Lessons Learned in Disaster Resilience and Response from Wellington New Zealand Hotels
Final installment in a four part series exploring disaster resilience in the hotel sector
By Nancy Brown PhD Emergency Management, Joint Centre for Disaster Research | November 10, 2019
In November 2016, New Zealand's South Island experienced a 7.8 Mw earthquake. The earthquake occurred at two minutes after midnight 37 miles from a small tourist destination, Kaikõura. The shaking was felt across a large geographic area and included the capital city of New Zealand, Wellington. Wellington is at the southern end of the North Island, 160 miles from the earthquake epicenter.
The first three articles in this series defined resilience in the hotel context and outlined a framework describing predictors of resilience for hotels and using that information develop an understanding of the resilience factors for hotels in two New Zealand tourist destinations. This article will build on that information, in the context of the aftermath of this earthquake event. This is an executive summary of a research article by Brown, Feldmann-Jensen, et al which is currently under review with the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction.
The midnight presentation of the earthquake creates a number of unique challenges. As is standard industry practice, the night auditor and few support staff were present at the properties when the shaking started. Guests were all tucked in for the night and in most cases awakened by the shaking. This article describes some of the experiences of three different hotel properties in Wellington. A series of interviews with both management and hourly staff in a variety of departments across the properties provides an opportunity to learn from those experiences and ground truth some important lessons in organizational resilience.
The earthquake, while not centered in Wellington area, was severe enough to require the cordoning off of many parts of the downtown area. The city also asked that residents and visitors stay off the central city streets following the earthquake to allow time to inspect building structures and exteriors for safety. This request left visitors confined to their hotels for a full day while inspections were made. The damage ultimately included a large block of apartments, shops, restaurants, and theaters that were adjacent to a parking structure so all people and businesses had to be cordoned and evacuated for a number of months.
The Capital Perspective of Resilience
Article two in this series described the DRFH (Disaster Resilience Framework for Hotels) predictors of hotel resilience. These predictors consider capital-based components of organizations, which include economic, social, human, physical, natural, and cultural capital. The following is information from the earthquake broken into these same categories.
Many hotels had guest who extended their stays, as their onward location was the South Island and they were unable to travel south in the few days following the earthquake. The coastal road in and out of Kaikõura was damaged, making land-based travel impossible. Images of Kaikõura visitors (1200) being airlifted and transported by boat from the area were present on all media leaving many guests with less desire to travel south. Guests who were expect to check in were also delayed and, in general, reservations were in fluctuation for the properties. Guest information was not always useful so contacting future guests was a challenge.
Some guest reported feeling taken advantage of when their extra night's stay was more money. Other guests took exception to the prices of limited menu items offered when they could not leave the property. In some cases, complementary snacks and beverages were offered to guests for the full day following the earthquake, guest received this overture with high praise.
In Kaikõura, tourism became unstainable while the roads were closed, but many motel and holiday park properties were kept busy with response and construction crews. One hotel in the Kaikõura did have to close for repairs. The roadwork took twelve months to complete.
The networks of people within an organization are a valuable resource in an emergency. This was particularly true in the hours after the Kaikõura earthquake. Lean staff numbers were quickly overwhelmed with queries from guests who had be startled awake by shaking. Guests from areas where earthquakes are not local hazards were particularly concerned about building structure and personal safety. Many guests gathered in lobby areas to wait for further information. Others wanted to wait outside the building, feeling outside may be safer.
The study's hotels all had ad hoc staff pitch in. In some cases staff got out of bed and came to work. In other cases staff getting ready to head home for the night volunteered to stay on. With just a few ad hoc staff the hotels in the study were able to provide information and service to guests. The team culture at these properties paid off; staff who inserted themselves into the crew that night all said they could not imagine any other choice than to pitch in with their team.
Most staff did not have prior training for earthquakes, but had fire drill training they were drawing from, and personal earthquake experience. All interviewed had experienced an earthquake before, although most had not felt one quite that strong. The staff improvised choices that prioritized guest safety and service. Comments made in Trip Advisor regarding the event were complementary of staff performance and their ability to provide blankets, beverages, and information.
Staff found guests wanted all the information they could get and updating those in the lobby and those calling down was time consuming. However, as a best practice, providing information in at least 30 minute increments satisfies the bulk of guest inquiry and some locations used a whiteboard messaging system in the lobby. One hotel has since developed a set of generic talking points for staff that can be customized to fit different scenarios. This provides any staff with an opportunity to articulate a well-crafted message to guests.
In the days following the earthquake new guest to the hotel were handed, at check in, a one page information sheet about what to do in an earthquake and the hotel's building safety statistics. This was popular with guests and helped them understand what to expect and what to do should there be an aftershock (there was, of course, many).
All the hotels in the study met the current building code, none were listed as earthquake prone. Some had recently undergone retrofitting. Staff were able to confidently provide guest with assurance as to the buildings safety. Many guests, while reassured, still chose to stay in the lobby with others for many hours following the earthquake. Elevators required building inspections before they resumed operations, which was challenging for some properties.
The cities buildings all remained standing, however many, upon inspection, were found to be unsafe, were evacuated, and eventually dismantled. The process of determining infrastructure stability is arduous and guests who were asked to stay inside during the day following the earthquake were completely dependent on the hotel for news and comfort.
Understanding a locations relationship to natural hazards is important, as is providing awareness and training to staff regarding those risks and the best protective actions to take in different circumstances. Wellington is in an earthquake risk area, as well as tsunami risk. Based on a properties location, allowing guests to evacuate to the street may not have been optimal, in case the earthquake created a tsunami. Hotels in this area did not commonly train for tsunami actions, nor did they have a plan for how to move staff and guests should a tsunami be threatened.
The Kaikõura earthquake did not occur in the ocean, but at the time of the shaking no one in Wellington had information about where the earthquake was and standard practice is - if an earthquake is strong, assume there is a risk of tsunami. Understanding all of a locations risks, and training staff to react, based on that information, is an important lesson.
Having staff with experience in earthquakes was a great value for hotels. Staff members knew what to expect (including aftershocks) and could provide solid assurance to guests who were first time earthquake experiencers. Many of the staff had experienced directly, or indirectly, the Christchurch earthquake sequence in 2010/2011, which decimated the downtown corridor of Christchurch New Zealand. That experience allowed them to understand aftershocks were normal, and that their properties were performing as expected in a shake. Only a very few guests checked out early to leave the area.
Investigating Your Organization's Resilience
How would your organization preform if a major disruptive event occurred at midnight? Does your staff have the tools they need to maintain at least minimum service levels? Here are some important points to consider.
- In advance of a disruptive event consider pricing protocols for rooms, food, and beverage. This is a public relations opportunity to do the right thing and get recognition for understanding not everything can be about maximizing profit. The right choices here will pay off in the end.
- Do you promote your team's relationships with each other? People can make a big difference and team members who voluntarily show up to support each other are an incredible asset. Consider offering opportunities for staff to socialize and develop meaningful relationships (this has many other co-benefits).
- Is your property ready to withstand the effects of whatever risks are present in your area? If not, what steps need to be taken to ensure your operational capacity can be maintained. This may be part of a long-term plan - but start the process now.
- Have members of each of your shifts been fully exposed to your property's plans and protocols in case of emergency? The Kaikõura earthquake occurred at the least staffed time of day. In Wellington the staff knew what to do and how to keep guests secure.
- Do you have local staff who understand local conditions, and are they present on all shifts? In the moments following any disruptive event the way staff understand what is happening and their confidence to communicate with guests in critical. Take advantage of local expertise.
Resilience is an ongoing process. This four article series has defined, described and provided examples of components of resilience. The information gives property managers an industry specific view of resilience and multiple starting points to build their hotel's capacity to respond to disasters. Many properties have experienced severe conditions over the last few years; others have been lucky and have not developed firsthand experience.
While science is working to provide better information and increased alerts of impending disruptions, it is unclear if business owners are also working to be better able to respond and recover. In the most disruptive situations it can be many days before official assistance and information is available. Those days between the event and assistance fall to the hotel properties staff to be ready to assist each other and guests.
This includes safety first, but also organizational reputational factors that can remain part of the properties profile long after the current disaster has past. Leaders of hotel properties need to allocate time and resources to disaster resilience building. The ability to understand risks, and how to respond, will be priceless in the coming years.
- Brown, N. A. (2019). Why Disaster Resilience is Important to Your Hotel Organization. Hotel Business Review
- Brown, N. A. (2019). Building Disaster Resilience: A multi-prong approach. Hotel Business Review
- Brown, N. A., Feldmann-Jensen, S., Rovins, J. E., Orchiston, C., & Johnston, D. (2019). Exploring disaster resilience within the hotel sector: A case study of Wellington and Hawke's Bay New Zealand. Under Review, International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 1-32.
- Brown, N. A., Orchiston, C., Rovins, J. E., Feldmann-Jensen, S., & Johnston, D. (2018). An integrative framework for investigating disaster resilience within the hotel sector. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, 36, 67-75.
- Stevenson, J. R., Becker, J., Cradock-Henery, N., Johal, S., Johnston, D., Orchiston, C., & Seville, E. (2017). Economic and social reconnaissance: Kaikoura earthquake 2016. Bulletin of the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering, 50(2), 343-351.
- Wellington City Council. (2013). Wellington City Council guide to earthquake prone buildings.
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