When Dan Donahue, vice president and managing director of The Lenox Hotel in Boston, left for work last April 15, a crisis was the furthest thing from his mind. In fact, he was looking forward to the running of the 117th Boston Marathon, one of the city’s signature events, that day. The race took runners through the hotel’s Back Bay neighborhood and right by the historic property.
By nightfall, Donahue and the city were reeling from the pair of terrorist bombs that exploded close to the hotel on the marathon route, killing three and injuring more than 260.
“When the bombs went off, one on either side of us, the building was quickly evacuated,” Donahue says. “We didn’t have time—nor were we allowed—to communicate with the guests in-house. Guests were just told to leave the area. Time has a way of playing tricks on you in a situation like that. Within 15 minutes of the bombing, or possibly even less, they had left and the building went into lockdown.”
In those hours and in the days and weeks that followed, Donahue and his staff got an upfront-and-personal experience in crisis management that no one could have expected or really prepared for. But they also took away a number of lessons learned, best practices that still reverberate a year later.
A property experiences multiple benefits when the management team effectively handles a crisis. Guests come away knowing they’ve been well looked after, staff members take pride that their employer “did the right thing,” and the community and the media feel they received only timely and accurate information. Plus—and not insignificantly—the property emerges with its reputation intact and possibly even enhanced.
Reputation at Stake
For hotels, crisis management covers a range of situations and circumstances. Some like the Boston Marathon bombing occur outside the hotel, though they have a significant impact on the property’s operations. They’re also serious enough to attract national, or even international, headlines.
Hotels are 24/7 operations, which means that people—guests and non-guests—come and go at all hours, security notwithstanding. People fall ill in their rooms, accidents occur, crimes are committed. The vast majority of times guest-rooms are used for their intended purpose. Once in a while, however, they’re used for other (disreputable and possibly illegal) reasons.
“In each case, though to varying degrees, the reputation of the hotel is at stake and can take time to recover,” says Craig Smith, managing director of corporate communications for Best Western International, who oversees Best Western’s crisis management efforts as part of his job. “In most cases, media coverage of the situation doesn’t go beyond the local community. But when it does, it adds another element to the recovery.”
Situations where the hotel can position itself as community-minded are much easier to manage, Smith says. He recalled how one of his brand’s hotels, the Best Western Czech Inn in Gladewater, Texas, opened its doors to displaced local residents when a nearby fertilizer plant exploded a year ago, causing tremendous damage and loss of life.
“Cots were set up in the lobby. The usual model of two guests to a room went away, given the significant need for shelter,” he says. “It’s a great way for a hotel to show support for a neighborhood.”
By contrast, when it’s carbon monoxide poisoning or an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease on-property, the hotel can face a serious blow to its business, not to mention its reputation, Smith says. “These are tragic accidents that shouldn’t have happened. Many could have been prevented. Consequently, they really catch the media’s attention. We advise our hotels to release an initial statement and then communicate again as more information becomes available. People are awaiting updates.”