Our Finest Hour

It seems a cliché to talk about the culture of hospitality. It's a given that people gravitate toward the hotel business because they like people, like to be around them and like to help them. But this code of hospitality is not enough to explain the outpouring of good will, sacrifice and care that thousands of lodging industry owners, managers and associates extended to the desperate refugees from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Simply put, it was the hotel industry's finest hour. As those displaced from the storms poured out of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast region in search of refuge and higher, dryer ground, hotel owners and operators opened their arms, hotels and in some cases, their homes to provide care and comfort. In the spirit of true hospitality, evacuees were first given rooms and food; arrangements for payment were made later, if at all. And unlike the aftermaths of some other recent natural disasters, there were few reports (I personally heard none) of price gouging among hoteliers.

Even more heroic were the GMs, department heads and employees who stayed with their hotels during the storms. For people like Hans Wandfluh of Sonesta and Kevin Regan of Starwood (and plenty of others), the first priority was the safety of their guests, their employees and often the families of their employees. Not until everyone was safe and accounted for did these executives focus on recovery and restoration of their hotels.

Hotel chains also sprung into action during and following the worst days of the crisis. Most established toll-free lines associates could use to restore contact with their hotels. Many lodging companies dispatched HR executives to shelters throughout the South looking for their workers. Most companies kept their associates on the payroll with benefits for several weeks or longer after the storm.

The travel industry was quick to mobilize its collective resources to assist the 260,000 hospitality workers who temporarily or permanently lost their jobs due to the storms. Just two weeks following Katrina, a coalition of 37 travel and tourism associations representing 21,000 companies launched www.Katrinajobs.org, a website job seekers and employers can use to find jobs and fill positions. At its launch, the site had more than 1,000 job postings. The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs posted 110 vacancies, while The Venetian in Las Vegas offered 400 jobs.

“It's about the power of partnerships,” said Loews Hotels' Jonathan Tisch as he and Roger Dow of the Travel Industry Association announced the jobs initiative. “It's up to us to put aside our individual concerns to help these people get jobs. The industry must respond with the same kind of effort as we did to help rebuild the New York City tourism industry following Sept. 11, 2001.”

Similarly, Tisch also called for all Americans to engage in what he calls patriotic tourism. “Get on a plane in a few weeks and eat a beignet, go to the French Quarter and eat at one of Emeril Lagasse's restaurants, just as a month after 9/11 people began to arrive in New York City to help us revive and renew.”

For those in the hotel industry it's difficult to determine the best ways to help the Gulf Coast region recover. It's important to remember that a vibrant tourism business in New Orleans, Biloxi, Gulfport and elsewhere helps the entire industry. Some foreign travelers put New Orleans near the top of their list of must-see places when they come to the U.S. If the character of the city permanently changes, these same travelers may decide to head to Spain or France instead of America. Whatever we can do to make sure that doesn't happen is the right thing to do.

It also makes good sense to support the Katrinajobs.org website if you need managers or line-level workers. New Orleans, in particular, has a long tradition of hospitality and has produced some of the highest-quality personnel in the hotel industry.

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