The flurry of hurricane activity that has battered the southeastern U.S. and nearby island nations is showing few signs of letting up as observers watch closely the path of Maria, which yesterday wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico. And while the storms—specifically Hurricanes Harvey and Irma—have produced catastrophic damage in some cases, they also once again shine the light on the importance of hotels and their operators during times of distress.
One such company is Covington, KY-based Commonwealth Hotels, which had two Florida properties—the Hyatt House Naples 5th Avenue in Naples and the Hampton Inn Jacksonville Downtown—that were directly impacted by Hurricane Irma.
According to Daniel Fay, Chairman and founder, Commonwealth Hotels, LLC, the Hyatt House remained open during the hurricane and was home to emergency responders who set up headquarters there, as well as more traditional guests.
Fay pointed out that the building is only a year old and made entirely of concrete while detailing some of the damage. “It was a really safe building, but some of the roof got torn off through the storm and the rainwater started coming through the building. They also lost electric,” he said.
Despite the loss of power, Fay noted that the property continued to house “a number of international people that didn’t have any place to go.” The hotel—which was closed a couple days after the hurricane—is now in the process of reopening.
In Jacksonville, the Hampton Inn, which was already under renovation, also had the roof torn off and lost power. However, the hotel—which Fay described as “kind of a mess”—remained open despite having to shift some people around.
In addition, Fay added that one of Commonwealth’s Tampa hotels took on a lot of water, primarily in the meeting spaces. While he pointed out it wasn’t a major issue he noted the combination of water and heat and humidity could be dangerous in its own right. “We had to get on that quick because mold grows like crazy. If you don’t catch it early you’ve got a real problem,” he said.
With so many hotels in the general proximity of Hurricane Irma, Fay discussed the company’s preparations, which included stocking up on food supplies, portable generators and water. “We had a line of communication set up with all of our hotels. So we were having calls every day where we pretty much knew what the situation was and you could deploy teams both before and after. That was very helpful. I think our guys did a really good job managing that,” he said.
Fay further added, “I was really proud of our team. I don’t think they could have been any better prepared. Because we had no problems with their planning or preparation, the only problem we had was with what Mother Nature dealt us. There were no injuries, there were no accidents; it went off very well that way.”
Meanwhile, the 200-room Westin Jekyll Island in Jekyll Island, GA—which is owned and operated by Shelton, CT-based New Castle Hotels & Resorts—provided refuge for first responders and select staff members as the entire island was under a mandatory evacuation.
Understanding the importance of his property to the greater community, the hotel’s general manager Kevin Runner sprang into action. “I approached the Jekyll Island authority—which is the governing municipality that runs the island—and asked them if they wanted any of their key people to stay with us and we would open up rooms for them. The state patrol is also housed on the island, so we reached out to them and offered them some accommodations and told them we’d be open if they wanted to stay with us once they lost power. We hoped our generator would provide enough electricity for people to use and they took us up on it. We had five or six state patrol officers with us for the week. Then we got a call from the state looking for accommodations for some of the military police—which turned out to be two of those gentleman that were guarding the island from anyone entering—so we put them up,” he said, adding that personnel from the department of natural resources was also accommodated.
Including the 12-14 staff members—who remained on site because they had unsafe conditions to go back to—as well as the aforementioned first responders, Runner said the hotel fed and housed between 30-35 people.
The property was officially closed on Sept. 7 and reopened more than a week later on Sept. 15. Runner acknowledged the financial impact of “being closed for that many days. Seven of the nine days we had forecast a full house so it couldn’t have been a busier week to have a close down,” he said, adding the hotel is working to try to reschedule some of that group business.
“It’s just the cost of trying to stay open and help out. There’s no insurance for it either; it’s just lost,” he further noted. Runner added that much of the food that was served had been purchased earlier in the week just in case the storm turned and the two large groups that were expected to come to the resort were able to make it.
He stressed that there was “no real physical damage to the property,” although Runner did note that was some beach erosion and there would likely be some “major relandscaping issues in the spring.”
Fay was particularly struck by how people reacted during the storm. “People were just dealing with the situation. What do you need? How can I help you? The best comes out of people sometimes in a bad situation…The outreach of people trying to take care of people was overwhelming. The guests were all someplace they didn’t want to be, but people were understanding and just thankful to be safe,” he maintained.