Hoteliers staying calm in the storm

August 30 2012 | Latest News
Slow-moving hurricane Isaac touched down near Port Fourchon, Louisiana at 3:15 a.m. (EST) Wednesday morning and made itself comfortable. The storm brought heavy rains and 80-mile per hour winds to New Orleans on the seven-year anniversary of hurricane Katrina. News outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, are reporting that nearly 75 percent of city residents were without power and that there was some minor street flooding in the area.

According to Mavis Early, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association (GNOHLA), hoteliers in the city were prepared for the storm and are staying calm in the midst of Isaac’s deluge.

“Of course, we know that experience is the best teacher—and Katrina was an excellent teacher,” she told Lodging via email. “We are much more prepared than we were seven years ago. Since Katrina, we have established precise plans and procedures. There is not much that has been left unaddressed.”

Early explains that hotels began prepping for the storm several days ago, when the National Weather Service upgraded the tropical storm to hurricane status. Isaac hit land as a Category 1 hurricane.

“Hotels, as just about everyone in New Orleans, have emergency preparedness plans,” she says. “Hotels have met with their employees, determined who will need to be home with their families during the storm, who may be leaving town, and who will remain in New Orleans and are available during the storm. In most instances, employees who staff the hotel during the storm are provided accommodations at their hotels.”

Larry Daniels, general manager of the Hyatt French Quarter, started getting plans into place last week.

“We made sure we had enough fuel for our generators and enough food product in,” he says. “We went up to the roof and made sure things were secured and walked around the building to make sure there was nothing that could potentially fly around and break a window.”

Daniels, who says that there hasn’t been any flooding in the French Quarter and that the pump systems are working well, is running his hotel with fewer employees for the next few days.

“We asked for volunteers and figured exactly what we needed from a minimal staff standpoint,” he says. “Everybody is just kind of helping where it’s needed. Everyone is doing whatever it takes to get the job done.”

According to Early, one of the biggest problems hotels faced during Katrina was a lack of communication with the staff and employees. During the Category 5 hurricane that hit in 2005, hotel owners had a difficult time locating hotel personnel, and have since established a better way of connecting during emergencies.

“One lesson learned from Katrina resulted in most hotels establishing an ongoing procedure to maintain up-to-date contact information on all of their employees, including their cell phone numbers and that of a close family member or friend,” says Early.

GNOHLA and other tourism agencies in the city including the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, put together the New Orleans Tourism Crisis Communication Plan which includes contact information for key tourism leaders and sets forth responsibilities and procedures to follow in the event of an emergency. Early says that ongoing communication efforts between city officials, tourism leaders, hotels, and hotel guests is essential in keeping everyone safe and informed.

“The safety, security, and comfort of guests are always top priorities for hoteliers,” she says. “Communication is an important element of guest safety. And the hotel and tourism industry, working together, provide volumes of communication. We interface with city government, provide updates on preparedness and the storm’s location, and recommend when it is safe to go outdoors and when it is best to stay inside.”

“There has been a lot of communication from the city in regards to what's going on,” adds Daniels. “There are plenty of officers patrolling the area, plus the National Guard is patrolling the area.”

Early explains that since there was no mandatory evacuation put in place, hotel guests were allowed to stay at operating hotels in the city during the storm. She says that guests have been advised to listen to important announcements from hotels and local officials and to heed instructions relating to the storm.

“Issac is not the type of event that Hurricane Katrina was, and mandatory evacuation was not necessary,” says Early. “Mayor Mitch Landrieu used the phrase shelter in place.’ For visitors, if they chose to stay in New Orleans, this means to stay indoors when advised to do so.”

All facilities, including the restaurants, bar, and health club at the Hyatt French Quarter, remain open and functioning. Daniels explains that the hotel had several cancellations due to the storm, but has picked up walk-in business from press and local residents who lost power.

“The general atmosphere of the hotel is positive,” says Daniels. “We wanted to ensure that everything was covered to make sure customers, despite the situation, would have a positive experience.”

Early is confident in the city’s ability to handle hurricane Isaac and other tropical storms and hurricanes that develop in the future. She cites the improvements that were made to the levee and flood protections systems as a barrier that will protect the city from the type of devastation it saw during Katrina.

“New Orleans is more protected now for storms and hurricanes than it has ever been in the past,” she says. “The atmosphere in the hotel community right now is prepared and calm.”