By Colleen Isherwood, editor
Canadian hotels are not immune to crisis. The Fairmont Chateau Laurier was locked down during the recent shootings on Parliament Hill. The Saint John, NB, Hilton was also locked down when an ill guest who had travelled from Africa was thought to have Ebola. Things can happen here and it’s essential that hotels have crisis management programs in place.
Roger Conner of Conner Hospitality and G7 Hospitality is the retired head of communications for Marriott. He was in that position during 9/11, when Marriott lost the 825-room hotel nestled between the twin towers, in 2005 when the New Orleans Marriott was affected by Hurricane Katrina, and in 2008 when 54 people were killed at the Islamabad Park Marriott in India.
At G7, Conner works on crisis management plans for small, independent hotels that don’t have the budget of worldwide chains like Marriott or Hilton. An emergency management plan for a smaller property can be as short as two pages, he says.
The first step is to identify all the right people to be involved, and make a list of all the things that should be done. High on the list is the appointment of a spokesperson for the press and development of prewritten messages that can be edited to fit the situation.
Conner created Marriott’s first-hour crisis communication document in 2006/07. Now, with the increasing role of social media, communication has to be faster than the first hour, he notes. “Social media has ratcheted up the need to be ready to communicate during a crisis.
“You may have to say, ‘it would be inappropriate to comment until more information is available,’” Conner says. “But never say, ‘no comment.’
“Once social media is activated, it’s more about participation than control. You can’t control it—you must participate, particularly during a crisis.
“You can agree to a process, but you can’t control how other people communicate.”
While smaller hotels are unlikely to experience carnage on the scale of 9/11 or the Islamabad Marriott, there are other issues that harm a hotel’s reputation and customers.
Examples include foodborne illness at a hotel conference; a hazmat situation where cleaning chemicals in a hotel were improperly mixed; bedbugs; storms; tornadoes; floods (e.g., Toronto and Calgary in 2013); and power outages. Other things that can happen are guestroom deaths, accidentally or due to criminal activity, drug deals and more.
“Hotels are like little cities within the city. Anything that goes on in the city may also go on in a hotel,” Conner notes.
During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the New Orleans Marriott, a 1,000-room property on Canal Street was hit and hurt, but was still able to minimally operate. They had a crisis plan and access to a corporate PR person, allowing them to immediately get appropriate messages out to the media and to guests regarding its status.
Because they had limited operations, they were able to host key people on hand to handle the crisis—they housed media and did media standups in front of the hotel. “It was a very positive experience,” Conner notes.
During crisis situations, Marriott has helped police, environmental workers, firefighters and other key players, offering them accommodation, coffee and a light buffet. “During airplane crashes and disasters, we always said the nearest Marriott would provide rooms and meeting room accommodation.
“It’s important to shore up relations with those key people. For smaller hotels, community relations is particularly important.”
Among independents, Conner estimates that 40 to 50 per cent do not have a plan, or have one that needs to be updated.
“Crisis communication doesn’t generate revenue, but it sure as heck protects revenue,” he says.