Tips from GMs on how to keep your hotel, staff, and guests safe during a natural disaster
For Ricardo Perez, general manager of Oyster Bay Beach Resort in St. Maarten, Huricane Irma literally dampened operations at the property, which is normally at an 82% occupancy rate this time of year. But since the storm, it’s at zero and temporarily closed.
During the storm, 148 guests occupied the premises, says Perez, who was off island at the time, but who still had a team of roughly 30 staff members on-site.
“My management staff was well prepared and have gone through multiple storms in the past, so they are well experienced,” says Perez. There was also a group of people who volunteer to stay on property as part of the hotel’s hurricane preparedness plan.
In advance of the storm, “We moved as many guests as possible to a temporary shelter in one of our restaurants, in effort to make sure we could protect them and care for them in a better fashion,” says Perez. “We provided limited meals and water and alerted them as to the proximity of the storm.”
Once the storm hit, unfortunately, the hotel lost its power. The new challenge Perez’ team faced was, “ensuring that the guests were safe and assisting in communicating with their families following the storm ... Coordinating emergency evacuations off the island by emergency transport was another major challenge."
Over all, “Our management team on the ground was heroic. Not one employee or guest was injured during the storm and they were able to evacuate every single guest within 72-hours of the passing of the storm,” says Perez. “Our timeshare owners have raised over U.S. $180,000 to assist our employees that had damage to their homes and no insurance.”
For Marvlyn Alexander James, not since Tropical Storm Erica in 2015 has she weathered a storm crisis like Hurricane Maria, which barreled through the island of Dominica in September.
James is general manager of the Fort Young Hotel there, which housed 51 guests during the storm’s wrath. Under her leadership, a core group of 20 staffers, including management remained on property throughout the storm and during its aftermath, which left 32 out of 73 rooms damaged, says James.
Fortunately, the hotel’s hurricane disaster plan and committee had been activated since the beginning of hurricane season, which starts June 1, says James.
“We meet monthly throughout the season to update where we are with our preparedness; however, when there is a weather system of any kind, the committee meets to discuss and finalize plans,” says James.
Once news of Hurricane Maria broke, “Our committee met several times over the weekend before and during the day of the storm itself. We looked at different aspects to include safety of guests, dry goods supplies, water storage, diesel, safety gear and tools for our team staying on, plus we identified a safe area on property, in case we had to evacuate guests from their rooms. We also met with guests to reassure them of the preparedness of the hotel and to provide them with safety and security tips,” says James.
Though powered by generator, “Sometime during the night in the middle of the storm, the power failed because of the electrical panels and electrical systems that were damaged. In such situations, the generators are programmed to shut down,” says James.
With the exception of the maintenance team who were in the ‘safe room’ and other areas on property in case the rescuing of guests and staff became necessary, “Guests and staff were in their rooms during the storm,” says James. “I basically rode it out in my room with my two daughters, not necessarily maintaining my composure, but going from prayers and fear to being calm and strong.”
As its grounds get tidied up, the challenge and impact of Hurricane Irma becomes clearer to the management at Hilton West Palm Beach, in Florida.
The year and a half year old property sustained superficial landscaping damage and is currently open for business, says John Parkinson, the hotel’s general manager, who has worked as a GM through seven major hurricanes in his career.
“We’re trained to keep guests really calm,” says Parkinson of the 1200-1400 guests in occupancy at the time Irma struck, which included evacuees.
Although the hotel was not in an evacuation zone, “We had guests who wanted to get out. They were focused and concerned with making arrangements at other hotels further north, or getting airline tickets to another destination,” says Parkinson, whose team provided regular and frequent staff and guest updates on the storm’s path.
While they never lost power, Hilton shut down its elevators, so no one could get stuck and instead, opened up stairwells. Hotel staff provided guests with flashlights and glow sticks in their rooms as part of emergency procedure.
Fortunately, close to eighty members of Hilton’s 300-member staff rode out the storm on-site, continuing to be of service. Although not required to work double shifts, “Some of our team members took the opportunity to make extra money,” says Parkinson.
In return, “We were able to give back to our team and I couldn’t be prouder of the way they worked through the storm. It was a bonding experience,” says Parkinson. “I call our staff everyday heroes. They never lost vision of Hilton as a hospitable hotel and company. They were still hospitable to our guests through a crisis situation.”
One challenge through the storm came from guests who wished to go outside after hotel exits were purposely closed.
“We amped up security and told guests that we couldn’t let them outside during the time of expected impact. We gave them advanced notice that room service would probably not be available for four to six hours,” says Parkinson.
Looking ahead, one lesson Parkinson learned is that, “We have to understand that people are going to want to evacuate their homes. For locals, if you’re worried and want to get out quickly, get out early. There were a lot of people trying to find hotels and we were calling upon Hiltons in other areas to place them. We were almost one hundred percent successful, but it’s nerve-wracking for people who get out at the last minute.
While still returning to normal, the DoubleTree Hotel & Suites Houston by the Galleria in Houston, Texas, faired rather well after Hurricane Harvey recently struck, says general manager, Sam Kapadia.
“We were one of the lucky ones,” he says. “We didn’t flood, and though we lost power momentarily, it was fixed six hours later. While one of the city mains broke, we have a contingency plan for trucks to supply our building with water,” he says.
As part of its disaster plan, 150 rooms were taken offline from the 476-room property, to accommodate staff.
“We knew staffing was going to be an issue. We had to make sure those of our staff who came in, could come safely,” says Kapadia. About 35 staff members (of 70) with and without families stayed on property and were provided for, says the GM.
To reduce employee stress, “We shortened shifts to three hours, which helped. These were not normal times. We offered limited housekeeping service on alternate floors, but anyone who needed special assistance could call us and we helped to manage guest expectations.”
Preparedness extended to checking on the hotel generator, providing glow sticks, and ensuring maximum food and the rotation of food in case of refrigeration loss, says Kapadia. Daily updates for guests were announced over the fire PA system and through internal television programming to guest rooms.
The extraordinarily busy front desk fielded guest questions about whether it was safe to walk around outside, locally. “When cabin fever set in, we gave them the best analysis and warned against going too far during a break in the water, as we could have received a big rain or wind again."
A native New Yorker who has been in the hotel industry for twenty-five years, Kapadia worked in management capacity during superstorm Sandy there, which taught him a lot about planning for events totally outside of your control.
“At the end of the day, you worry about your team and the guests. Safety is the paramount concern. It’s not about budgets,” says Kapadia.
9 Tips from GMs on Surviving a Natural Disaster
- Hunker down. Ensure your equipment is up-to-date, have enough food, gas, and water supplies for at least seven days is a must, which should include chlorine tablets, water pumps and small back-up generators. –Perez.
- Have back-up communications. Having alternate means of communications, such as a Satellite phone is important, especially when the island system fails. –Perez.
- Set priorities. Connect with and focus your team early and constantly communicate what is happening. Be flexible in changing and resetting priorities. –James.
- Lead from the front and motivate your staff. The morning after Maria, I met with key team members to re-group. We came up with a plant of action together so everyone felt part and owned the decisions we made. We sat and discussed what happened and came up with a plan of action together so everyone felt part and owned the decisions that we took. –James.
- Never underestimate the power of nature. Although we planned, devastation was beyond what we’d imagined. There is never too much preparedness. It’s better to be prepared and nothing happens, then not to be prepared at all. –James.
- Think simple. I had to go through wet papers the day after the storm to get a print out of our house count. In hindsight, having a laminated or zip lock guests’ list, with contact and emergency numbers and nationalities would have been great. Although cellular service was back up in less than 24 hours after the storm, without communication to loved ones – especially for our guests – was torturous. We didn’t have access to a satellite phone, which was something so basic, but so important. –James.
- Prepare to switch things up. Changing from a hotel mode to more of a cruise ship environment. When the storm was twenty-four hours out, this meant serving buffets and different food stations in the ballroom, setting up a kids’ room and playing movies all day, and opening an adult room for viewing college football. –Parkinson.
- Take care of your own. We’d blocked a number of rooms just for our team and their families. Their rooms were free, we fed their families three meals a day and they enjoyed the open amenities throughout the storm. The last thing you want is for your employees to be worried about their families. –Parkinson.
- Assume the worst. You have to make sure you have sufficient food and water or else a sense of panic can set in. We brought in extra food and offered scaled-down menus. We never ran out of anything and returned to fresh produce by Thursday and Friday the week of the storm. –Kapadia.