How to design a disaster plan in the age of COVID-19

A comprehensive hotel disaster plan contains three major elements at a minimum. Photo credit: iStock / Getty Images Plus / marchmeena29

The global impact of COVID-19 has required hoteliers around the world to adapt quickly and recognize the importance of a robust disaster plan. These plans, when properly designed and implemented on a property, empower employees and management with the tools necessary to navigate a multidimensional disaster response. Without a plan, incident responses are inconsistent, confused and lack continuity necessary to maintain the highest service standards. 

Designing a Complete Disaster Plan

A comprehensive hotel disaster plan contains three major elements at a minimum: the risk analysis, the emergency response plan and the business continuity plan. Each plan represents a separate phase in the emergency preparedness cycle. 

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Risk Analysis: The risk analysis essentially asks one question: “What threats do we face?” It should identify potential threats to your property’s operation in the categories of natural disasters (hurricanes, COVID-19, etc.), technological disasters (power outage, hazardous materials spill) and security emergencies (terrorism, active shooters). While there is a temptation for experienced hoteliers to simply do this by “gut” instinct or from past experiences, the risk analysis involves a multiprong analysis of data from local, state and federal sources. For instance, before 2020, few people had a real grasp of the potential for a crippling pandemic, even though the federal government placed pandemics in its National Planning Scenarios as early as 2003. 

Emergency Response Plan: The emergency response plan is a comprehensive document covering every element of the initial response to an incident on property. This may be termed the “lights and sirens” phase of an emergency. It should cover evacuation, shelter-in-place and lockdown of the property, and how to set up an emergency leadership structure. However, the plan also must address crisis communication, utilities, worker injuries, equipment, supplies and training. Most plans cover about 20 percent of what they really need to be effective and must be improved regularly. 

Business Continuity Plan: The final piece of a hotel disaster plan is the business continuity plan, which is a purely recovery document. Any property will have multiple service processes (point of sale, in-room experience, dining, etc.) that will require a comprehensive recovery examination. However, there are pieces of the BCP that should be incorporated into your emergency response plan because there are elements of recovery that also fit into a property’s initial response phase, such as recovering utilities and ensuring that generators are set to automatically respond during a blackout. BCPs are highly technical documents and should not be written by laypeople. They require technical expertise to develop operational recovery times and points that align with a metric of consequence of late recovery for both brick and mortar as well as information technology.

Preparing for a Second COVID-19 Wave

Once a comprehensive disaster plan has been designed, constructed and implemented, it must be put to the test through regular disaster exercises or through the crucible of an actual disaster. COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for many disaster plans to be activated for the first time and put under the stress of an actual emergency. No disaster plan is perfect, nor can it ever be. However, what separates average hospitality disaster plans from exceptional plans are those that adapt and improve through a thorough lessons-learned process after each event. COVID-19 is no different. To prepare adequately for a second wave, hoteliers and their management teams must do three things:

Conduct Debriefings with Management and Staff: These are a series of meetings that reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the “first wave” response. It should be thorough and cover each part of the response plan, including communication, operations, human resources, finance and initial recovery. For complex properties, this process is not short and likely will involve multiple meetings over several days. For smaller hotels, this can be as short as 20-30 minutes with two or three groups of staff. Regardless, this process should be conducted by someone totally unaffiliated with the property. No exceptions. Management should never lead the meetings because employees will be extremely reluctant to critique what would be perceived as their supervisor’s policies and procedures. 

Complete an After-Action Report: Once the meetings are concluded, a complete report should be written by an emergency preparedness specialist called an “after-action report.” This is a technical document that provides actionable improvement steps on what procedural, functional and policy modifications need to be made to strengthen the property’s pandemic response. Steps on plan modifications, additional training, equipment, policy adjustments and other elements of the response should be evaluated independently by an outside specialist to ensure nothing is omitted. 

Redraft the Disaster Plan: Once these weaknesses have been corrected, the disaster plan should be fully redrafted with these changes that have been developed. Otherwise, the lessons learned are useless! The disaster plan will then be improved and grow in operational sophistication as these lessons are implemented into the property. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented challenge to hospitality worldwide. Hotel management teams from small properties to large complexes should develop and maintain a sophisticated disaster plan, which includes participation from an experienced emergency preparedness specialist. This plan, if implemented properly, will provide hoteliers and their staffs the tools to response to any emergency that they face. 

Patrick Hardy is CEO of Hytropy Disaster Management. He also is a certified emergency manager, a certified risk manager and a Federal Emergency Management Agency master of exercise practitioner.