Hurricane Matthew a stark reminder for natural disaster preparedness

Hurricane Matthew continues to lash at Florida's east coast as the country bears witness to the punishment this now category 3 hurricane is doling out. Theme parks in Orlando have shuttered through Friday to wait out the storm, and Governor Rick Scott has called for more than 1 million people to evacuate their homes. Airports are closed and stranded passengers have hunkered down in hotels to wait the storm out.

Natural disasters are outside the realm of prevention, but there are things hotels can do to make sure their properties and guests come through unscathed when a disaster strikes. For hotel owners, this is especially important and goes a long way to safeguarding their asset and investment.

“All over the world, we are experiencing wild swings in frequency and severity of weather as the effects of climate change accelerate,” said Brad Pease, a VP with sustainability consulting firm Paladino and Company, who has worked with hotels such as The Fairmont Pittsburgh, Marriott Marquis Washington D.C., and the Potomac Yard Marriott Renaissance and Residence Inn. “This extreme weather heavily impacts our infrastructure and real property, creating unique issues for hotel developers and owners.” 

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Designing for Disaster

“Because climate is no longer predictable, hotel owners and operators need to consider an entirely new set of variables,” Pease said. “Ignoring the new and extreme variables could mean that hotels will lose value over time.”

A prescient design plan that minimizes damage when disaster strikes should be part of every builder's blueprint. Any hotel that is not designed to withstand nature, from daily sun and rain to tornadoes and tsunamis, is not “resilient,” Pease said. “The strongest arguments for climate resilience are found in local circumstances. Consider climate change patterns in the region where the project is being developed, explore local government programs and incentives and include a Continued Operations Plan in the building design process.”

The less a hotel relies on finite resources such as fossil fuel to operate, Pease said, the sturdier it will be during a climate event. “All designers and owners who are interested in climate resilience should prioritize efficient use of water and energy," Pease continued.

How Technology Can Help

Kevin Carl, managing director of digital for Accenture Digital Travel, a provider of digital marketing and technology needs for travel and hospitality companies, sees strong value in leveraging digital platforms to prepare for a natural disaster. “One thing that hotel companies can do is to focus on having repeatable and scalable processes for training,” he said.

As hotels in different parts of the world may have different needs in terms of geography or legal requirements, they can digitally customize a training platform to be ready for a wide range of issues. “They're taking their digital web assets, their internal portals, and are adding sections to cover training,” Carl said. Instructional videos or even “gamification” can help employees learn what to do in various scenarios. “They’re creating training to help employees understand what their role is, what to do in an emergency or how to prepare,” he said. 

Knowing who is in charge is also vital. "Make sure everyone in your organization knows the chain of communication," Kelly Peacy, former SVP of education and meetings for the Professional Convention Management Association, said when Hurricane Sandy blasted the northeast in 2012. One central stream of communication run by one person can ensure that all messaging is consistent. In addition to displaying regular updates on your website, those updates should also reach across all of your social-media channels. "These don't have to be long updates," Peacy said. "They just need to keep everyone informed as the situation develops."

When a natural disaster is expected, or has just occurred, Carl recommends using the hotel’s website or a brand app to facilitate communication. “When a hotel has a natural disaster, they’re concerned not just about the guests that are on property, but that there may be other guests that are inbound for the hotel,” he said. “And there may be other guests who have not yet [left home], but are wondering if they should go.” To that end, Carl endorses using a the hotel’s app or its website to let upcoming guests know if the property will be open or not. “It helps inform inbound guests—and those that may be considering booking,” he said.

Another tech feature that can help hotels in an emergency is digital tracking: using digital devices or digitally enabled badges to let hotels know where their employees are on-site. “By having that visibility, they understand where their staff is, how many are checked in and where folks are in the event of an emergency,” Carl said.  

Outreach

Communication is one of the best ways hotel companies can reassure guests and staff. Consider Marriott, which on its website released the following statement about Hurricane Matthew: “We have well-established hurricane plans and our hotel teams are well-versed in implementing these plans. In addition, we are in close contact with local authorities and, as always, will take guidance and direction from them if the situation warrants it. The safety and security of our guests and employees is always a top priority at Marriott. Our hotels in Jamaica, Haiti, and Cuba have reported no direct impact from the storm. These hotels are all open and accepting guests and reservations.”

 

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This survey is intended for companies that third-party manage hotel properties for other owners.

The results of the survey will be published in the December ADVISOR issue of Hotel Management, and the survey is open until Oct. 11.