WHEN DISASTER strikes, the adage “every man for himself” goes out the window. People have a tendency to work together when things look bleak, and the reaction to Hurricane Charley demonstrates once again that the hospitality industry is no exception.
In the face of a catastrophe, be it September 11, 2001, or Hurricane Charley in August 2004, the hospitality industry's “competitive nature just kind of goes away,” says Mark Vaughan, director of marketing for the Marco Island Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa on Marco Island, Fla.
The destructive nature of the August 13 hurricane hit Southwest Florida resorts and hotels hard, particularly on Sanibel and Captiva islands and around Fort Myers. While some resorts reopened quickly, others remained closed as of this writing in late August, and hoteliers and meeting planners were scrambling to make alternative arrangements for groups suddenly left without venues.
The Sanibel Harbor Resort in Fort Myers avoided major damage but was still forced to shut down and will remain closed until fall. Barry Brown, the resort's director of marketing, says the resort has been working with booked groups to either postpone or relocate meetings to other hotels.
“We really strategize with the meeting planner about facilities that meet their needs,” Brown says. “We try to stay local with it and work with the receiving hotel to bridge any gaps between the meeting planner and the new hotel.”
The Marco Island Marriott has been the recipient of at least one group moving its meeting. Vaughan says cooperation between hotels is the rule during a time like this. The ability to accommodate emergency changes “makes them [the hotel that originally booked the group] look good, and makes us look good,” Vaughan says.
One of the hardest-hit facilities was the South Seas Resort on Captiva Island. Paul Whetsell, CEO of MeriStar Hospitalitys Corp., which owns the resort, says the objective is to get it completely up and running by the beginning of December. In the meantime, the resort is working with planners to help relocate meetings either to other MeriStar properties in Florida, or if necessary, to competing properties.
Other parts of Florida and the East Coast suffered damage from Charley as well. Walt Disney World in Orlando felt the storm's impact as groups on Disney premises had to hunker down inside ballrooms and guest rooms as the storm passed. An 800-member group from a well-known financial services firm was scheduled to leave Disney's Grand Floridian Resort the day the hurricane struck. Only 100 were able to make flights home: Some who decided to take their chances at the airport were retrieved by Disney-supplied transportation when their flights were canceled. All told, 750 members of the group ended up staying at the Grand Floridian at least one extra night.