A crisis is a specific and unforeseen economic, environmental, social or political event that represents a significant disruption and turning-point in the normal course of day-to-day living. For hotels, a crisis is a phenomenon, large or small, whose magnitude can, at best, damage reputation and brand and impede daily operations and, at worst, result in long-term and potentially irrevocable financial damage.
Because of the difficulty of anticipating crises and their potential gravity, investment in crisis-management preparation is the surest way to see business return to normal in the post-crisis environment. Despite the paradox, anticipating crises and planning for the unexpected is key to buffering potential negative impact on business, according to Samantha Jacobs, founder and president of Hemsworth Communications. Crisis teams, she says, should also have regular meetings to ensure all staff understands individual roles and responsibilities if a threat were to arise.

“Preparation to ensure the safety and security of all involved — as well as outlining steps for immediate information and education — are the most important factors of crisis management,” Jacobs says, adding hoteliers must find best practices within the industry that work for their business. “Establish an electronic-communications plan which specifically outlines steps to take in response to certain situations.” The plan must then be re-visited, updated regularly and be familiar and accessible to the crisis-communications team, she stresses.

Crises can be events in the physical realm such as floods, fire, SARS-like health issues and others such as food poisoning of guests. Financial catastrophe in national and global money markets can also be considered a serious long-term threat to the hospitality business, as can short-term threats such as terrorism and building lock-downs, business scams and fraud, cyber-attacks and external infrastructure and technology malfunctions such as computer failures and power outages. Internally, examples such as improper employee behaviour, malfeasance and retaliation could reach a crisis level that is damaging to hotel business.

Whether they are internal or external in origin, the reaction to a crisis must be a planned and documented enactment of a well-considered and practiced process — flexible enough to respond to unknown possibilities and threats and updated regularly. While it’s impossible to plan for every unknown threat, information is power: planning should get the right information and procedures in the right hands at the right time. Break the process into “pre-event, real time and post-event” modes. What management does during each of those stages of a crisis is vital to getting back to normal business as quickly as possible.

Training takes over once the groundwork of planning for a crisis has been established, according to Graeme McIntosh, director of Business Development at Toronto-based Risk Solutions — a fire, life and safety consultancy focused on hotel infrastructure and fire-and-safety compliance in light of the serious threat that fire represents. “It comes down to training. If you don’t have properly trained staff then you are not going to have a successful outcome amid a crisis, whatever that may be,” McIntosh says. “Even if it’s a flood and you have to evacuate the hotel, or parts of the hotel, if you have training in place, the evacuation will go a lot more smoothly. That means business continuity and a faster track back to normal conditions for your guests as well.”

Jacobs breaks crisis management into internal and external points of action. Internally, hotel management must first ensure the safety and security of staff, guests “and anyone on property” with information about what is happening, she says. “A pre-designated crisis-response team ensures all actions during the threat are automated, with scripted roles identified in advance, so hotel management is not spending time delegating in the midst of a situation.”

A hotel needs to align its plans with its external allies, including its legal and PR teams, Jacobs says. “People think public-relations agencies simply send statements and releases out to media. However, the right agency can help develop both proactive and reactive communications strategies, messaging and responses,” she says, adding the right agency can be a strategic partner in crisis response. “Depending on the type of crisis, a PR agency can and should designate a person to provide full-time off-site or on-site support. In many cases, agencies assign a liaison for as long as it takes.”

No matter the nature of the crisis, hotels need plans in place to deal with staff, guests, the media and a legal strategy, too, according to Kenny Gibson, Sunray Group’s president, Asset Management. But he points to another communication piece that needs consideration — and one for which the example is just about the largest order of magnitude conceivable: 9-11. Gibson says it’s important to communicate with partners, “whether it be lenders, equity partners or franchise partners who have their own crisis plans.” When the hospitality group he worked for was impacted by 9-11, Gibson says it contacted and updated the capital group that was its major lender. “We put a plan in place where we communicated with them on a weekly basis about what was happening in the business and travel sector. A communication plan with your partners is essential.”

How a hotel reacts in a time of crisis is one thing, what they say is another. The message should be clear, uniform and accurate. And it’s important not to say too much. Of course, controlling information in a time of social media can be a considerable challenge that should not be underestimated. It’s one thing to deliver single comments to a media source, it is quite another to have to manage the multiple and potentially viral streams of information flying around via social media. A crisis-communications plan should include what Jacobs refers to as “templated responses” and releases that cover a wide range of potential crises that “have been approved by both internal communications and legal teams,” she says. “Creating these reactive statements — which can be customized quickly — ensures hotels are proactively prepared to be nimble if and when something does happen.” Jacobs says it’s important to have a “small, select group” of people authorized to communicate with the templated statements as guidelines. “I recommend having one internal spokesperson and one media spokesperson. However, if a hotel prefers, it can provide two internal spokespeople, one for staff and one for guests, as well as one media spokesperson.”

What is said and how much is said, she stresses, depends on the nature of the crisis. Similarly, what information staff members need to know is again dependent upon the situation. That staff are aware of the crisis and are able to act according to a plan is obviously important, Jacobs adds. “In most cases, a broad non-specific controlled message that informs and educates is recommended for employees. It’s important to release a more specific message to certain staff, such as those in sales and marketing, as it relates to their area of work.”

In no other era in human history has there been the possibility of immediate, real-time responses to issues and events. Social media — in some cases, a burdensome, pesky method of communication — can make instant connections with a vast number of people to disseminate information and messages through a wide range of channels. The expectation is that information will be forthcoming via these channels, so managers must be prepared. That’s both good and bad. “There are digital platforms that allow us to communicate real-time and programs you can opt into with local authorities to be alerted of crisis situations as they unfold,” Jacobs says.

But, she warns, it is important to monitor the frequency of a hotel’s communications during a crisis. “Social-media posts and alerts should be included in a hotel’s crisis plan, such that a hotel is communicating, but not overwhelmingly. Generally, we do not recommend crisis situations being communicated real-time to guests via social media, unless there is an imminent threat and shelter-in-place order,” she says.

Jacobs cites the recent situation posed by Hurricane Matthew, in which hotel and resort clients in impacted areas were recommended to delay any pre-scheduled social-media posts or leisure-driven announcements. “During a time of crisis, such as a weather event, media is focused on the issue at hand — as are your guests or potential guests. You want to make sure the public knows you’re sensitive to the situation and not simply maintaining business as usual.”
After a crisis event, McIntosh says, the work is not done, even though normal business practice is getting back on track. In the post-crisis environment, he suggests thorough inspections should be done to ensure compliance and safety requirements have been met. “Is it safe for employees to go back to work and the guests to go back to their rooms?” he asks.

Post-crisis analysis is key, he adds, including an examination that looks at what, if anything, took place in terms of a breakdown in communications or crisis-management plans. It is a “recursive” process that closes the circle returning to prevention strategies, according to McIntosh. “That should be looked at immediately as a learning experience for future events.”

Volume 28, Number 8
Written By Andrew Coppolino


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