Ignore Hotel Crisis Management Preparation at Your Peril

By Ed Fuller President, Laguna Strategic Advisors | March 10, 2019

Imagine yourself as the general manager of the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Portland. He recently faced a social media frenzy when an Instagram posting by a former guest alleged his hotel racially profiled and discriminated against him because two employees had him removed from the hotel for using his mobile phone in the lobby-all this despite his having proof of being a registered guest and your having internal processes and protocols in place to ensure you were maintaining a safe space for everyone.

Or maybe, you were the day manager last year at the Philadelphia Starbucks. He called police to arrest two men for trespassing at one of the chain's upscale downtown locations when they didn't order food or beverage while waiting for a third person for a business meeting. This episode also found its way onto social media and became topic Number One at water coolers around the country for months--thanks to another customer having his smart phone trained on the entire incident and posting it to his social media account.

Or what if you were the United Airlines representative who faced the media last year when images of a dead puppy appeared on Facebook and elsewhere when it was revealed that the puppy died after one of the company's flight attendants ordered its owner to put it and its TSA-approved kennel into an airless overhead bin for the duration of the flight.

Would you have been prepared to face the media without having all relevant facts in hand and when initial accounts are fluid? Would you have known what to say? Would you have been comfortable with your responses?

Each one of these incidents negatively impacted the companies and brands involved in terms of time lost trying to manage the crisis, negative hits to their company and brand reputations and money-at the corporate level as well for the local franchisee. With virtually everyone now having the capability of being an amateur "news reporter" thanks to their smart phone, the opportunity to brush an unpleasant situation "under the rug" and hoping it would simply go away, has long disappeared.

Sure, there are those who will tell you many corporations have weathered the negativity of a major crisis and bounced back without significant effort on their part. But a study in the Economist looked at eight corporate crises since 2012 and found that although the companies had survived, they were today valued at 30% less than they should have been compared to their peers. Could your enterprise absorb such a hit financially?

Preparation is the Key

Being prepared is the secret between being able to weather a negative situation in the public arena and enduring a media and possible public outcry that will make you feel like you're being sucked under by quick sand.

Virtually all the major hospitality management companies today are prepared and armed with both crisis management and an accompanying crisis communications management plan in place. I know this because I was part of the plans developed at the Marriott Corporation. We tested and shared them throughout the organization and frequently updated them over the years to reflect new learnings as threats evolved.

However, the industry has changed. Today, almost every major hotel brand company in the US is 70%-80% franchised and growing globally. As a result, the responsibility for crisis management and protecting the associates and their guests as well as the investors often falls to the unbranded management companies or to the independent hotel companies.

The key points here are that a copy of a detailed action plan needs to be in place at the hotel site, with the regional team and at management headquarters and that it is a 'living' document-updated frequently to reflect changing conditions and realities. It will do you little good if it sits collecting dust in the GM's office or rests on a forgotten thumb drive in an unused brief case.

You can consult many resources to help you develop your plan. I suggest your brand management company, outside consultants and industry associations are a good place to start. Equally as important as having a plan is training your management team to use it. Turnover in our industry is very high. The plan is of no value if it is not a familiar part of the managers' tool kits. Therefore, frequent retraining is essential.

Empower Your Crisis Committee

No matter the size of your company, if you have multiple properties, a crisis committee with authority to make decisions must be established and trained. It should be activated when a crisis becomes significant enough that it can impact the company or brand or other hotels or products in the system or the corporate organization. Chairman of the crisis committee can be a senior executive or the CEO, but it must have decision-making authority to deal with significant challenges-Examples: evacuation of a hotel of its guests and staff in a natural disaster (Katrina in New Orleans), addressing a bombing, or a mass shooting such as occurred in Las Vegas and overseas when conditions call for a mass evacuation such as when Libya fell after Gadhafi.

Throughout the incident, maintaining timely and accurate communications is a must. A well-defined network of communications activity must be part of your over-arching crisis management plan. It must be understood from the individual hotel night manager to the CEO because properties are often located in multiple time zones and multiple states. The CEO and the crisis team should be as well prepared to address the crisis as the manager in the field.

Ideally, however, there should be one designated spokesperson throughout the episode with subject matter experts brought in to augment the briefing as needed. This person needs to be part of your crisis management team and must be privy to the latest problem-oriented information and policy decisions. It goes without saying that anyone who is designated to meet with the media should receive periodic media training to keep their communications skills sharp.

Unfortunately, it is in this area of Public Relations that crisis-focused problems and challenges are often exacerbated because the incident is often misrepresented by the media. Remember, if you don't provide your side of the story in a timely and accurate fashion, the media will usually run with their version of the facts.

Educate Your Team to Be Watchful and Safe

Today's hotel GM faces even more challenges than in the past. With a workforce that is constantly in flux, he or she doesn't always have the luxury of thinking about the things that could happen vs. the issues happening in the here and now.

I was once told a story about a lodging company that was working through a two-day strategic planning session. Many issues were on the table, not the least of them were the impact of new competition and pricing and cost concerns which were being exacerbated by wage costs.

As with any good strategy session, there was a great deal of debate and discussion. The economy was beginning to slow and the various contingency plans were not appealing. Concerns for brands and customer service integrity had been the topic in the past as well as during lunch on the final day.

By late afternoon, the topics of security, safety and crisis management and the need to strengthen security procedures were raised. A number of the participant-all vice presidents-started arguing and asking why they were spending time on this subject. The meeting ended with no closure on security and safety-both of which were tabled until the next planning meeting. Two weeks later, it was September 11, 2001 and all priorities changed.

I was astounded to be asked by a well-known manufacturing company if I had some suggestions to help them avoid a problem they had experienced in Indonesia. Their factory was in turmoil and the associates were threatening to take over the plant. Their local manager did not have a plan. He ultimately went to a nearby military base and paid the Commanding Officer a significant bribe to secure the factory and throw the employees out.

The number of mistakes made were significant on so many levels. And now, they were also facing charges of Foreign Corrupt Practices. However, my first question was to ask if the local manager had consulted their crisis management plan in any fashion. Their response was "we don't have a crisis management plan or team at any level. We didn't think we needed one."

It seems always to be the case that we don't plan for a crisis until the crisis happens. The examples in our industry are numerous: bed bugs, TV exposes of room cleanliness, Legionnaires disease, bombings, fires, rape and kidnappings, child sex trafficking. You don't need to be in a geo-political hot spot to have a crisis. But, you need to be prepared.

Leadership often comes from discussion and demonstration. Besides training to respond for crisis situations, your team needs to know that you are serious about safety and security. This comes from your demonstrating your commitment during regular staff meetings, asking during your visits to the departments if individuals understand your crisis procedures and enabling your staff to see you personally checking on various security procedures-just as you would conduct a kitchen food safety inspection. That crisis manual? Don't let it sit in your bookcase gathering dust.

You hope you will never have to face the modern-day public challenges we've touched on here. However, the opportunities for you to do so are boundless and more prevalent than you can imagine. If your guests and clients aren't aware of any crises your enterprise may have faced recently behind the scenes, then you and your team have been successful. Congratulations! 

Mr. Fuller Ed Fuller is a hospitality industry leader, educator, and author of the international Top 20 bestselling business book, You Can't Lead with Your Feet on the Desk, published by Wiley. He is president of the Irvine, California-based Laguna Strategic Advisors, a global consortium that provides business consulting services to corporations and governments. Mr. Fuller is a director of the Federal Bureau of Investigators National Academy Associates Foundation (FBINAA). He has served as a Board Executive of several Charity Boards and Three University Boards. Mr. Fuller's 40-year career with Marriott included serving as CMO and several regional operational positions which was capped by his role as president and managing director of Marriott International for 22 years. His results included the creation of 80,000 new jobs worldwide, the formation and operation of 555 hotels in 73 countries, $8 billion in annual sales, and the implementation of multiple environmental, philanthropic and educational initiatives. Mr. Fuller served as a Captain in the U.S. Army and was awarded the Bronze Star and Army Commendation Medal for service during missions in Vietnam and Germany. His new international spy thriller, RED HOTEL, will be in bookstores nationwide on March 19, 2019. Ed Fuller can be contacted at 949-333-1380 or ed.fuller@lagunastrategicadvisors.com Extended Biography

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