Scott Wiseman

El Conquistador Resort in Las Croabas, Puerto Rico. Scott Wiseman

Skift Take: It's not if you get knocked down, but how you get up that matters. Not only do hospitality teams have the opportunity to provide guests with shelter and stability, but they can expand their impact throughout their local communities highlighting the strength and potential for our sector to be force of good.

— Samantha Shankman

More than a month has passed since storms such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria started their destructive journeys across the U.S. and Caribbean causing an estimated $188 billion or more in damages.

As Skift tourism reporter Dan Peltier wrote last month, U.S. and Caribbean destinations were quick to launch marketing campaigns encouraging visitors to return and leveraged social media to chronicle the recovery progress made in recent weeks.

Luxury hotels were also eager to welcome back guests and a semblance of normality once the worst of the storms were over. This is still not possible in some areas. Hospitality teams traditionally dedicated at excelling their customers’ expectations have gone back to basics where safety and basic comfort come before five-star luxuries.

With repair and normality slowly returning to many of their operations, Skift spoke to leaders at luxury properties to learn what goes into preparing for natural disasters, how they take care of customers, and what lessons they gained through the experience.

Clear Communication

Communication is of course the first line of defense for any team during such dynamic and unpredictable situations.

Each of the hotels’ staff that we spoke to routinely go through a series of measures prior to storm season. Team members test power generators and check fuel supply, secure adequate food and water supplies, ensure medical supply kits are fully stocked, and establish a safe (and comfortable) shelter with games, movies, rest areas, and Internet access. Comfort is considered an important element of weathering a storm at these properties.

Next staff are trained and expected to not only communicate, but relay a sense of calm to guests.

“Our teams are well versed in assisting guests and remaining calm while providing the most up to date information. Communication is shared in several formats, including verbally, letters to rooms, email or calls to advise of cancellations,” explains Lisa Cole and Karla Visconti, communication directors for Hilton for the Southeast region of U.S. and Latin America.

“During times like these, it’s most important for leaders to exercise emotional control, keep calm, stay accessible and alert, adjusting communication plans as needed to address the changing landscape.”

Several of Hilton’s luxury hotels were impacted by the recent month’s storms including Casa Marina and The Reach in Key West; Waldorf Astoria Orlando, and Boca Raton Resort as well as El Conquistador Resort, A Waldorf Astoria Resort — one of nine Hilton properties across Puerto Rico.

Communicating internally within the hotel and local community is as vital as communicating with customers during this time.

“We held calls twice per day with the hotel team as well as the regional leadership team to discuss the current state of the hotel,” explains Dennis Doherty, the Resident Manager at the Houston Marriott Marquis. Doherty was at the hotel throughout the hurricane.

“We utilized radio communication for onsite employees and had an emergency channel for key response team members to monitor. Daily e-mail communication also occurred as updates were available.”

Community Support

Due to their level of preparation and access to resources, luxury hotels often serve their local communities in there aftermath of such storms.

“We worked closely with 33 affected employees to ensure they had housing, clothing, food and provided continuous support,” says Doherty.

In Puerto Rico, El Conquistador Resort, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, provided shelter not only to stranded guests but staff and their families.

“Our priority is the safety and security of our guests and Team Members, and following the storm, our focus is on their comfort and minimizing any effects on them. In some cases following the storms, hotels continued to house Team Members, others were home to evacuees and first responders,” explains Cole and Visconti.

A TripAdvisor review posted after Hurricane Irma highlights how by opening the doors to the local community, hotels can do good and improve their guests’ stay at the same time.

“The staff went above and beyond to keep order during the preparation of the hurricane. Although the weather was becoming worse and worse they did all they could to ensure the safety of the guest and complete control of the situation. I also want to commend the Administration of the El Conquistador resort for having the compassion to not only allow their staff to take refuge at the resort during the hurricane, but allowed them to bring their families to stay safe on the property as well,” writes TripAdvisor user Julius F.

“This gesture alone not only made us feel safer but it showed a side of the corporate world we don’t usually get to see, I was absolutely ecstatic to know that the staff felt that our location was safe enough for their own family.”

El Conquistador closed to arrivals after the storm but remains open with limited services to accommodate needs associated withrebuilding efforts such as housing first responders and relief workers.

Lessons Learned

This isn’t the first and it won’t be the last last time these destinations and hospitality teams deal with destruction — the antithesis of the comfort elegance they represent — but each experience brings new lessons.

“While we never experienced a shortage of supplies, limiting both food and beverage services and housekeeping during the storm were critical to ensure we were able to continuously serve our guests at the highest levels possible,” says Doherty.

“A key learning is to always to veer on the side of caution. We are in the business of taking care of people and that is something we take very seriously – in all instances.”

As for properties unaffected by the storms, the situation brings its own reminders of humility and cooperation.

Mustique is a private Caribbean island located further south than where most of the storms’ destruction took place. Although its pristine beaches and accommodations were untouched by the storm, stakeholders are sensitive about their messaging.

“Due to the devastation and sensitivities of the recovery program in the northern islands we have not been overtly communicating our well-being and readiness to accept visitors. However we continue to welcome guests,” Roger Pritchard, managing director of The Mustique Company, said.

“We are doing our best to accommodate any travelers who had trips planned to the affected islands and are now looking for alternative arrangements.”