected.”

But it’s not just giving displaced residents a heads up. It’s how that message is conveyed, he added.

Instead of simply saying, “We’re fully booked tomorrow so you’ll have to leave,” a better alternative is to explain the situation. Most people could identify with the importance of a wedding that was booked a year in advance, Hartigan said.

The explanation should come with as much empathy and understanding as a hotel associate can muster, he said. “The folks that are staying on the vouchers, you want to hug them a little tighter.”

And offer to help them find alternative accommodations, Hartigan said. Don’t just turn guests out into the cold. The goal, after all, is to get them to return one day.

Note: In New Jersey alone, there are 419 participating hotels housing Sandy victims, according to the Wall Street Journal report. Of the 26,530 New Jersey households that potentially need shelter assistance, 2,570 of them are spread across 305 hotels, according to FEMA. More than 2,200 households are in hotels in New York.

More than 2,420 households in New Jersey and 3,183 from New York have checked out of hotels, FEMA said. The average stay in New Jersey is 22 days.

Stat of the week
973: Average number of “fan actions” (e.g. comments, likes and shares) per social media post by Hilton Worldwide, which ranked first among eight of the largest hotel companies in the world. By way of comparison, Marriott yielded 808 fan actions per post, while Best Western generated 393 fan actions.

The numbers come from a fascinating analysis conducted by Expion exclusively for HotelNewsNow.com. I encourage you to read more analysis in my colleague Stephanie Wharton’s piece, “Top hotel brands share social media tactics.”

Quote of the week
“It’s kind of puzzling why Canada’s hospitality sector isn’t much stronger than it is.”
Glenn Squires, CEO of Pacrim Hospitality Services, as reported in Jason Q. Freed’s “Despite strong economy, Canada market sluggish.”

A better headline might have been “The Canada conundrum.” The country, which boasts one of the most stable economies in the world, also has a rather sluggish hotel sector. Year to date through November, hotels in Canada reported an average occupancy of 59.7%, down 0.3% over that same timeframe last year; average daily rate was $126.22 Canadian dollars ($126.81), up 2.3% from last year; and revenue per available room was CA$75.35 ($75.70), up 2% over last year, according to STR, parent company of HotelNewsNow.com.

Comment of the week
“How is compensation, and ultimately, job security for the housekeeper impacted by this new behavior trending up? Although I am personally fine skipping the occasional day of housekeeping service over a multi-day stay, I get queasy contemplating the ramifications to the workforce and high potential for ‘greenwashing’ - says this >uber sustainable< travel & hospitality professional”
Commenter “bright green lifestyler” raising an important ramification of the “decontenting” of hotel stays, as described by HotelNewsNow.com columnist Larry Mogelonsky.

“Decontenting” prompts guests at check-in to opt out of daily housekeeping services with primary compensations including additional loyalty points, room discounts or food-and-beverage vouchers. Many independents and a few major brands, notably select Westin hotels, are already employing this alternative tactic.

It’s an interesting tactic that could save hoteliers money while allowing guests to have more control over their stays, but as Mogelonsky and the commenter above point out, there are several negative consequences as well.

Email Patrick Mayock or find him on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of HotelNewsNow.com or its parent company, STR and its affiliated companies. Bloggers published on this site are given the freedom to express views that may be controversial, but our goal is to provoke thought and constructive discussion within our reader community. Please feel free to comment or contact an editor with any questions or concerns.

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