6 ways hotels can prevent, prepare for crisis situations

Disaster preparedness cannot wait until later.

NEW YORK – When a crisis breaks out, hotels are put in a sometimes uncomfortable, and very unique, position. Hotels are seen as a refuge in any destination, somewhere travelers can go where the rules remain constant, where refuge is on offer and amenities are expected, but all of that goes out the window in the event of a crisis. Despite this, guests will cling to hotels as an oasis during a disaster, be it a natural disaster or terrorism, and hotel operators must be prepared for the sky to come crashing down.

This week's HX: The Hotel Experience conference in New York City held two panels on the subject of crisis management and preparedness, and here are six takeaways from both experts and hoteliers who have had to hold down the front line.

Meeting local businesses and others in the community is crucial for success in the event of a crisis.

1. Proactively Develop Local Relationships

Thomas Wierczorek, director for the Center for Public Safety Management, said that when disaster strikes it is too late to start to get to know your neighbors. In order to be effective during these times of need, Wierczorek said operators need to form relationships with those located nearby as a natural part of operating in an area, and good communication with those around you will come naturally.

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“Communication is really key to driving disaster management, and success there is often because there was good communication from start to finish,” he said. “Processes like these don’t develop by accident. If you are going to do something [like this], you have to practice.

Steve Linder, senior director of global business continuity at Wyndham Worldwide, said it is best to find a way to develop a relationship with local police departments, though it may take some creativity. Linder said some properties offer up their conference rooms to authorities for free throughout the year, which is a good way to develop one-on-one relationships with law enforcement groups.

2. Be Ready to Participate

Hotels are a unique target for terrorism because they are locations where large groups of unarmed civilians congregate, often with little security. Doug DeLancey, program manager at the Department of Homeland Security Office for Bombing Prevention, said hotels are even more attractive to terrorists because they are filled with people who are often unfamiliar with their surroundings, and are likely to panic in the event of a crisis.

During a session on bomb prevention and preparedness in hospitality, DeLancey said hoteliers need to be willing to work with authorities and bomb disposal teams to point out suspicious items or activity in an area where a bomb threat has been issued because these disposal teams are not as familiar with the location as those who work there every day.

“It’s not uncommon for someone to leave a bag or place an item somewhere in a hotel and forget it,” DeLancey said. “The difference between an unattended item and something suspicious can be unclear. They may require a bomb technician to examine them to make a determination if it is dangerous, but first responders will come to you for information and ask you to help them search because they don’t know what is normal in your space.”

Otherwise, hoteliers who fear a suspicious item may have been deposited on property have been advised to investigate the item from a distance, and to look for unexplainable wires or electronics, visible mechanical components or unusual sounds, vapors or mists. Additionally, hotels should train employees to watch out for odd behavior from those on property, such as loitering for an unreasonable amount of time, or paying for a room in cash without being willing to share a photo ID.

“When screening for something suspicious, don’t search all bags that come to you. Instead, if someone asks if they want to store a bag, ask if they are a guest in the first place,” DeLancey said. “That alone could raise some red flags. I talk to hotels that have great security plans in place, but then they don’t follow through with them, or fail to take immediate action in the event of an incident.”

Never underestimate the relationships between pet owners and their pets.

3. Relax Standards When Necessary 

During hurricanes Harvey and Irma, hotels in Texas and Florida made the wise decision to relax their pet policies and accept the pets of travelers fleeing the storms. Jeff Flaherty, senior director, global communications and public affairs, crisis and issues management, Marriott International, said it was the wisest decision operators could have made at the time, and urges operators in future disaster situations to do the same with other policies that would hinder guests’ ability to find shelter.

“Never underestimate the pet/owner relationship,” Flaherty said. “Modify that policy if you have to, and make sure you have a ‘no price-gouging’ policy in place. If not, it will destroy your reputation.”

Robert Rauch, president and CEO of RAR Hospitality, said that during his time as a hotel owner he saw owners pay the price when it came to disaster recovery and social media, but it pays to remain open to all guests during hard times.

“We had a ‘no pets’ policy, but we relaxed it one time and we allowed huge dogs in because it was the right thing to do,” Rauch said. “We also created a price equal to our friends and family rate, around $39 a night, and served free meals to all guests. There was no social media back then, but one of our guests with a big dog was the head of the largest demand generator in the area. The next year our occupancy went up 10 percent, just because of that one concession.

4. Every Statement Matters

Everything said out loud today echoes somewhere on the internet, and there is nowhere this is more true than at the center of a disaster. According to Linder, disaster preparedness also includes social media response training to avoid a second disaster from breaking out.

“You are branding every decision you make in a crisis, whether you want to or not,” Linder said. “When you have no cell phone service at your location for several days, how can you confirm everyone you are responsible for is safe? If you don’t have a way to do that, you may be caught off guard when you have to do so for several days, and then social media kicks in.”

Rauch also said that it pays to be creative with perks that don’t cost much, especially in the event of a low-level disaster such as a power outage. In one instance, the hotel informed all guests that they were allowed to check out early due to a power outage, but also informed them the property was throwing a “blackout party” for those who wished to stay. The party was lit by candles, included free food and beverages and attracted many guests, keeping them on property and satisfied to boot.

5. Maintain Open Communication

Flaherty said that taking care of guests and employees takes precedent over taking care of the property, and after that comes communication. He said that discussing the status of the property with guests is necessary, and making sure guests understand their patience is appreciated goes a long way.

“When we have advance notice of a disaster we will communicate with guests proactively, but during a crisis we try to make them understand our situation as well,” he said.

During a major disaster, communication between hotel employees is also crucial. Justin Effron, CEO of hotel operations platform Alice, said that the greatest security challenge facing hotels today is the constant flow of people coming in and out of hotels, and the difficulty operators have keeping information channels open for communicating. Alice’s platform, and others like it, allow for direct communication between both guests and employees simultaneously, which can help with disseminating information during a chaotic event.

“When we talk to hoteliers right now, the biggest gap in what they need isn’t a complex solution to purchase, but a procedure of what to do in the event of a dangerous circumstance,” Effron said. “The fastest way to send information is via text. Being able to selectively send information to one group, guests, and another, employees, at the same time is a good way to control information and reduce panic while getting people to safety.”

Wierczorek said after-action plans for small-scale events are a good way to build familiarity and rapport between employees, which can help when it’s time to produce an accurate head count in the event of a disaster. Drills are also good for finding holes in previously formed plans, and can expose weaknesses.

“One after-action plan led us to put generators in everything, but we didn’t consider how we would fill them with fuel as a disaster stretched on longer than 24 hours,” Wierczorek said. “At that point, where do you get fuel? We had to plan for that.”

Areas still reeling from a catastrophic event may not respond well to promotions attempting to return things to normal.

6.Tread Lightly Afterward

Having a disaster-relief fund in place for employees is possible for a large company such as Marriott, but it isn’t always feasible.

“My perspective is that we, as a company, aren’t large enough to have policies for everything,” Rauch said. “We have to make sure team members are OK, their families are OK, and that everyone has shelter. I’ve given a loan to employees who have needed it in the past after a crisis—it sets a terrible precedent, and it wasn’t what I wanted to do, but at the time it was also the right thing to do.”

Beyond this, the question of when and how to rebuild consumer confidence will surface, and there is no easy answer. Flaherty said it is sometimes necessary to let time heal wounds, something that MGM Resorts learned when it tried to boost the Las Vegas recovery with an event following the shooting at the Madalay Bay Resort & Casino in October.

“Social media slammed them for taking advantage of a tragic situation to market their product in the region,” Flaherty said. “We’ve been accused of the same thing following the Boston bombings. The last thing you want is a well-intentioned and executed initiative to be perceived as tone deaf or insensitive."

Lastly, in the event of a hotelier making a mistake during the recovery process, whether intentional or not, it pays to be willing to make an apology.

“Depending on the crisis, if your hotels are culpable for anything, make sure an apology gets out there,” Flaherty said. “Work with your legal and claims teams, and you’ll get resistance there on the apology, but the value of an apology is a good thing for image recovery.”