HOTELS Interview: Surviving (and thriving) after a natural disaster

For the most part, Hawaii was spared serious damage from the tsunami following the March 11 earthquake that struck Japan. However, Four Seasons Resort Hualalai at Historic Ka’upulehu on Hawaii Island was one of the few hotels impacted by the tsunami, suffering approximately US$15 million in property damage and forced to close for about six weeks.

There has been a happy ending for the resort, though. Since reopening April 30, it has posted occupancies in excess of 80%, according to General Manager Robert Whitfield, and the closure even enabled the 243-key property to make some long-desired improvements. Whitfield spoke with HOTELS about how he and his staff managed to not only survive this natural disaster, but also thrive in its aftermath.

HOTELS: Tell me about how you prepared in advance of the tsunami and some of the steps you took to make sure your guests and staff would be safe.

Robert Whitfield: Shortly after the earthquake hit Japan, we were on a tsunami watch. We have emergency procedures that we have practiced and we go through every year. We have hurricane preparedness, earthquake preparedness and tsunami preparedness procedures. We were somewhat well drilled in that when we did the evacuation from the Chile earthquake [in February 2010]; that rehearsal served us very well for the event in March.

We have kind of an emergency committee that goes to a central command post. We review the latest data about whatever the incident is and then make decisions in conjunction with the local authorities. We were pretty quickly aware that this could be a very significant wave and made the decision to evacuate. We’re very lucky in that as part of the resort here we have a residential community with a private members’ clubhouse in an elevated area about a mile from the shore. It’s a perfect evacuation spot.

HOTELS: What were some of your biggest concerns in communicating with guests prior to the tsunami?

Whitfield: The media is so instantaneous these days. Often guests can be aware of changes before you are, whether they’re getting texts or emails or they’re monitoring information channels or talking to people back on the mainland. If guests get the sense that you don’t have the latest information, it can instill panic.

Our director of security is constantly monitoring information on CNN and staying in constant contact with the local authorities. We also go online and make sure we’re monitoring the progress through the various coastal tsunami-monitoring programs. That is essential. That individual then communicates to the executive team exactly what’s happening when. We’re fortunate in that we do have a very strong director of security who’s very good at this type of thing.

When you’re communicating with guests and you get the first few pieces of information accurate, you start to build confidence. A sense of organization and calm really helps enormously to reassure the guests that you’ve got control of the situation.

HOTELS: Can you briefly talk me through your decision-making process immediately after the tsunami and how you and your staff came to the decision to close the resort?

Whitfield: This resort is very close to the ocean. It’s low-lying, and all of the amenities are along the oceanfront. Those were exactly the things that were impacted most. We were very fortunate in that most of the infrastructural things like power and water were okay. But the pools were full of debris. The beach was full of debris. There was furniture washed all over the place, and we had damage to some of the buildings. Some guestrooms were impacted. We have two oceanfront restaurants. Both sustained some damage. Because we didn’t have a great deal of time to prepare for this event, we didn’t have time to store or put away the oceanfront furniture. So that was pretty heavily damaged.

In a luxury resort like this, it really is a question of what the guest experience is going to be. What elements of the guest experience can we reinstate as quickly as possible? Guests are going to want to spend time at the pools, hang out at the restaurants and the bars, swim in the ocean. Very quickly in this situation we determined that was not going to be an option.

HOTELS: How did you use social media to communicate with guests immediately after the tsunami?

Whitfield: Bad news travels really fast. We were very concerned about the potential for leaked images and stories, particularly with social networks. You want to get control of the messaging immediately after an event and try to stay in front of the rumor mill. We were very proactive to get clear, concise information about what had happened, what we were doing about it and when we were going to be reopening out as quickly as possible.

HOTELS: So how did you distribute that information?

Whitfield: Primarily it was through press releases and social media. We have Facebook and Twitter. Obviously a picture is worth 1,000 words. We weren’t certainly sending out pictures of the damage, but as soon as we were getting areas cleaned up, we were sending out pictures of different areas to reassure customers that things were in fact in good shape.

HOTELS: What lessons did you learn from the tsunami?

Whitfield: It sounds obvious, but there’s no substitute for good planning. You have to have a very detailed plan, and you have to have up-to-the-minute information and a confident team to be able to make decisions and execute them quickly.

HOTELS: I understand the resort’s closure enabled you to create a new adults-only pool with a swim-up bar. Tell me about that renovation and how you were able to make the best of a bad situation.

Whitfield: We had been talking for a couple years about adding a pool in this particular location. We were walking around, assessing the damage, and we had that “a-ha” moment. There was a much smaller pool there, and that pool was ripped out and a completely new pool was put in its place. The most fortunate thing was that we found a building contractor that committed to building it within six weeks. From start to finish, we built that pool in 37 days.

HOTELS: Were there other “silver linings” in this whole experience?

Whitfield: Luxury hoteliers are perfectionists. To have a six-week period where you have no guests, where you can make as much noise as you want and as much destruction as you want, you seize that opportunity to do whatever you can. We were fortunate to be able to add some more spacious lanais to certain guestrooms, to improve the condition of the lawns in some of the areas. We actually added a little coloration to the cement mixture to make the oceanfront pathway blend more closely with the color of the sand that we have on the beach.

Also, we were able to retain all of the employees through the entire closure and have all their pay and benefits covered. We had them doing all kinds of jobs to support the reopening effort. We brought everybody together and essentially said we’re going to ask you to do some unusual things you may not have done before, and we want you to say yes. If you can say yes, you’ll not only help our reopening but we’ll be able to keep you employed.

What we gained from that is every single employee has an experience and a story to tell, and they felt they were part of the process of bringing the hotel back. Since then, many guests have told me about the stories employees have shared with them about what they did to help the hotel reopen. We’ve been lucky to capture a special spirit among the staff that’s hard to replicate.

Robert Whitfield
Robert Whitfield
The six-week closure of Four Seasons Resort Hualalai allowed the property to construct the new Palm Grove Pool, an adults-only venue with a swim-up bar and bench seating within the pool. Photo used courtesy of Four Seasons Resort Hualalai.
The six-week closure of Four Seasons Resort Hualalai allowed the property to construct the new Palm Grove Pool, an adults-only venue with a swim-up bar and bench seating within the pool. Photo used courtesy of Four Seasons Resort Hualalai.