Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?... How to Handle a Hurricane
By Roberta Nedry President & Founder, Hospitality Excellence, Inc. | October 28, 2008
What happens to service during a natural disaster or threat or a surprise power loss of extended duration? How do hospitality leaders prepare their employees to deal with impending challenges and what happens to guests who drew the unexpected shorter straw in terms of the timing of their trips? How do hotels in particular prepare, react and respond? Are new policies and procedures put into place or are existing ones modified? How does a hotel ensure the safety of guests while still preserving some type of favorable memory? Does service still play a role and if so, what shape does it take and how are employees prepared to implement revised service scenarios? Do you have a "disaster service plan" in place?
As an active participant in two of the four hurricanes and a resident of Florida, my personal experiences allowed for cumulative insight into these questions and some guidelines. Thoughtful planning can really make a difference so that guests will come back and have confidence in hotelier's ability to take care of them if fate should strike again. More importantly, new customer acquisitions and loyalty can result as the silver lining from the dark clouds of such emergency circumstances, if your staff is on the right agenda.
Training employees on how to set expectations is always important in the hospitality business. Training employees on how to determine and set expectations during a crisis is also critical as they may be quite different. Do your reservation and/or telephone staffs know what to say and how to answer questions that may not have answers? How does management convey contingency plans so that guests can feel safe making decisions based on your plan and communication?
During Florida's recent hurricanes, many resident homes were spared yet electricity was not. Hotels found a surge of reservations, post hurricane, for those without power who were seeking the comforts of home. In many cases, hotels recognized the hurricane recovery period and offered reasonable rates without cancellation penalties, understanding that locals were dealing with many unknowns. However, in one scenario, a hotel reservation was made under the premise of all hotel features working, therefore a welcome respite from a sweltering home with no food, TV, pool or air conditioning. And, the agent reconfirmed the no cancellation penalty policy. Confirming the reservation a few hours later yielded a different response. This time, the agent noted several areas of the hotel that were not fully functioning and after the guest chose to cancel based on those non-functioning areas which had been promised earlier, the guest was told that now a cancellation penalty would exist.
The difference in attitude from each of these agents was quite distinct. The first one was understanding, compassionate, responsive and professional. Yet, she was not completely informed and provided incorrect information about the venue. The second one was aloof, detached and insensitive and reported that the earlier agent was incorrect. She had no difficulty in contradicting her teammate and holding the line. Fortunately, a supervisor was a professional combination of the two agents and respectfully cancelled the reservation and reinforced the hotel's commitment to more flexible service during this hurricane time frame.
When Hurricane Jeanne showed up, many locals in evacuation zones scrambled to get hotels in advance and ride the hurricane out in a place less likely to lose power and living comforts. Apparently, after three hurricanes, a lot of other people had the same idea and hotels in two counties, the Greater Ft. Lauderdale and Miami areas, were almost completely booked. Hotels deployed top concierges like Ed Ponder, from the National Hotel in Miami, who worked three phones at a time while supervising the relocation of his guests from the Miami Beach area. While supervising his staff of bellmen, doormen, valets and concierges, he motivated his team to calm and reassure guests while making the transition out of the hotel as pleasant as possible. The concierge team, known for their ability to juggle and creatively handle guest requests and demands had been entrusted to lead the guest relocation effort in this hotel. Hotel management recognized the opportunity to make a positive impression, even under challenging circumstances, and utilized the members of their team that could best manage other people's jobs and duties. Cross training should be part of any plan for service during a disaster.