Hurricane Florence: Hoteliers coped with compassion

Damage in Wilmington, N.C., following Hurricane Florence. Photo credit: Getty Images/Darwin Brandis

Natural disasters can trash a city or region, and it often falls to the hotels left standing to comfort, house and sustain a shaken populace and the visitors caught up in the event.

In September, Hurricane Florence hit South Carolina, as well as North Carolina and Maryland, causing approximately $38 billion in damage as it wrecked countless homes and businesses. Currently, the storm is reported responsible for at least 48 deaths, with that number likely to rise in the coming weeks.

Dealing with the storm was no easy feat. Eric Churchill, SVP of operations at Connecticut-based Meyer Jabara Hotels, said his company went through a normal procedural checklist as the storm approached, but admitted it is impossible to be prepared for everything.

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"Due to the severity of the storm, we also deployed additional personnel to the area, including maintenance and property support," Churchill said. "We also offered housing to associates. A lot of their homes were affected."

Currently, the company's properties are at capacity, hosting both survivors of the storm and rescue crews sent to rebuild the state in the wake of the storm. During these periods, Churchill said, compassion and patience are necessities.

"There are many unknowns. We are working with guests because they just don't know when they will have to go home, or if they even can.

The People Business

Jessica Collins, a resident of Charleston, S.C., was one such guest impacted by the storm. She was forced to evacuate the city to Virginia due to high levels of flooding, leaving the city on Sept. 16. Along the way, however, she encountered a deadly combination of high flood waters and close calls with tornadoes, eventually stopping for the night at the Holiday Inn Express Pembroke in North Carolina.

Despite being told there was no vacancy at the property because all the rooms were rented to first responders, the hotel's team found space in the property's conference room for Collins and her family, including her dog. The hotel also provided a free chili dinner for guests.

"There were so many people in the same situation as we were, and I didn't feel alone. But the hotel's team didn't make us feel like we had to leave because we weren't paying," Collins said. "They didn't make it about money. I often feel we have become very divided as a country and as people, but it was warming to see the humanity of the employees that evening. I honestly don't know what else they could have done."

Travelers resting during Hurricane Florence at the Holiday Inn Express Pembroke. Photo credit: Jessica Collins 

Collins' family wasn't alone in evacuating Charleston during the floods. Carlo Carroccia, dual hotel manager of the city's French Quarter Inn and the Spectator Hotel, complied with an order from the government of North Carolina to evacuate all coastal areas on Sept. 10. By this time all of the hotel's guests had left the property.

"When working with guests during a time like this, being honest is the best way to go," Carroccia said. "Be flexible with guests. When you get into a discussion with guests about safety you have to be careful about what you say. You never want to seem like you are putting the safety of employees and guests second to other factors."

Though the hotel was full, the Holiday Inn Express Pembroke made room in its conference space for travelers. Photo credit: Jessica Collins.

Serious Business

As always, planning ahead of time can help cut down on the chaos a natural disaster brings. Carroccia said his hotels had to navigate similar circumstances in 2017 during Hurricane Irma. That storm resulted in very little damage to the property, Carroccia said, but added it's important to take every storm seriously as its own entity and to comply with what the state mandates.

"We have a plan in place, but plans can change. You have to comply with the law," Carroccia said. "That's common sense. But you have to see the forest for the trees and be honest with your guests and employees about what is going on at the current time. Communicate with everyone."

With Hurricane Florence gone, Churchill said a hotelier's primary concerns should be documenting the damage to his or her properties through pictures, and keeping a detailed account of all developments as a result of the disaster.

Churchill also said hoteliers located in coastal regions or areas that may be impacted by hurricanes should train employees to operate their property without the use of electricity. Automated systems often fail in the event of a storm, and Churchill said operators often struggle without them.

"You can never do enough training in this area," Churchill said. "One of our hotels in Wilmington lost power for three days. We prepared for this in a number of ways, by making room keys in advance, for example. These situations can be stressful, so we have to train everyone ahead of time."