Flexibility key when facing natural disasters
Flexibility key when facing natural disasters
24 NOVEMBER 2015 7:30 AM
In times of crisis, standard hotel operating policies are often overlooked to better serve guests in need.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Hotel policies are generally put in place for good reasons, but the rulebook can sometimes be thrown out the window in times of natural disaster and crisis, according to hoteliers. In such dire circumstances, serving and protecting the guest is generally the overriding concern, even if that flies in the face of a property’s normal operating policies.
Hoteliers say some rules that are normally adhered to—such as policies concerning pets, cancellations and room occupancy—can be justifiably bent in times of duress. At the same time, hotels must continue to operate in good conscience, seeking to serve guests rather than potentially profit from the situation.
“We’re in the hospitality business, so we need to be at our best at times of storms and other acts of God that create those unique circumstances,” said Randy Fox, executive VP of WoodSpring Suites Property Management. “We want to be reasonable and actually more than reasonable under stressful situations. During times of weather issues, guests really seek us out because of our product. … We know guests seek us out to stay with us when something happens at their home.”
When to be flexible
Weather issues also can prompt guests to make last-minute cancellations. Hoteliers said that in most cases, waiving cancellation policies in cases like this is the right thing to do. Furthermore, operators generally prefer having fewer guests on-site during severe weather events, so in many cases, having fewer guests around can actually be welcome in stressful times. 
“We’re pretty flexible on the cancellation of a guest who hasn’t arrived. … There may be some people traveling from a great distance who don’t even know about (a potential weather issue). We want to keep them informed, and we would honor any cancellations before the guest arrives,” said Jeremy Buffam, director of design and construction for New Castle Hotels and Resorts. “When the guest is already in-house, for the most part, we would honor a guest’s request to rebook a vacation even if they were already there, at no cost. If a guest wants to leave, we would honor that; we would honor those lost days without any fees.”
Policies regarding pets at the property might also come under question during times of disaster. If local residents or other displaced persons find themselves seeking refuge at a hotel, most operators agree that allowing those guests to bring their pets to the property is good business, regardless of whether that hotel normally allows pets on the premises. It’s another instance where normal rules don’t necessarily apply.
“As long as it’s handled safely and properly, we would be happy to waive those policies if that’s what it takes in the short term,” said Richard Jones, senior VP and COO of Hospitality Ventures Management Group. “If in this situation, from a brand perspective if there was a strict no-pet policy, we can make an exception for a short period of time if that’s necessary.”
When to stick to policy
Operators state that management really can’t be too lenient in times of crisis. The only times when standard hotel policies must be maintained is when those policies are intended to promote the safety of the guests, staff and the property. Also, any short-term provisions enacted during the storm (i.e. having staff reside at the property) should return to normal once the weather abates.
“Certainly you wouldn’t want to create a situation that would make something worse,” Fox said. “If there wasn’t a need to, you don’t want to exceed the number of people that can safely stay in your hotel, for example. Certainly if 20 people run in the door because a tornado’s chasing them down the highway and they want a safe place and there’s room and you have to crowd some people in to save lives, then absolutely you do that. But if time allows and you have to be reasonable and limit the number of people inside the property, then sure, you wouldn’t want to create a worse situation than you need to if circumstances allow.”
Operators must also resist the urge to raise rates in response to a weather situation boosting demand. Hoteliers said that while the short-term profit from such practices might be considerable, the resulting long-term damage to their reputations make such strategies extremely short-sighted and should be avoided at all costs.
“The best practice is to be consistent with how you were doing business prior to the event and not to put yourself in a position to make decisions that would either create the perception, or in reality, that you’re capitalizing on it and trying to be a profiteer,” Jones said. “That’s not good business; it’s not being a good member of the community. Our policy is just to be consistent and manage based upon the circumstances with the same philosophies and same strategies that we had going into it.”

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