In advance of Hurricane Irma, hotel companies prepare for the worst

Hurricane Irma has been downgraded to a Category 4 storm, but that is no reason for hoteliers or citizens in its path to relax. With wind speeds expected to reach upwards of 165 mph by the time the storm reaches Florida this weekend, as many as 500,000 evacuees have been told to leave the state. The storm has already left its mark on the Caribbean, resulting in at least 19 deaths and destroying homes and businesses across St. Martin/St. Maarten, Barbuda, Puerto Rico and a number of other islands.

HOTEL MANAGEMENT caught up with Arik Kislin, a luxury hotel owner and co-owner of private jet company Alerion Aviation, based out of South Florida, who was busy moving planes full of evacuees off the island of Turks & Caicos ahead of Irma’s arrival. Kislin is in the process of building a new hotel on Turks & Caicos, and also has a number of other properties on the island, and said people were in the process of buckling down as best they could before leaving.

“Everyone is clearing out of there,” he said. “We had three to four days of notice, which has been a major help, so people are just packing and getting out of harm’s way.”

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Randy Hassen, president of hotel management at McKibbon Hospitality, also spoke with HOTEL MANAGEMENT, saying the company has approximately 30 properties throughout Florida and several along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, all of which are on high alert ahead of Irma’s arrival. These hotels are all preparing for the possibility of being impacted, and are working to either evacuate or shelter people during the storm.

“Our corporate engineering and operations teams are in constant communication with all of the Florida properties this week to ensure they are prepared to keep our employees and guests safe and cared for,” Hassen said. “Through e-mail and in certain cases regarding power or service outages, we will reach out to guests directly to keep them updated prior to arrival.”

With more than 80 hotels located around the Southeast, Hassen said McKibbon has a wealth of experience in dealing with storms of this magnitude, either fortunately or unfortunately. “We’ve learned that each storm is different and the only thing we can do is to be well prepared,” he said. “Safety has to be the first priority, then we will do whatever we can to take care of our employees and guests as well as those in the surrounding community that may need assistance.”

Hurricane Harvey’s recent appearance in Texas has raised awareness to the number of travelers on the go with pets, and accordingly many hotel companies are loosening their pet policies as well as other traditional restrictions. “Times like these are not business as usual, and pets need to evacuate as well, and we understand that,” Hassen said. “Times like these call for flexibility, helpfulness and kindness.”

Ahead of Hurricane Irma’s arrival in Florida, several hotel companies have also released blanket statements on safety and protocol regarding the storm. 

“Hurricane Irma is already a storm of epic proportions in what is becoming an extreme hurricane season that requires us to remain vigilant when it comes to the safety of our guests and associates,” read a statement released by Wyndham Worldwide on Thursday. “Today, we are focused on our teams in the Caribbean as Irma continues through the region, while beginning evacuations as directed in southern Florida, and preparing across the Southeast as we monitor the storm’s projected paths.

Wyndham maintains that its on-property teams are coordinating with local authorities on evacuation and other emergency directives, and are also communicating with franchised and affiliated resorts in the region. The company is waiving cancellation fees across its branded hotels, vacation-ownership resorts and vacation rentals. Statements released by Hilton and Marriott International echoed these cancellation waivers, but Marriott urged customers to call in to verify details.

Kislin said he hopes Irma doesn’t hit Turks & Caicos, and then Miami, with the strength it showed the past several days, and said he expects recovery efforts to begin immediately though hotels can expect a long downtime. He speaks from experience, having spent 18 years in hospitality and managing properties as they recovered from Category 3 or 4 storms.

“During the recent Hurricane Sandy there was flooding from the Hudson River, which shut off the [power] grid for three days, and just that short downtime cost us millions,” Kislin said. “It takes a long time to convince people to come back after a storm like that… and Irma is bigger.”