By Brigitte Leoni
PHUKET, 29 December 2014 - A decade on from the Indian Ocean Tsunami, lessons have been learned and applied across the region. For the upscale Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort, disaster preparedness was the watchword even before the tragedy, with resilience seen as part and parcel of good business.
“At the time when the tsunami struck in 2004, Phuket had no tsunami warning system in place but risk management, training of staff and the design of the hotel, in two L shapes, spared us from many losses,” recalled Jayne MacDougall, Director of Risk Management and Loss Prevention at the resort.
“The three large seawater surges we experienced were forced to either side of the resort and into the passageway beneath the resort - clearing the beach and everything to either side of the accommodation, flooding offices and ending at the car park - with minimal damage to guest rooms. We were fortunate that we managed to evacuate to surrounding hills and no staff or guests were killed, although some injuries of a minor nature were sustained. The quick action and training of our team prevented further casualties,” she explained.
Since that fateful Sunday in 2004, Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort has taken even more measures to better protect its guests.
“Before the tsunami, we were among the rare hotels to have some established guidelines and preparedness measures against disasters. We did not have a specific tsunami alert and preparedness system for tsunami as tsunamis were not, at the time, classified as ‘an anticipated risk’ in Phuket, nor expected by the local government, but we were prepared for flooding, power failure, storm damage, et cetera. Today the system has been upgraded and guests are even safer. In addition we have realized the importance of routine preparation of printed information, data storage and distribution of emergency communication equipment,” MacDougall said.
Le Meridien is part of the global hotel chain Starwood, which for years has used its resilience as a competitive marketing advantage. But small or medium-sized and family-run hotels may not be so well equipped, and a rethink is important.
“Many businesses had no business continuity plans in place and were therefore more vulnerable to disasters,” said MacDougall. “Looking forward, businesses like these need to be offered some form of special support to develop plans and organize training to become better prepared.”
“Our hotel is now connected to a mobile phone SMS alert system for tsunami warnings that we subscribe to. This has so far been very reliable and faster to reach us than the government warnings. Whenever an earthquake occurs with a magnitude greater than six on the Richter scale - which has the potential to generate a tsunami - we receive a series of messages immediately alerting us. But this is just one of the measures we employ to be prepared and the major investment is in training our managers, our staff and conducting evacuation drills appropriate for a variety of emergency situations and scenarios. Every room is also equipped with basic emergency information translated into 10 languages. Safety and security matter to us and they are more and more considered as a marketing advantage.”
MacDougall recognizes that many hotels in the region even after the tsunami have being rebuilt without taking into consideration the risks related to positioning.
“At Starwood, safety starts with the site of the hotel and a comprehensive risk assessment is conducted. Location is important, and assessing risks is the key to better protect people and assets,” she said, referring to the Hotel Resilient Initiative currently being developed together with the UNISDR regional office in Bangkok, the Global Initiative on Disaster Risk Management (GIDRM) and the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) .
“The hotel resilient standards that you are trying to develop go in the right direction. For big chains like us, it might be less useful as we have already substantial guidelines and procedures in place, but for family hotels and small business hotels which are the majority in the region, it is crucial to have access to procedures and guidelines to better protect people in the future,” said MacDougall.
“It can be anxiety-provoking for people who are planning holidays to think about the potential for tsunami or flooding and I believe many tourists have expectations that a destination is already at a level of relative preparedness before they consider a vacation. The potential risks, even if they are minimal, should be seriously considered and planned for. Knowing that your hotel is safe, whatever happens, is certainly something that is valued by clients more nowadays and certainly in the future, as climate change will have greater impacts everywhere in the world. No one can pretend to be spared by the new normal so it is better to anticipate and be prepared and personally I would prefer going to a hotel that has clearly at least acknowledged the potential risks and planned accordingly.”
The main objective of the Hotel Resilient Initiative is to “strengthen the resilience of the hotel industry to hazards through the development of a disaster risk management certification scheme”. The aim is to provide hotels with a set of risk management standards that will assist them in reducing business risk and the risk of tourists and surrounding communities to natural and technological disasters, while demonstrating the level of preparedness and safety of their premises to potential clients, insurers and financers, creating a competitive advantage. The certified application of specific standards will recognize hotels that have worked to improve their resilience towards hazards and serves as a unique business marketing tool.