Hoteliers working in hurricane-prone areas should have plans of action ready to stay safe during storms and return to normal operations as quickly as possible.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Hurricane season in the United States runs from 1 June through 30 November, which is a long stretch of time for hoteliers to wonder if this year will bring another major storm to their front door.
But instead of sitting idle wondering, hoteliers should use that time to prepare for the sometimes devastating effects of hurricanes. Having a plan of action ready helps hotel employees and guests stay safe during hurricanes and can help restore operations more quickly.
Chesapeake Hospitality has employees review an emergency procedure manual each year, noting changes to policies, said Mike Long, general manager of the Crowne Plaza Hollywood Beach Resort in southeastern Florida. Staff members regularly receive specific training for emergencies and natural disasters.
“We cover everything to make sure that from evacuation, or events leading up to the evacuation, to what happens during the storm,” he said. “We’re on a barrier island. Anything stronger than a Category 1 storm, and there’s a mandatory evacuation. We don’t have to worry about anything after that for guests. If it’s a 2 or more, we have to evacuate staff and guests.”
A frequently updated emergency procedures manual outlines the steps to take for various events and disaster scenarios, said Lurry Lacour, regional VP at American Hospitality Management. Staff training teaches employees to refer back to the manual, and monthly safety committee meetings keep policies and procedures up to date.
“We keep fully stocked our preparedness kits and include dozens of glow sticks to help illuminate dark stairwells as well as all of the other necessary items,” he said. “For hotels that have them, we conduct weekly tests of our backup generator and fuel levels.”
Lacour said management is well aware of emergency plans before getting the order to evacuate guests and staff. Staff members have maps and information to give to guests that show them how to get to another hotel outside of the hurricane’s path or to a county shelter.
“We make sure and assist them in plenty of time,” he said. “We help them make reservations elsewhere.”
Assuming evacuation goes well, Long said the staff takes steps to minimize potential damage to the property after guests have left. This includes removing loose chairs and plants that could become airborne as the storm passes over. Employees will move electronics and physical records to higher floors to prevent water damage, he said. After that, the property is locked as staff members evacuate the hotel.
Keeping communication open
Long said social media is not just a good way to help keep guests and staff informed ahead of the storm, but it sometimes a more reliable way to communicate with employees when cellphone service might be down.
“It’s something everybody uses nowadays,” he said. “It’s an effective way to keep people informed. Guests are not used to hurricanes and tropical storms. They do need some handholding and guidance to make intelligent decisions.”
When cellphones do work, they are invaluable. Scott Warner, VP of operations at Peachtree Hotel Group, said text messaging was a great way to keep in touch with displaced employees following Hurricane Katrina. Because power was an issue initially, he said, the GM of a Holiday Inn in Gretna, Louisiana, would frequently go out to his car to recharge his phone.
“He did a really good job of identifying where all the employees were relocating to,” he said. “He had a good list of where they were and how they could be contacted if there were questions from family members or law enforcement officers.”
The timetable for reopening depends on any number of circumstances, Long said. When he worked as a GM at a different hotel during Hurricane Wilma in 2005, he said it took about 45 days to put the hotel back in shape for occupancy.
The hotel hosted displaced families from the nearby area as well as staff members, he said. The staff worked with the new guests based on their individual needs. The displaced guests’ stays are usually covered by insurance or relief funds, he said, and the hotel works with whatever agency or insurance company is needed.
The biggest problem when reopening the Gretna property after Katrina was the hotel staff couldn’t order new supplies because they couldn’t get deliveries in, Warner said, and they had to close the bar until beverage services could resume. Delivery services took weeks to months to return to normal. In the meantime, the staff rented a truck with a trailer, went to a local superstore with a shopping list and stocked up on everything it could, including toilet paper, towels and sheets.
“It may not have been brand standard, but it worked,” he said.
Staffing also proved a challenge, he said, as the regular staff was displaced by the storm. The fast food restaurants in the area offered $15 an hour with signing bonuses to handle the demand from visiting emergency relief agencies and law enforcement, he said, so finding people to work and clean rooms was difficult.
The hotel company offered housing and meals to people displaced by the storm if they worked in the place of the staff, he said. Once things returned to normal, most of them returned to their regular lives, but about three or four stayed on to work permanently. One by one, the displaced staff members returned to their jobs.
The new guests
After the hurricane passed, Warner said the hotel hosted the local energy provider and offered the utility 50% off because it reconnected the hotel first.
“They wanted to let us use the generator and house a crew of 75 people,” he said. “We said absolutely yes, and within 24 hours we were up with power. It was fantastic. We didn’t have power in all the food and beverage spaces, but all the guestrooms did.”
After the utility crews left, the hotel hosted law enforcement officers, he said, who were appreciative because they couldn’t find rooms elsewhere, especially in New Orleans proper.
Lacour recalled being in a hotel that was full of guests evacuated from low-lying areas, power company workers and national news organizations as a hurricane passed over.
“We all got to know each other pretty well over those eight hours of 110-plus (mile per hour) winds and then worked together without power and running water to make it through,” he said.
The employees and their families have the option to come to the company’s hotels in affected areas, Lacour said. Management and department heads work around the clock to constantly monitor the safety and security of guests, employees and the facilities. His company’s hotels also work out agreements to provide accommodations to relief organizations when possible.
“You can set up agreements on an annual basis so that the agencies and responders know they will have accommodations if an event or disaster occurs,” he said. “Hotels experience a wide range of demand pressure during natural disasters, and many times our employees are those affected too.
“We are not only a place of refuge for some, but also a meal, source of information and a sort of debrief/therapy room in the lobby when relief workers and families return from the day. People share stories and experiences from the day that may help someone else the next day. “