The end of summer portion of the 2017 hurricane season was a devastating one, with Hurricane Harvey greatly impacting Houston, southeastern Texas and Louisiana, followed by Hurricane Irma, which hit the Caribbean and Florida, two of the more popular tourism spots for U.S. travelers, especially hard.
Meetings Today spoke with hospitality educator Bjorn Hanson, Ph.D., a clinical professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies within its Jonathan M. Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism about how the industry will be affected.
What is the greater impact of these hurricanes on the hospitality industry?
If there has to be a hurricane—unfortunately there were two big ones—September is actually a good time [for this to occur], because we have passed the summer peak holiday travel period. And the convention and meetings [rush] has not really started yet. So there’s no good time, but right after Labor Day is not the worst time.
As far as the real damage to hotels ... it’s often related to the roof leaking because the rainwater removal system’s [capacity] was exceeded or another very significant cause of damage involves PTAC units, the air conditioning/heating units that [run] through the wall. So there are probably more rooms removed from service because of those two issues than what we picture as hurricane damage.
There will also be lower occupancy because of hurricane damage in affected areas; the rooms that have been removed from service will be out of service for some period of time. But, [in] many markets, the RevPAR will be affected much less because the [room] rates charged to insurance claim adjustors to contractors to architects and engineers typically are higher than the rates that would have been charged to guests who would have been occupying the rooms at the same time.
What are you hearing from planners in regard to their meetings and events?
My [conversations] with meeting professionals have been heartening. Those I spoke with have said, “If our colleagues we work with, whether it’s the hotels or convention centers, say they’re ready for us, we want to go there, we want to support those markets” ... and to the extent that there may be some amenities or facilities that are not restored, planners said they would likely either use substitute facilities or get a price break. ... [Suppliers] understand there are expectations.
So everyone I’ve heard from so far ... it wasn’t like, “Oh, do you have any suggestions on how we can get out of our [meeting].” ... It has all been supportive on both sides. And to the extent that there are hotels that are not able to accommodate groups ... the brands are saying, “If we can’t accommodate you at our hotel in [blank], let’s put you in [blank] other city this year and we’ll take you back to Miami or Houston next year,” and those are the kinds of things that build relationships.
The [larger] issue for planners is that transportation for their event may have been contracted. ... I’m hearing airlines are being a little less flexible than hotels. And that makes sense, because the airlines are back in business in weeks whereas the hotels that were heavily impacted will spend months on repairs.
Do you think Houston and Florida are going to face similar challenges in terms of recovery?
The effect on Texas is likely to be longer because of the nature of industry. Florida is less dependent on refineries and the oil industry and so on, so the Houston [recovery] duration is likely to be longer than Florida. [Meanwhile in Florida] the recovery effort will be more widespread, but less deep.
What about the Caribbean’s recovery? Is the situation there worse?
[Editor's Note: This interview took place before Hurricane Maria].
Good or bad for St. Martin, it actually got disproportionate amount of coverage, making [the situation] look as bad as it could ... because there were various reports that 90% of the structures had some level of damage, that’s a news report, not something I know independently ... so it was harder for people to grasp the areas that were most affected ... But obviously the islands have a different situation in that they face challenges getting construction materials and workers on boats and to the Caribbean.
It just creates a logistical challenge that takes a difficult situation and makes it even more difficult ... again the islands have experience and manage the situations very well ... but the difficulty can’t be understated.
On a more hopeful note, these are professionals, they’ve been through it before, they’ve planned for it before, and [the Caribbean] always seems to exceed expectations in how quickly and how effectively it recovers from what I’ve seen ... but again, we really have to understand that this storm was different.
What do you think is the most important thing the hospitality industry can do in Houston, Florida and the Caribbean to encourage a return to business [once they have made necessary repairs, of course]?
I think Florida has mastered that “we’re back” kind of message. ... There are such strong [CVBs] and [DMOs] that deal with local submarkets within Florida that those that are ready to receive guests can communicate that effectively. ... It sounds kind of silly when I say they can pull the plan off the shelf, but they either lived this before or are prepared for it and people understand that Miami is not the same place as [Tampa], which is not the same as Fort Myers. ... It’s a big state ... and it was clear in the news that not all of Florida was affected the same way. ... I think Florida travel professionals are doing the assessments, and they’re ready with the right kind of message. ... I think other destinations can use Florida as an example.