Full disclosure, I’ve known Bill Murray for a number of years. We met through our mutual friend Kathryn Potter at the American Hotel & Lodging Association, and I’m even participating in the Integral Fantasy Baseball League this year (as of this writing Bill is in first place—one point ahead of me).
Hoteliers should take away two messages from April’s record-breaking tornado outbreak: Be prepared, and buy a weather radio for your front desk.
That’s the word from Bill Murray, president of Birmingham, Alabama-based Integral Hospitality Solutions, who happens to be a weather buff extraordinaire. He watched Wednesday’s sickening outbreak of tornadoes that left about 300 dead throughout the southern United States unfold before his very eyes. One twister blew past a few miles from his office, and he and his wife, Sally, were on the phone with one of their sons who was holed up in his apartment bathroom two blocks from where a tornado ravaged Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
“If I never saw another tornado, that would be wonderful,” Murray said on Thursday as his beloved state dug out from the horror produced by Mother Nature. That’s quite a statement coming from a weather guru who was once a weekend TV meteorologist and a radio meteorologist and is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association.
Bill Murray zest for weather fits well with his role as founder, partner, president and CEO of Birmingham, Alabama-based Integral Hospitality Solutions.
Read a Holiday Inn Express GM’s description of a deadly tornado that leveled a Super 8 Motel in northwest Georgia.
Murray is an hotelier first. His obsession is hotels. His passion is nurturing a new business to success. His mission is to decipher the mystery weather to help keep people safe. Murray is a partner in The Weather Company, which produces weather forecasts. With Integral, which manages 32 hotels across the U.S., he’s been able to accomplish all three of his goals.
Life and death
Murray knew when he awoke on Wednesday that it was going to be a rough day. Conditions were right for what later caused a tornado outbreak of epic proportions. He stayed busy all day keeping the public alerted. The blog he and his partners maintain, www.alabamawx.com, had more than a half million page views during the day. He was telling his readers what towns were in danger as the tornadoes barreled through the state with no mercy.
View extraordinary coverage of the Tuscaloosa tornado from alabamwx.com and noted Birmingham meteorologist James Spann.
When he came up for air, he was thinking about his hotels that were in harm’s way as tornado warnings were issued.
“The biggest thrill for me was when I picked up the phone and called the Tutweiler (an historical hotel in downtown Birmingham that is affiliated with Hampton Inn & Suites),” Murray said. “I asked the desk clerk ‘Are you in tornado plan?’ She said ‘Yes, sir, the guests are in the basement.’ That made me feel great because the education and drills paid off.”
A tornado passed within two miles of the property on Wednesday.
Preparedness often can mean the difference between life and death when it comes to any natural disaster. Murray said planning for severe weather is one of the key things Integral drills into its employees. Whether it’s a tornado in Alabama, a hurricane in Florida or a wildfire in New Mexico, having a plan is essential to keep guests and employees safe.
When he launched Integral, Murray turned to Harlan Butler of Innisfree Hotels in Florida for advice on how to create a safety plan.
“It was a thorough education,” Murray said. “There are a lot of savvy hoteliers on the coast when it comes to weather. The final listing on the plan was to ‘have an extra pair of underwear because you are going to need it.’ After what we all went through on Wednesday, nothing could be more true.”
Know your hotel
Murray stressed hoteliers need to know the facilities vulnerabilities regardless of the emergency. That helps determine how to put guests out of danger. If it’s a completely wooden structure, it doesn’t stand much of a chance against a fierce tornado, so appropriate action needs to be planned.
“You have to have a detailed plan,” he said. “You need to even plan for things like robberies or anything else that goes wrong. When it goes wrong, you don’t have time to think, you have to think instinctively.”
Integral has an educational board game setup with flash cards that it uses to help teach employees how to react in certain situations. “We sit down with hotel staff and cards and say, ‘When this happens, how do you react?’”
Every hotel must have a plan to notify guests of impending dangerous weather.
“Your employees have to know where to tell guests to go,” he said. “Look in your hotel and find that spot. Sometimes there’s not a great spot, but you have to find the best available.”
He said a spot on the lowest floor in the middle of the building is ideal. Stay away from windows and long hallways, which can act as wind tunnels. Murray suggested that some National Weather Service offices will have a representative walk your hotel with you to help find the best place for cover.
View a list of NWS offices.
A hotel without a weather radio at the front desk is playing Russian roulette with weather, particularly tornadoes, Murray said.
“They can give you a 20-minute or more lead time,” he said. “A NOAA radio is an unbeatable tool. Every single hotel in the country needs one behind the front desk. It’s the first place a warning goes from the NWS. You hear that and can put your plan into practice.”
“When the Weather Service issues a tornado warning, it’s serious,” he said. “I have never had a guest get mad at me for taking precautions to keep them safe.”
Stay on top of the plan
Murray said the importance of having a detailed tornado/severe weather plan hit home with him a couple of years ago when he went to check into a Dallas-area hotel during a tornado warning.
“I walked into the hotel and the tornado warning sirens were going off,” he said. “The front-desk clerk was ready to walk off. She had only been there three days and said she didn’t know what to do.” Murray told her to notify all guests to report to the lobby while he sought out an appropriate spot in the hotel to secure their safety.
“Severe weather plans should be reviewed each year to make sure nothing’s changed,” he said. “That’s especially true with a hurricane plan, because they have more moving parts.”
Murray was scared of severe weather as a child until 3 April 1974 when a tornado outbreak killed scores of people across the U.S. Until the record 800 tornadoes that spawned during April 2011, that day has long been considered the worst tornado outbreak in American history. “The impact of that day changed my life,” he said. “(Wednesday) was that day on steroids, and we were right in the middle of it following every storm, every cell.”
Murray said that in many cases tornadoes appeal to people’s curiosity and therefore those people tend to ignore warnings because they want to get a close view. That’s the wrong approach to take, especially for hotel owners.
“Once you’ve been through one, you know it’s not fun or glamorous,” he said. “Hotel managers have to have a plan to notify their guests and employees and get them to safety—that should be their only concern.
“No question about it, having a plan made those hotels in the middle of (Wednesday’s) outbreak think in advance instead of getting caught unaware,” he added. “There are a lot of good hoteliers that understand weather and the threats that affect their hotels.”