Hoteliers with properties in the path of last week’s devastating storm share how their teams responded and what’s next.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—When Hurricane Michael barreled into the Florida Panhandle and then Georgia last week, some hotels in its path stayed open, accommodating guests and staff who had nowhere else to go, even as the properties suffered damages from the storm.
Others closed temporarily and prepared for the worst, which for some ultimately never came.
In the aftermath, those still capable of offering safe shelter are doing so at full capacity.
“You have to have some compassion in a time like this,” said Debra Bouvia, director of operations at Georgia-based PeachState Hospitality, which manages three hotels that were damaged by the storm.
The company’s TownePlace Suites by Marriott Albany in Albany, Georgia, which took the most damage, continued to operate during the storm with a smaller staff to accommodate five guests who chose to stay as the rest evacuated, she said.
“The GM ran 18-hour shifts himself to man the hotel for the guests to stay in-house,” she said.
The property lost power and internet during the storm, but did not appear to suffer any structural damage, Bouvia said. Roofers are being brought in to ensure there’s no damage to the roof.
The Comfort Inn & Suites in Panama City, Florida, was fully occupied during the storm and had no choice but to continue operating despite suffering damages, said Mahesh Shah, president and managing director of Pineapple Hospitality, a subsidiary of Pineapple Capital Group, which owns the hotel.
Shah and his wife both stayed at the hotel during the storm to assist guests, and as of Tuesday were still on property.
“We continued to stay because we could not travel anywhere else,” he said.
Once the worst of the storm had passed, the hotel staff worked quickly to safely evacuate the guests, Shah said.
“We had some guests with a medical condition; we helped them to embark or get relief because the building was not safe for anybody else to stay,” he said. Damage to the property included broken windows, flooding and roof damage.
Pineapple Hospitality owns five hotels in the Panama City area, including the Hampton Inn Panama City-Panama City Mall and Quality Inn & Suites, both of which were damaged in the storm.
Taking care of staff, too
Ted Ent, president and CEO of Innisfree Hotels, based in Gulf Breeze, Florida, said his company’s properties in Panama City Beach managed to survive the storms mostly undamaged, but the bulk of the workforce for those hotels lives in Panama City, which was ravaged by Hurricane Michael.
He said the company’s focus on response immediately pivoted to making sure those employees’ needs were being met. That assistance includes helping employees fill out FEMA forms, working with aid organizations active in the region, and gathering and disseminating essential materials like food, water and tarps, he said.
“We’ve got a contingent of corporate employees on the ground assisting hotel staff,” Ent said while en route to Panama City himself. “And on top of all that, hotel demand has gone through the roof, so it comes down to balancing the employee needs with the needs of the actual properties and their ability to operate and provide hospitality. One can’t exist without the other.”
He said Hilton officials have also offered to provide assistance to employees at the company’s Hampton Inn property.
“We were very happy to learn they were on board,” he said.
Taking care of employees has also been a focus for RAM Hotels, which owns properties in Dothan, Alabama, that were in the path of the storm. While damage to the hotels was limited mostly to power and utility outages, “we have some associates who also lost power and cannot return home,” Rinkesh Patel, president of the company, said via email.
“We are working on finding a way to also provide (staff) with temporary housing,” he said.
Plans in place
Two of McNeill Hotel Company’s three hotels in Destin, Florida, closed in preparation for storm surges that never materialized, but all of the planning was not for nothing, President and COO Mark Ricketts said via email.
“Our readiness activities for this possibility included a review of our own evacuation plans and coordination with our brands, in this case Hampton Inn & Suites and Fairfield Inn & Suites. We also have established relationships with restoration companies and generators on site should we require emergency power. All the necessary resources were in place, but we didn’t need to activate them,” he said.
Innisfree’s Ent said his company takes hurricane preparedness seriously because it is an unfortunate and recurring reality with a portfolio concentrated In coastal areas like Florida. He said each of the company’s properties has a “comprehensive hurricane preparedness manual” based on their design and needs. And the company also works with first-responder consultants throughout the year to plan out their response and has contractors on the line to quickly respond and mitigate things like water damage.
He noted those preparedness efforts also help the company target its employee assistance.
“One of the first things we do is go on property and survey employees to find out exactly what their needs are so we can put our energy in getting them what they really need,” he said.
Service in a difficult situation
The hoteliers’ focus now is on what their teams do best: hospitality.
In the aftermath of the storm, hotels which managed to remain open quickly filled up, sources said.
“As often happens when many people are displaced from their homes and businesses, properties not impacted by the natural disaster can be the beneficiary,” McNeill’s Ricketts said. “Our three properties in Destin, the two referenced above as well as a Home2 Suites, are now sold out through November.”
PeachState’s three affected hotels—the TownePlace Suites in Albany, as well as a Holiday Inn Express and a Fairfield Inn & Suites in Cordele, Georgia—also are at full occupancy, Bouvia said. Most guests are displaced residents, but they include insurance adjusters and recovery crews, she said.
RAM Hotels’ Patel said the company has empowered “our GMs and directors of operations to do whatever is necessary to ensure we are taking utmost care of our guests from Florida as well as deal with empathy.”
At PeachState properties, that includes providing comfort—and comfort food—and sometimes bending some rules “to keep morale up,” Bouvia said.
Staff at the company’s two hotels in Cordele fired up grills to cook hot dogs and hamburgers for guests; they’ve also offered extended breakfasts and additional lunch and dinner meals. They understand that these are likely long-term guests, who may not have the funds to pay for meals until FEMA arrives, she said.
The hotels also have relaxed their no-pets policy to allow guests to bring pets for a nominal cleaning fee. In the aftermath of a past hurricane, one guest brought a small Vietnamese potbelly pig to one of the hotels, Bouvia said. The owner had the pig doing tricks for guests in the lobby, which provided some needed stress relief, she said.
“When you sit back and watch it happen, you watch people become a family out of a catastrophe,” she said. “It’s a very unique experience.”
Ricketts said his company takes pride in seeing its team members step up in a disaster.
“In situations like these, our people wear a number of hats, which includes helping soothe the frayed nerves of those who have temporarily or even permanently lost their home and possessions,” he said.
“We, and they, help in every way possible, providing free snacks and food, setting up entertainment for the children, and partnering with Habitat for Humanity, with which we have an established relationship, and churches in our area to help with temporary shelter.”