Time to Reflect
Of all Donahue’s lessons learned in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, several stand out in his memory.
The first one dealt with the flow of information. Given its central location, the hotel became a kind of command center for first responders and law enforcement, including the FBI and Secret Service. As a result, they heard updates as the situation evolved, he says.
“There was a lot of misinformation out there, especially in the first few days,” says Donahue, an industry veteran who has been at The Lenox for seven years. “You don’t want to say ‘no comment’ to the media, but you also don’t want to speculate or unintentionally spread information that’s inaccurate or incomplete.”
With proper identification, employees had been allowed back into the building the day after the lockdown began. Similarly, displaced guests could return the following day to pick up their possessions.
During the nine-day lockdown, Donahue and his team focused on seeing to the first responders and government agents in addition to making sure displaced guests found other accommodations. Incoming guests had to be notified the hotel was closed, and at the same time, the team had to focus on getting the hotel ready to reopen.
“We needed to be mindful the story wasn’t about us, and we didn’t want to make it seem like it was,” he says. “We understood we were part of the story, though in the background. The first responders and government officials were critical to the city’s recovery. They were the experts on national security and domestic terrorism. You want to speak about what you know, which in our case is hotel operations. Leave the larger questions to the appropriate authorities.”
The second lesson learned also related to communications, namely, the ubiquity of social media.
“You know Facebook and Twitter are widely used, but I was still surprised at the true extent,” Donahue says. “In a way, they were our lifeline during the lockdown and afterward.”
Smith came away with the same impression following the Best Western’s experience in Texas.
“The speed with which social media takes off in an emergency is really rapid, especially when a whole town is affected,” he says. “It’s an important takeaway for everyone in communications.”
Donahue recommends naming one tech-savvy employee to handle all the hotel’s social media outlets and be accountable to the property’s senior executive. The brands need to monitor social media in these situations as well since messages are likely to show up on the brand’s own pages.
Remember, with social media’s prevalence, staff members also likely have their own Facebook and Twitter accounts. “Suggest they want to exercise restraint and keep consistency of message in mind when sending out their own updates,” he says.
“Their personal experience of the situation is certainly valid, but they may not know the whole story,” adds Christine DaSilva, vice president of marketing communications for Wyndham Hotel Group.
Donahue’s third lesson learned could be summed up as “your competitors are also your friends.”
While local hotels outside the evacuation zone could have seen the situation as an opportunity to grab market share, the opposite proved true.
“They helped any way they could, including contributing food in those first days to feed the first responders and then accommodating displaced guests,” he says.
Hoteliers are very good at that. It cuts to the heart of what hospitality’s about, Donahue says. “They were mostly fully booked themselves, but they were gracious about rates. ‘No problem, we’ll take them.’ We heard that over and over again.”
From the vantage point of a year since the bombing, Donahue admits gearing up for all crisis situations can be tricky. “There are so many initiatives you can take, so many manuals you can read. But at the end of the day, you have to be prepared to not be prepared and that’s OK,” he says. “Understand that if you make a mistake, you just have to admit it and be ready to take on whatever challenge comes next as the situation unfolds. You do the best you can.”
Boston will mark the first anniversary this month with somber speeches, moments of reflection—and the running of the 118th marathon. Donahue will attend those ceremonies, but he happily notes for The Lenox it’s back to the “business of being a hotel.”