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Hotels Gird Against Flu Pandemic

This year’s flu is taking down a lot of people and causing panic in some areas. Here’s how to battle the bug at your hotel.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Caryn Eve Murray
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For Ken Cusson, the best safeguard this season against influenza’s potentially devastating effect on his staff at the Newport Harbor Group has been an inoculation called preparedness.

With 15 restaurant properties in Rhode Island and Massachusetts – one of them hotel-based - flu season has alchemized the company’s daily operational practices into the kind of strong medicine that Cusson hopes will be a preventive dose more than anything else.

“We meet with our staff before every meal period so there is probably a 15- or 20-minute period meeting that reviews the issues of the day,” he said. “It is part of our operational practice, so included in that would be issues like this [flu season] that come up. A lot of it is more of a heightened awareness of daily work methods and compliance with existing food-handling regulations that will protect our guests and employees.”

In addition to having the most basic principles of hygiene underscored for them, workers are also drilled in what seems another common-sense practice: “If you are not feeling well, sneezing or coughing or have a fever, we are just sending people home and for the most part they are not even coming in,” Cusson said. “They know they are posing a risk to everyone around them.”

The result, he said, is that so far this season, Newport Harbor Group has had no frantic scramble to fill vacancies as a result of a flu outbreak.

Industry efforts such as Cusson’s to contain the flu before it spreads to staff and guests are nothing to sneeze at: Best practices, guidelines and even government regulations seem to have gone a long way in helping contain the spread, not just of illness but the panic that often accompanies it.

This year, however, “we haven’t seen much of that problem at hotels,” said Joe McInerney, president and chief executive officer of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. “And the hotels all have contingency plans. They bring in extra people to take care of things, people they have on their casual working list for things like room attendants, waiters, busboys.

“We do keep our members informed on what is going on out there and try to keep them prepared, not only on the health issues but on crisis control. They just need to make sure they have a crisis plan … in case something does happen.”

In the meantime, McInerney said, hotels can – and should – be pro-active: They can facilitate flu shots for staff on the premises and even encourage any worried guests, when they check in, to visit one of the community drugstores where shots are being made available.

AHLA directs members to its own website for emergency preparedness in managing potential influenza outbreaks, as well as to www.flu.gov. run by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, as well as websites for Ecolab, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

But there is still February and March to get through, says Michael Petrillose, dean of the Hospitality College at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.

“This [flu] seems to be the major event that occurs in businesses within the hospitality industry because of the high contact nature of jobs in the industry, close contact with customers and other employees,” said Petrillose. He said that typically, 111 million workdays are lost to the flu alone in the general business community – adding up to $10.4-billion a year in sick days and lost productivity.

“But there are things you can do,” he said – educating employees daily, as Cusson’s company does, or hosting flu vaccine clinics for staffers, as the AHLA suggests. Even providing hand-sanitizing stations by elevators and other common-contact areas, such as employee break rooms, is a useful tool that might already be in place in most properties – as is having a sneeze guard at the buffet table.

“We go back to the training many of us already have,” said Michael Sabitoni, chairman of the Center for Food & Beverage Management at Johnson & Wales’ Hospitality College. “That’s washing hands, hand-care guidelines, proper work attire and reporting illnesses. It is the policy of an organization when people are training … we have seen a surge in best practices or gold-standard practices, when one person is being hired they have to go over these policies: You cannot report to work ill, not just in wintertime but anytime. Employees have to sign off on this.”

The ultimate enforcement, also in place, is having at least one staffer available on each shift who is certified in sanitation by the nonprofit Conference for Food Protection or their state’s health board.

Along with sanitation, however, comes smart management in the face of crisis.

“At this time of year, especially during flu season, we often look at creative ways of scheduling,” Sabitoni said. “We know people can call in ill throughout the year but at this time of year we look at staffing needs and see if there are employees we can have on call. We can schedule swing shifts, bring someone in mid-morning to mid-afternoon and possibly extend that person’s hours if someone calls in sick.”

And managers need to be just as capable of doing the job themselves in a hands-on fashion, he said, “from the service standpoint to supervising to getting involved in the kitchen.”

Managers also need to be aware, however, that limiting activities on site, such as shutting the pool or sauna, may not necessarily be the answer. “You could be cutting down revenue streams for the business. You have to be careful,” Petrillose said. He said it is far better to enforce sick policies and encourage the healthy employees to continue healthy practices on the job.

Modifying some services, however, could be acceptable if there is indeed a larger outbreak among staff.

“If you are operating with a skeleton staff, maybe instead of having a full breakfast menu in the dining room you can operate a buffet. Or do a continental breakfast and not charge for it because of the limited staff," he said. “For the maintenance department if there is a severe impact in that department, ask if we should discontinue our preventive maintenance program at that time and just do emergency repairs that one person can handle for the short term.

“If housekeeping is impacted, we encourage employees to stay home,” said Petrillose. “And we would tell guests ‘if you request your room to be cleaned and beds made, please call down; otherwise we will be happy to remove your trash and simply take the towels out.’ ”

Preventive vigilance also extends to a hotel’s relationships with its suppliers, said Debbie Howarth, associate professor in the Hospitality College at Johnson & Wales. “Hotels work with their vendors to make sure that the cleaners are strong enough to battle current viruses and bacteria and they work with employees to ensure that the cleaning procedures are being followed so the chemicals do what they were meant to do. Because of the current influenza outbreak, hotel managers are being extra vigilant reminding their staff each day about the recommended procedures.”

Of course, if the flu outbreak becomes serious enough, a hotel could offer to make arrangements to transfer guests to another property in town, especially if they are seeking a full-service experience that the afflicted hotel can’t provide, Petrillose said. “That is part of the customer service thing.” And a business practice that, in the end, is downright healthy.
Credit
Caryn Eve Murray
Associate Editor
Hotel Interactive Editorial Division

Bio: Caryn Eve Murray is a freelance writer and an assistant editor on the news desk at Newsday on Long Island. During her tenure as a business writer for New York Newsday, she covered the city's small business community for which she won the Distinguished Business Reporting Award of Excellence from the New York Newspaper Publishers Association. She has also been a feature columnist and writer and has ...
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