Keep the long term in mind for natural disasters

(Natural disasters are outside the realm of prevention, but there are measures hotels can take to make sure their properties and guests come through as unscathed as possible when a disaster strikes.)

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

“Because climate is no longer predictable, hotel owners and operators need to consider an entirely new set of variables,” said Brad Pease, a VP with sustainability consulting firm Paladino and Company, which has worked with hotels such as The Fairmont Pittsburgh, Marriott Marquis Washington D.C., and the Residence Inn Seattle South/Tukwila. “Ignoring the new and extreme variables could mean that hotels will lose value over time.”

Designing for Disaster

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.”

Alex Lugo, GM at The Westin Jekyll Island off the Georgia coast, agrees that design plays a crucial role in how a hotel emerges from a natural disaster. “We have hurricane-impact windows all around the hotel,” he said of the hotel, and dunes were built along the surrounding beach to help protect the property from floodwaters. “It gave a lot of us a good feeling that the hotel would withstand the hurricane,” he said in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, which briefly shuttered the property in October.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters all can cause significant damage to hotels.

Step by Step

At Lugo’s hotel, pre-storm preparation is a three-phase process, he said.

Phase One starts five to six days before a storm. “We look for what our process is if we do not have to evacuate our guests, or if we do have to evacuate. That puts us ahead of the curve.” 

Phase Two begins 72 hours before impact. “We’ll know if we need to evacuate, so we know what plan to follow,” Lugo said. “We’ll bring in the furniture and tie down any debris. Our property is very specific because we have 100 rooms with ocean-view balconies. We bring the balcony furniture into the guestrooms and close all the drapes so if a window breaks, there’s something to protect the glass. Then we conduct walkthroughs every few hours and check for items that could become projectiles.” The team also takes photos of the property throughout the process so that they can confirm when any damage occurred.

Phase Three begins 24 hours before impact. “We have a limited ride-out team at the hotel lock everything down, and we create shifts to make sure the asset is protected during the storm.” 

Once the storm is over, the team walks the exterior and interior to look for any damage, including leaks or broken windows.

The Jekyll Island (Ga.) Westin was only closed for a few days in October during Hurricane Matthew, and preventive measures minimized damage from the storm.

Technology Assist

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. Because 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 creating training to help employees understand what their role is, what to do in an emergency or how to prepare,” he said. 

When a natural disaster is expected, or has just occurred, Carl recommends using technology 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 the hotel’s app 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 management know where 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.