Crisis Management for the Pandemic and Beyond

By Anne Sweeney

If the COVID–19 pandemic can be likened to a war, then the hospitality industry can be considered one of its major casualties. We know the statistics all too well—unemployment, loss of revenue, the global disruption of the travel industry. Nevertheless, the tide is turning as properties and some regions reopen; new methods of sanitation and diagnosis are developed; and drug companies announce progress toward a vaccine. There is much more to do and great changes and challenges ahead. But as Sir Winston Churchill noted in 1942, after British troops routed General Rommel at the Second Battle of El Alamein, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” In continuing the fight, hoteliers will need to develop long-term crisis management plans that address new issues and old ones in a flexible, well-developed strategy designed to meet each property’s particular situation in the community and beyond.

While the hotel industry has taken a huge hit, it has also emerged as a leader in countering the virus and spearheading innovative and careful plans for recovery. Hotels have opened their doors to healthcare workers; added training programs for employees in health and safety procedures; adopted a more flexible stand on cancellation fees; and created programs offering discounts to first responders for future stays. We can take pride in the industry leaders who, early on, met with President Trump to carefully lay out the issues involved and to demand relief until the industry can begin to recover. They emphasized the impact on employees and  franchisees, mostly smaller, family-owned businesses.

Many hotel companies have revealed new sanitizing equipment and changed policies and processes. But there is a long way to go before many of these measures will take effect and we know how effective these weapons will be. Another pressing question: How can hotels afford this commitment in terms of added staff; expensive equipment; changes in F&B services; new legal requirements; and the need for enhanced security and enforcement of new restrictions?

The Dangers of Denial     
In these circumstances, it is easy to understand why many business, religious and government officials at first sought to downplay the threat and, in some cases, to proclaim it a hoax. While other countries have largely obeyed the quarantine regulations, the U.S. is faced with religious and political extremists who insist on holding services and demonstrating against restrictions armed with automatic weapons. As the need to quarantine and requirements that customers wear masks grow, so have attacks on employees, police and security personnel. These actions show how fear and frustration can lead to denial, anger and bad personal and business decisions with far-reaching and even fatal consequences.

Most crises and their aftermath, such as a fire, plane crash, damaging weather, school or workplace shooting, have a limited life span before media and public attention look elsewhere. Given how little is known about the virus, the tsunami of false information surrounding it and the politicization of the issue, the need for crisis management will be long term.

This process is called crisis management and damage control—not make the “bad thing” go away. Hoteliers who can face the realities of this crisis and deal with it effectively are the ones who will survive. Those who fall into denial, finger-pointing and rumor mongering will not. There is no magic bullet and the “bad thing” is not going anywhere soon.

Think Globally,  Act Locally
Every hotel, whether or not it is part of a major brand, needs a crisis plan that is geared to communicating the most current information on the virus and how it impacts the hotel’s operations. Even if your property is part of a major brand and you have good corporate support, the impact of the virus on local communities varies widely throughout the country. In some states, governors have failed to communicate adequately and while the reopening of businesses is welcome news to many, there are also those who will not feel comfortable traveling.

The key to an effective crisis plan is to provide reassurance to those potential guests, employees and the community, and to restore confidence. Mishandled situations may affect these goals. A hotel is a public place and your staff may have to cope with guests who have been in lockdown for weeks and are ready to let off some steam. Some may not want to wear a mask. Others will complain you are not doing enough or are being too rigid.

There is still time to create a basic crisis plan that will serve your business and stakeholders well in the coming days. A strategic plan can maximize the good will your company’s communications and community support have generated during the pandemic and will serve as a marketing tool as recovery progresses.

How we have managed so far and how we continue to manage this unprecedented situation will profoundly affect not only recovery but how we do business in the future. When restrictions are finally lifted, there will be a huge pent-up demand to be filled for dining out, entertainment, sports, travel and social gatherings. Hotels that have maintained a brand presence with their customers and communities will be in a better position to take advantage of this recovery.

Crisis Management for Today and Beyond
These steps can help you create or refine an effective crisis plan that can be used now and as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold. Develop a flexible plan, tailored to your property business and designed to protect your brand.

Define Your Audience: Make sure you are reaching all important stakeholders.

  • Customers and Clients: You spent years developing your customer base. To retain those clients you need to reach out to them, offering the latest updates, information and helpful suggestions for dealing with the crisis. This is also a good time to update your email database.
  • Ownership: Keep all owners apprised of actions planned. Schedule regular Zoom meetings to discuss issues.
  • Employees: Keep employees informed of their status in a timely fashion. Quickly provide information they may need for tax filing, unemployment compensation, food stamps, Medicaid or other programs. On reopening, brief all employees on new processes every day in English, Spanish and whatever second language is used in your area. Recognize employee contributions in your messaging.
  • Area Media: Advise area media of closures, delivery schedules, community support efforts, reopening of services and measures you are taking to improve sanitation. A current email list of area media contacts is essential to any crisis plan.
  • Public Officials: This includes local, state and congressional representatives and area police departments. Keep them apprised of your efforts and any need for assistance. And, be sure you are on their email lists for updates.
  • Community Organizations: This could include groups such as area chambers of commerce, merchants’ associations, professional groups you belong to and charities your company supports. This is also a good time to ask what you and your staff can do to help the community.

Tell It True, Tell It Fast, Tell It All:  This is the mantra of crisis management and it applies to every kind of situation, from a natural disaster to a plane crash or school shooting. If a situation arises from the crisis such as the death of an employee, crime, fire or accident, you must respond quickly and candidly with all information available. Stonewalling media, law enforcement and the public will make the crisis infinitely worse.

Create Useful, Interesting and Current Content: Content can cover what your hotel is doing to help in the community and can also put the spotlight on what local charities need, particularly food banks. Post links to news articles from reputable media outlets that provide useful and/or entertaining information. Trade publications are also a good source for content. If your property is part of a major brand, include links to the main website.

Show Empathy, Say Thanks: Showing empathy is a pillar of crisis management. We tend to be so enmeshed in our own efforts to cope, it’s easy to forget how seriously others may be impacted. Show concern for your employees, guests, owners, partners and the wider community. And show your appreciation every day to the people who are risking so much to help us through.

Obey the Law: Be fair to your customers and strictly enforce the wearing of masks and social distancing if this is required locally. Shopping today is very stressful and it is alarming to enter a store and see customers and employees without masks, even though a sign requiring them has been posted on the door.

Check Your Tech: The last thing you need in the midst of a crisis is a technical breakdown. Be sure you can easily access your brand’s corporate tech support. Independent operators should consider bringing in an expert to review the hotel’s IT and ensure that all is operating effectively and that data is secure.

Upgrade Your Social Media: Social media is a key tool here, but there are caveats. Irresponsible, inappropriate social media posts have given life to countless crises. Meet with whomever handles your social media page and set up some guidelines for the pandemic. Consider what kinds of posts will accomplish the following:

  • Provide useful, current information
  • Protect your brand
  • Maintain a positive attitude
  • Show empathy and concern for guests, employees and the community

Monitor your social media pages daily and respond quickly to questions and complaints.

Loose Lips Sink Ships: In times of crisis, there is an understandable urge to do or say something, anything to solve the problem. This can lead to statements and business decisions that are, at best, premature and, at worst, create a crisis within the crisis. Do not speculate, pass on rumors or make any political statement as a company. Don’t comment on the nature or status of the virus. Every hotel should have a single spokesperson to deal with any media inquiries and to liaise with local officials. Every employee must be told not to speak to the press or anyone else regarding the crisis.

A Learning Experience, A Moral Responsibility
How we respond to this unprecedented crisis will determine the future of our industry. We can take responsibility for our personal and professional behavior and learn how to better handle the challenges that lie ahead. We can forge new ways of doing business and learn how to better serve our colleagues, employees and communities. We can grow spiritually and find new expressions for our faith. We can find common ground.

Anne Sweeney is a communications consultant and writer based in South Brunswick, NJ. Her experience in crisis management was forged in the corporate communications department of Pan American World Airways, where she handled the airline’s media response to such issues as aircraft accidents, an airport bombing, fiscal crises, political issues, coups and evacuation flights rescuing Americans in war zones.

This is a contributed piece to Hotel Business, authored by an industry professional. The thoughts expressed are the perspective of the bylined individual.