Hoteliers with properties in North and South Carolina said planning ahead and the dedication of on-property staff has helped to mitigate the impact from severe weather.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—With preparation and luck, some hoteliers with properties in the Carolinas report they were able to withstand the fury of Hurricane Florence, which struck the southeastern United States late last week and lingered into this week, without major damages or impact to business.
Tara Investments, which manages two hotels in Charleston, South Carolina—the side-by-side Homewood Suites by Hilton Charleston Historic District and Holiday Inn Charleston Historic District—“prepared for the worst” after deciding to keep the hotels open and operational, said VP Adam Zembruski.
During the storm, which crossed into South Carolina late Friday, staff members were busy stacking sandbags, in addition to tending to guests. As a result, “no water came into our building, except what was tracked in (from people going inside and outside),” he said.
Beacon Investment Management Group reported no major damage to the six hotels it manages in North Carolina, including one in Wilmington, about five miles inland, which was in the path of the hurricane. All of the company’s hotels were open during the storm and remain operational, said Beacon IMG President Nish Patel.
“It could have been a lot worse,” Patel said. “We’re very fortunate. You never know.”
The decision to keep the Wilmington hotel open, rather than evacuate, was made carefully, he said.
“We were listening to what local officials said. If it was a mandatory evacuation, we would have left; but it was voluntary. The GM thought they were fine staying in place, and that’s what we decided to do,” he said.
“Fortunately it worked out. Luckily we’re a couple of miles inland. If we were closer to the ocean, it would have been worse.”
Beacon’s five other properties in North Carolina—four in Charlotte, about 180 miles inland; and one in Chapel Hill, about 120 miles northwest of the storm area—are operating normally, Patel said.
Helping the less fortunate
Grey Raines, president of Raines Hospitality and Springbridge Development in Florence, South Carolina, said his company’s portfolio also avoided the worst of the damage. He said he empathizes with those who weren’t as lucky, and recalls when his hotels went days without power following Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
“We talked in our corporate team huddle (about how) we have a lot to be thankful for, but there are a lot of people suffering in a big way,” he said.
For that reason, Raines said his company has sought to help out in “little ways” like giving cases of bottled water to affected employees and donating rooms to first responders from organizations such as The Salvation Army. He said this is all the more important because communities just north of Florence—Marion, Mullins and Dillon, South Carolina—were much more directly impacted.
“We want to help where we can because you only get so many opportunities to make an impact in your community,” he said.
The Staybridge Suites in Wilmington is also doing its part, by staying open and sheltering local residents who have evacuated their homes due to the storm, as well as some of the hotel staff and their families, Patel said. The hotel’s guests also include news media and workers from remediation and restoration companies.
Patel credits the on-property staff with pre-planning and managing through a tense situation to keep guests safe and satisfied.
“The staff and GM and team in general have been fantastic, and understand how this business is supposed to be. We were very accommodating and comforting, and guests appreciate their efforts,” he said.
Tara Investments’ Zembruski agreed the dedication of on-property staff was key in mitigating any effects from the storm.
“’The reason that we were able to (remain open) is because the (area) GM (Brian Rafferty) had a huge amount of confidence in his team members,” he said.
He said the 25 employees that were on hand at the hotels volunteered to stay.
“The people that we have there are there for this reason: It’s in their hearts,” Zembruski said. “They like serving people during a crisis. … They really stepped up, and we couldn’t be more proud.”
Tara Investments’ two South Carolina properties also acted as a sort of temporary governmental hub during the storm, he said.
City administrators, city managers, police and attorneys sheltered and met at the hotels. “Those that were really in charge of the city … they were helping to manage the city from our hotel, which is quite an honor,” he said.
About 15 rooms were occupied by media, particularly from The Weather Channel, he said.
No matter who they were or why they were there, the guests all looked to the hotels for comfort, and it was important to help them prepare emotionally, Zembruski said.
“We have people that were there for five or six days, mostly team members … that didn’t go outside, so cabin fever can start to approach,” he said. “So we proactively managed that by several times a day gathering everybody together and to play card games; we ate together as much as possible.”
Planning for the worst
The hoteliers all said planning ahead of the storm made a difference in the result.
At Beacon’s North Carolina properties, that meant stocking food and supplies so the hotel doesn’t run out while deliveries are shut down or delayed, Patel said.
At the Homewood Suites and Holiday Inn in Charleston, food and supplies were stocked as they would be if the hotel was running 100% occupancy, Zembruski said. He said staff also made sure there were extra cellphone batteries available to both staff and guests, as well as coloring books for kids.
In situations such as these, the benefits of cross-training staff are quickly realized, he added.
“When times are tight, people can’t come and go during a hurricane,” he said. “We ask people to do four or five different things that they … don’t usually do.” For example, he said engineers were cleaning rooms, and housekeepers were quickly trained to check in guests.
Past experience with severe weather played a part in the preparations at the hotels.
“We had quite a lot of experience in knowing the trajectory of where the water liked to go,” Zembruski said. “So we had to do our homework as far as finding out what happened at the hotel when (Hurricane) Matthew came by (in 2016). From Matthew, what we had in our notes is that Matthew produced like 30 inches of rain for the greater Charleston area. And even then, we didn’t get any water intrusion at our Holiday Inn in 2016.”
Having learned the hard lessons from Hurricane Matthew, Raines said his company stockpiled sandbags in preparation for possible flooding when it was still unclear exactly what path Hurricane Florence would take. But when it became clear those supplies were unnecessary, they were quickly shipped north to communities where flooding was a clear and immediate threat, he said.
“North of us, there were areas where the rivers were cresting, and they knew they’d have flooding, but there was a sandbag shortage,” he said. “So we rounded up the hundreds of them we had and loaded them on a truck to drive them up.”
Patel said the focus now for Beacon IMG is “really just getting everything back to close to normal as soon as possible, which should start happening this week, once deliveries resume.”
After some disruption with cancelled reservations, the company’s hotels in Charlotte and Chapel Hill “are busy again, actually busier, because people are coming off the east coast, from the beach area, moving inland,” he said.
He expects that high occupancy to be sustained for at least the near future, unfortunately due to evacuees not being able to return to their homes as roads remain closed. “The earliest some might get back is later this week,” he said.
Tara Investments is also looking forward to a return to normalcy, which will include resuming construction of its 150-room Canopy by Hilton property, which broke ground in Charlotte a week before Florence hit. Luckily, there was no damage at the site, though work halted due to the storm, Zembruski said.