Only days after Sandy paralyzed the northeast and left Staten Island in shambles, a young couple found an oasis of happiness at a Hilton Garden Inn ballroom in Bloomfield, an industrial neighborhood on the northwest coast of the borough, as they celebrated their wedding on Nov. 2. The bride’s parents had just lost their Queens home—all guests were affected by the storm in some capacity—but everyone pushed their worries aside to embrace the joyful occasion. “There was a little bit of a dichotomy,” says Richard Nicotra, owner of the 198-room Hilton Garden Inn New York/Staten Island and neighboring 170-room Hampton Inn & Suites. “But that was a good thing our staff had done.”
In the same ballroom, on the other side of an airwall, dozens of Red Cross volunteers lay in cots to rest up before another long day of relief efforts. Outside the hotel, along the Staten Island shoreline, the scale of damage was severe. Flood waters and high winds destroyed homes, downed power lines, uprooted trees, and scattered debris. Of New York City’s approximately 40 fatalities from Sandy, at least 20 occurred in Staten Island.
More than 375,000 residents in the low-lying areas of New York’s five boroughs were ordered to evacuate due to the storm. The city’s hotels quickly filled up with stranded tourists, displaced New Yorkers, first responders, Red Cross volunteers, desperate commuters, and utility workers who were deployed to the region to help restore power to hundreds of thousands. Some refugees even turned to hotels that had limited or no power, just so they had a place to sleep.
“In an area with already extremely high demand, you put this on top of that and literally, as hotels got cleaned up and repaired, they were opening the doors to any and all comers,” says Best Western Vice President of Member Services Michael Morton, who is part of the brand’s emergency response team.
To add to the chaos, participants in the New York City Marathon, which draws 50,000 runners from all over the world, started showing up in hotel lobbies looking for rooms. Mayor Bloomberg initially announced that the race would go on as scheduled that weekend but then, bowing to public pressure, reversed course days later. Once Nicotra realized the severity of the hurricane’s impact, he called the New York Road Runners association and said he would not honor their reservations. He couldn’t imagine kicking hurricane refugees to the curb to make room for marathoners.
“By Wednesday, we realized the storm was worse than we thought and these people had no place to go,” Nicotra says. “Many of their homes were destroyed, and the ones who still had houses didn’t have electricity or heat.”
The decision to call off the marathon caused revenue management headaches for properties as runners canceled their hotel rooms while other travelers scrambled to extend their stays. The TRYP hotel in Midtown Manhattan had 40 to 50 rooms a night booked for the marathon, the majority of which were canceled, so the staff had to find other methods of filling the hotel. “We looked to the OTAs and organizations such as FEMA and gave them more inventory to offer to customers,” says General Manager Frank Nicholas.
A FEMA program allows survivors in shelters who can’t return to their homes due to hurricane damage to stay in participating hotels. The TRYP hotel made 10 percent of its inventory available to FEMA and it housed many survivors in spacious family rooms for up to eight people.
Hotels in flood-prone areas, such as the Ritz-Carlton Battery Park, W New York Downtown, and Conrad New York, were forced to evacuate and relocate their guests. Le Parker Meridien evacuated when strong winds damaged a 150-foot crane boom on a high-rise construction site, causing it to dangle over West 57th Street.
Nicholas said he knew of about 18 to 20 hotels in the city that had to shut down, limiting supply and increasing demand. Guests who extended their stays often didn’t know what day they would be checking out, amid confusion over canceled flights, halted train service, and other public transit complications. It was a balancing act, but Nicholas says TRYP ran at 95 percent occupancy for the entire week.
“We were trying to maximize the hotel but at the same time we didn’t want to displace any of our customers,” Nicholas said. “It was a dice game that we just kept throwing against the wall to see what the numbers were as the day went through.”
A week after the hurricane hit, Nicotra’s two hotels were still completely booked, and there was a waiting list. Con Edison utility workers shared rooms in shifts. He even turned one of his office buildings into a temporary shelter with cots and air mattresses. “For the people we can help, we’ve made life a little bit easier,” Nicotra says.
Taking a proactive approach to disaster preparedness mitigates the interruption of normal business operations. Morton says Best Western tracked the storm in advance and determined it would affect about 175 of its hotels along the coast. Roughly 25 of these hotels experienced some form of business disruption, Morton says, and the emergency response team reached out to customers to help them rebook or cancel their reservations. When cancellations were made, Best Western reopened the inventory to meet demand.
At the TRYP, about 20 employees arrived the day before the hurricane so guest services would not be disrupted. The property also loaded up on food and drinks ahead of time to avoid delivery issues once the bridges and tunnels closed. “If we didn’t do that,” Nicholas said, “people would have been eating Saltine crackers and drinking a lot of liquor.”