Alex Zozaya is CEO of Apple Leisure Group, and he experienced two devastating earthquakes in Mexico City – one in 1985, and the recent, 7.1-magnitude quake in September. Here’s what he’s learned on preparing for – and recovering from – disasters, including the hurricanes that have ravaged parts of the U.S. and Caribbean.
Recent events might lead us to believe that natural disasters are on the rise, and that on a local, national and global level, we should re-evaluate our approach to preparing for potential threats and their impacts. While hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires have dominated the news across the Caribbean, Mexico and the U.S., disasters – whether born of nature, political events or economic upheaval – have always been a key operating concern for the hospitality industry.
Perhaps more than any other business sector, travel and tourism is particularly vulnerable to moments of crisis, and so to succeed and thrive we must be particularly ready to act. The idea of re-evaluating and improving contingency plans is not a new concept, but instead a basic requirement for resiliency.
What does it mean to be resilient in the face of a disaster? For resort and hotel owners and operators, it means ensuring the absolute safety of guests and employees, as well as the long-term viability of your physical property. But it also means working year-round to position every aspect of your business so that you can resume normal operations as quickly as possible, and prosper in the aftermath. It means creating opportunities even under the most difficult circumstances – for the good of the balance sheet, and for the good of your employees and the communities where you function.
My experience with natural disasters began decades ago, and it has fueled a lasting commitment to preparation and recovery planning. It has also provided insight into the fact that rebuilding in the wake of a crisis must be a shared effort.
I was in Mexico City on September 19, 1985, when one of the most devastating earthquakes struck. Along with so many others, I lost my home but survived to see my great city recover. Exactly 32 years later, I was in Mexico City again when history repeated itself. Despite the tragedy and loss, it is clear that preparation helped in the most recent earthquake, including stronger building codes and evacuation drills like the one conducted on the very day of the earthquake. But it is also clear that preparation and planning must continue to improve.
For hotel and resort owners and operators in the Caribbean, across Mexico and in the coastal U.S., the 2017 hurricane season has provided similar insight about the role of preparation and the need for continual improvement in and relentless attention to recovery planning. Hurricanes Irma and Maria also reinforced the idea that disasters are not limited to specific properties but shared across entire regions.
Consider that there are 30 Caribbean nations, but only seven were severely affected by the recent storms. Then consider the widespread misperception among travelers that every island is damaged and shuttered, and you can understand how tourism and hotel occupancy across the region may continue to be impacted. The same narrative applies to the Florida Keys, where much of the area is open for business, but the perception remains otherwise.
Rescue workers dig in the rubble of a Mexico City building in September. (Getty Images)
What we can learn
What, then, can we learn from the recent months of turbulence? Here are several areas for consideration:
Make year-round planning, training and testing a priority. It may seem like an obvious part of operating your hotel or resort, but for many owners, contingency planning is not given the priority it demands. While every property has a disaster preparation and recovery plan, some are formulaic, untested and only infrequently updated. Specific preparation and recovery steps should be tailored to the needs of each property and should account for the availability of local resources, infrastructure considerations, transportation challenges and of course the different potential forms of crisis that could occur.
Plans must also be dynamic, which means that they should be regularly revisited and revised by an experienced emergency management team. Staff across the property should be regularly trained and drilled so that they are experts in their roles and responsibilities. The more experienced, trained and coordinated your team is, the faster your recovery will occur.
Focus on communication. This year’s events have made clear the value of good communication, in all of its forms. Resort and hotel owners know, for instance, that consistent outreach to guests and employees prior to an approaching storm helps to ensure safety, while streamlining any necessary evacuations. After an event, information-rich communications are equally essential – with guests, employees and local government and community leaders.
Support your entire region and all local communities. Regional recovery is in many ways as important as getting your individual property or properties up and running. Getting local transportation back up to speed is essential for the community, but also for your future visitors; helping local tour operators, merchants and others is critical for area residents, but also for the bottom line. Supporting broad relief efforts and communicating with other business leaders to urge their support will help speed the overall recovery process, and communicating this progress will encourage visitors to return.
Today, the vast majority of businesses in the Caribbean are open for business, but the message has to be delivered loudly, from all. To this extent, recovery needs to be a shared cause across an entire region, and it must include an aggressive communications effort.
Remember your employees. While your employees were most likely properly trained for a natural disaster, remember that in times of crisis, your staff may put the needs of your guests before their own. Your employees are a key part of the solution in the height of a catastrophe and afterward, so it is important to do everything possible to support them in return. This support includes, if possible, allowing staff members and their families to shelter on property, and keeping employees on payroll even if your property must be closed for a period of time after an event. With the right planning, you can determine exactly how each employee can assist in the recovery effort while remaining on payroll – and that means your hotel or resort will be open faster and in the best possible condition.
Create opportunity everywhere. Across industries, the most successful businesses find opportunities for growth and change even in the most challenging times. In moments of crisis, new ideas are born, new strategies embraced and new potential seized. In the midst of the destruction of the 1985 earthquake, for instance, I determined to start anew and began to build my career in the hospitality industry, which eventually led to the founding of ALG subsidiary, AMResorts.
For many hotel owners, a devastating event leads to a re-evaluation of priorities and tactics. Some properties forced to close use the opportunity to renovate, improve physical structures to better weather future storms, or embrace new, more sustainable practices. Others may strike new alliances, re-brand, downsize or expand. Still others may see opportunity in re-opening as quickly as possible, ahead of the competition. The critical point is to recognize that opportunity can be created, everywhere