Sadly but not surprisingly, it was the private sector, and hotels in particular, that led the way in responding quickly to the devastation from last summer's Hurricane Katrina.

Wisely, the U.S. Senate asked Kevin Regan, a Starwood Hotels regional vice president and the company's point man in New Orleans following the storm, to testify on Starwood's experiences.

According to Regan, the government failed in the four areas that marked the core of Starwood's crisis plan: leadership, communications, execution and flexibility.

“The government failed in both communications and leadership, and the result was chaos,” says Regan. “On the other hand, we had a game plan and were ready when the storm hit. The key was the flexibility we built into the plan that allowed us to deal with unanticipated factors.”

As example, while government-sponsored relief was slow to arrive in New Orleans, Regan and his team were able to work through the local sheriff's office to find routes to get equipment and supplies to Starwood's properties in the disaster zone.

Starwood spends a lot of time developing and refining crisis management plans for all of its properties, says Regan.

“We've learned over the years that every storm is different. With Katrina it was the flooding and the lack of response by government,” he says. “It's very critical, then, to allow personnel on the ground to make decisions as situations change.”

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