“Windy weather, windy weather, when the wind blows, we all come together.” The wind really blew in Florida during Hurricanes Charley, Ivan, Frances and Jeanne and this simple children’s rhyme represents how Florida’s hospitality industry responded. Faced with an unusually intense onslaught of this weather phenomenon throughout the whole month of September, the hospitality industry was forced to respond and react, prepare and respond, react and prepare, as each Hurricane seemed to target Florida with a vengeance.
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 mportantly, 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.
Many guests ended up across the state, on the West Coast of Florida when hotels were unavailable on the East Coast. In one case, more than 60 percent of hotel guests were hurricane refugees. Hotels seemed primed to welcome these unexpected guests with the same dignity and service as those that had planned trips in advance. And while west coast cities were not on the hurricane hit list, winds gusting over 60 miles per hour still hit the area. In hotels like The Registry Resort in Naples Florida, a letter from General Manager, Ronald Albeit, was sent to guest rooms along with a flashlight. The letter noted the reality that the hotel might still be affected by this unpredictable force of nature and outlined a complete game plan if electricity and air conditioning were lost. A comprehensive list of services and procedures were outlined including how a special guest lounge with refreshments and television would be set up, which elevators would operate and how telephone service and lighting would operate. Guests were even promised clean towels in spite of possible constraints. Housekeeping staff knocked on guest doors to move patio furniture and place towels around sliding glass doors in case of water seepage. In many places, the power did indeed go off. Guests were ready at The Registry Resort with their flashlights and a sense of reassurance that the hotel was ready too.
At times like these, guests left in the dark, will be calling for answers. All points of contact need to be ready for nervous guest questions. In one instance, an operator who answered the phone, sounded like the voice of doom and gloom when asked about the status of the electricity returning. She had not been trained on how to handle calls like this and through her own discomfort and uncertainty, she provide a dim forecast and left the guest in the dark a bit less comfortable.
The next day, with winds still whipping around, The Registry Resort had set up one of the meeting rooms with the Star Wars Trilogy repeating over and over again, as another option to entertain weather weary guests and their families. This hotel’s management had set up alternate indoor freebies since guests could not take advantage of outdoor amenities. Guests felt at home even though home was not available.
One can imagine that often there are guests who are not there for business or vacation but because they have to be. Whether it is fire, floods or some other reason that forces them to become a new guest, do you and your teams know how to serve them? They can actually become some of your most loyal guests and can present solid opportunities to know your guests even better.
In any destination, faced with weather or other unexpected challenges, hotel managers and hospitality leaders can still make a service difference with thoughtful, coordinated and responsive planning and leadership:
- Determine how policies and procedures might change in the event of a disaster or severe threat. Evaluate if new policies should be put in place based on environmental evidence and specify the timing which would trigger the change. Make sure all employees, in corporate offices as well as those on property are in sync with changing policies and procedures. Communicate directly and frequently during these events and especially during shift changes to ensure all employees are consistent and constant in their communications to guests.
- Train all employees on how to be tuned in to the extra emotional stress of guests seeking assistance. Give them reassurance so that they can give the same to guests. Empower them and inform them with the tools they need to reinforce a message of safety and comfort. Give them structure during unstructured times so they are not forced to respond on their own.
- Consider all the questions a guest might have during an emergency. Develop all possible answers in advance and circulate both questions and answers in advance to all staff. Spend time in staff meetings rehearsing various scenarios and ask employees to voice any questions or concerns.
- Determine which employee teams can best serve guests in the event of emergencies like relocation. Depend on positions like well-trained concierges to handle guest contact so management can focus on emergency operations.
- Work with local officials and organizations on resources to assist guests. In the Greater Ft Lauderdale area, Convention and Visitor Bureau staff began working with local hotels and transit authorities at least one week in advance of hurricanes to poll them on availability in the event of evacuations and make plans for seamless guest transitions. They reached out to neighboring counties to offer assistance and maintain a hotel hotline.
- Recognize opportunities to make lemonade out of lemons. Capture employee input to develop new ways to entertain guests and create memories while regular operations and facilities may not be working.
Remember that some guests may be in a crisis that only affects them. The innkeeper has a special chance to make home away from home more real for these unexpected guests. They may appreciate your efforts, especially the little things, far more than other guests. They may end up being the repeat and referral revenue that top all forecasts, no matter what the weather!