Reactions and Relief

The industry was a source of refuge and comfort

Katrina's effects on the hospitality industry stretched far beyond the immediate strike zone in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Hotels as far away as Florida, Tennessee and the Carolinas scrambled to accommodate evacuees. There were tough issues to face; for example, many hotels in the South filled with refugees but then had to juggle existing reservations when it became clear areas hit by the hurricane wouldn't be habitable for weeks, if not months.

That was an issue in Florida just after the hurricane struck, when hundreds of evacuees who fled to Tallahassee were asked to vacate hotel rooms to make space for FSU-Miami football fans with prior reservations. While some evacuee/guests were understandably distraught at having to move yet again, news accounts reported hoteliers worked hard to make other arrangements for them.

In the case of Hilton properties in the Houston, Dallas and San Antonio areas, frequent and detailed communication with guests spelled the difference between good relations and a perception of not caring, reports Hilton spokesperson Kathy Shepard. “While it was challenging to handle the sudden influx of people, our team members did it in the most accommodating manner they could,” says Shepard. “At the same time, they made it clear upon check-in how long evacuees could be accommodated and what options were available to them beyond that time.” For example, at one Hampton Inn, evacuee/guests were told upfront they could stay for 14 days, due to previous booking obligations. After seven days, letters were delivered to guests reminding them of their checkout date with a list of resources and contact information for other housing. “No doubt it was heart-wrenching for team members to hear the stories of people who'd lost everything but they really met the challenge of trying to help,” says Shepard.

At the Hilton Americas in Houston, more than 1,000 pets of every imaginable variety were kept and cared for in the massive lobby area. “It was quite a sight to see all the animals, and employees even went out of their way to buy pet food,” says Shepard.

One ironic effect of the tragedy was an upsurge in occupancies throughout the region.

And for months to come, these hotels will be full of insurance adjusters, clean-up crews and aid workers. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security requested the American Hotel & Lodging Association to secure blocks of rooms for housing of evacuees and emergency contractors. Contracts will extend for six months, with possible renewal for an additional six to 18 months. DHS estimates that approximately 250,000 guestrooms are needed to house evacuees and relief workers.

And Smith Travel Research increased its 2005 RevPAR growth projection for the total U.S. from 7.6 percent up to 8.2 percent. “Despite the obvious attrition from displaced business, the increase in Katrina-related emergency travel combined with the relocated meetings demand to other cities will have a meaningful impact on occupancies,” says Randy Smith, CEO and founder of STR.

Despite all the tragedy and heartbreaking news, there were many tales of selflessness, generosity and admirable acts. The hospitality industry proved, as it often does in times of crisis and human suffering, that it is a welcome source of refuge, comfort and aid to those affected by natural or man-made tragedies. Here are a few examples:

  • With nearly 8,000 employees in the region, Harrah's Entertainment, Inc. opened Harrah's Gulf Coast Region Assistance Center in Gulfport, MS, for employees of Harrah's three Gulf Region properties displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Available services include on-site primary health care services, assistance with compensation and benefits for displaced workers, information on nationwide job opportunities within Harrah's network and access to e-mail and to the Harrah's Intranet with relief and recovery information.

  • Cendant has established a special employee hotline to coordinate distribution of pay and other benefits to employees in the hurricane regions. The company is also finding temporary housing for employees within Cendant's hotel affiliates, corporate timeshare resort locations and timeshare exchange resort affiliates. Also, a fundraising campaign was launched on behalf of the American Red Cross Hurricane 2005 Relief Fund.

  • Americas Best Value Inn and The Home Depot Supply teamed up to donate amenities from the hotel company to distribution centers in areas hardest hit by Katrina. More than 17,000 bottles of shampoo, 52,000 bottles of body lotion and 212,500 bars of soap were delivered to the Salvation Army and the Red Cross.

  • In addition to providing assistance and aid to more than 2,800 associates in the Greater New Orleans area, Marriott set up a leave-sharing program so fellow associates can donate paid time off to help those affected by the storm.

  • Best Western launched an extensive eBay auction last month with proceeds benefiting ARC hurricane relief efforts. Best Western hotels across the world together with numerous Best Western partners donated a variety of travel packages to the cause, along with NASCAR memorabilia, brand name products and more.

  • Last month, Chicago Marriott Downtown hosted a bedding extravaganza with a bed linen charity donation on behalf of Chicagoland Marriott Hotels & Resorts to victims of Hurricane Katrina. During the event, an interactive bed display was unveiled to showcase new Marriott bedding, and company officials and regional managers were on hand decked in pajama attire.

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