Even hotels who promise to "leave the light on for you" were unable to live up to their marketing slogans last week when the power went out in much of the Northeastern U.S. and parts of Canada. While there have been some reports in the general media of guests getting some harsh treatment from hotels, the stories we heard here at MeetingsNet told a different tale.

Despite an Associated Press report about malfunctioning keycards that forced New York City’s Marriott Marquis’ guests out onto the street, Kathleen Duffy, director of public relations with Marriott’s New York City division, says that’s not what happened. "When the power went off after 4 p.m. on Thursday, the emergency generator kicked in right away and powered limited use of elevators, limited lighting, and the fire safety system. At 7:30 p.m., we had a malfunction with the generator—which is tested weekly and had been fine until then--and it went out altogether. That meant no lights, no fire safety system. So we made the uncomfortable decision to evacuate the entire building. We couldn’t let guests stay when we couldn’t ensure their safety on higher floors," she explains. Because there were no phones or radios, the hotel sent teams of staff members to go door to door to notify guests of the evacuation plan.

But guests were by no means kicked to the curb. The hotel accommodated as many guests as possible on the first couple of floors, and the rest spent the night outside in the drive-through area. "Most of the guests were great about it," she says. "Even groups of little old ladies were saying, ‘My husband will never believe we’re sleeping in Times Square.’"

According to Duffy, the hotel provided cold fruit, bottled water, granola bars, blankets, and sheets to the displaced guests, who were not charged for Thursday or Friday. Staff members with flashlights were stationed at the top and bottom of the escalators leading to the public restrooms to light the way. The hotel also sent its younger, more fleet-footed staff up to guestrooms to retrieve medication and other necessary items. "One summer intern went up to the 45th floor three or four times that night," says Duffy.

As for the trade show that was in-house at the time, Duffy says that it was just finishing up for the day went the power went down. While they were unable to continue their show on Friday as planned because the power didn’t come back on until noon, they were able to hold the final day on Saturday.

Live from New York
Louis Kievit, director of sales and marketing, Grand Hyatt, New York, is thankful that his hotel had a backup plan—and a backup emergency generator to power its critical computer systems, freight elevator, and refrigeration systems. "The kitchen prepared wraps and sandwiches, and accumulated bottled water, sodas, and beer. We set up two concessions in the lobby, and they stayed very busy Thursday night and into Friday," he says. Guests could either walk up to their rooms via the fire stairs, or take the freight elevator, accompanied by a staff member. While it was hot upstairs, the hotel’s windows open, so guests could get some cooling breezes, and cold water was available for showers.

One financial services company was holding a training meeting in the hotel at the time, and, because they were in the hotel’s new conference area that has windows, they were able to go on with their role-playing and other training activities, though they did wind things up earlier than originally planned, says Kievit.

"We locked down the building just after it happened, to provide as secure an environment as possible for guests," he says. The added security was posted through Friday afternoon, when the power came back.

The Brooklyn Marriott, which was at 100 percent occupancy last Thursday, took a different tack and went good Samaritan instead, giving shelter to 300 additional people, according to Marriott spokesperson Dasha Ross. "They were full, but they still were able to accommodate some more people," says Lillian O’Connor, CMP, president of Custom Meetings International, Staten Island, N.Y., who was holding a meeting at the Brooklyn Marriott at the time. "We were one hour into our event—a job fair for 3,000 N.Y.C. teachers. No one left, and we proceeded as planned with no air conditioning and with emergency lights," she says. "While the emergency lights were dim, you could see (like in a romantic candlelit restaurant.) It was an experience we will never forget, but all things considered, our event went off very well."

Another event that went off well, if not quite as planned, was going on at the Hyatt Regency Dearborn in Michigan. According to a spokesperson at the Greater Detroit CVB, the group ended up renting a motorcoach and moving its meeting to Grand Rapids, where the power was still on.

"We were very happy with the plans we had and the actions that we took, and we were very appreciative of the patience and sense of humor of the guests who were with us," says Grand Hyatt’s Kievit. Even though the hotel was only staffed up for the 60 percent occupancy it was expecting and ended up full, "It’s not like we had people running linens and room service, so everything worked out well." How well? It turns out that guests from a financial services company who were there during the blackout gave such glowing reports on how the hotel handled the situation that the vice president of global travel for that company asked to set up a negotiated rate for doing corporate business with the hotel.

Lingering Effects
For some, the ordeal’s not quite over yet. Overload on the grid is still an issue in some areas, such as Toronto. That’s why the Fairmont Royal York was still operating on generator power today. "It’ll run for a very long time, as long as we keep it stocked with diesel," says Melanie Coates, a spokesperson for the hotel. The hotel also is communicating with its meeting attendees and other guests about its energy conservation programs, such as a linen reuse program. "It’s totally up to the guests to participate or not," she says, adding that in-house groups have no objections to dimmed corridor lights and other conservation methods still in effect, as long as the reasons behind the measures have been communicated clearly.

"Fear comes from a lack of information," says Coates. "Our first concern when the blackout occurred was to communicate what’s going on to our existing guests, and to guests checking in that day, and to do it fast. We’re working very closely with the group that’s in-house now to ensure that the message about our conservation measures are communicated to the delegates." That dedication to communicating paid off last week as well, when hotel staffers explained to a group why an evening reception switched to a cold buffet because it would use about a third of the energy a hot one would have.

"There’s very much a sense that we’re all in this together," she adds. "It almost felt like we went back to 1929 when we first opened, with people gathered around the battery-powered radios in the lobby. Some guests took it on themselves to be the entertainment for the evening on Thursday and played the grand piano in the lobby. The response we got from local, out-of-town, and international delegates has all been that we can work together to make it happen," Coates says.

"The electricity may have gone out, but there was a human energy that kept this place going."