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Nightmare in New York: How to Mishandle a Crisis Situation

On a weekend in July, myself and four other girls traveled to New York City for a conference. Hosted by Her Campus Media, LLC., the conference brings together marketing, public relations and journalism college students for a weekend filled with keynotes, panels, workshops and networking with professionals from the Greater New York City area. We were granted professional development funds by our school, Millersville University, to benefit ourselves and our Her Campus Millersville chapter.

We chose to stay at the Best Western Seaport Inn in the Seaport District of New York City. I booked the room through their corporate phone number. We got into town on Friday afternoon. That night we attended a meet-and-greet with Rebecca Minkoff, a fashion designer, at her store in Soho and talked with an up-and-coming CEO of a social enterprise fashion brand. Saturday at the conference was even better. We attended panels with professionals who worked at Seventeen, BuzzFeed, Viacom, Glamour, Victoria’s Secret and more. A few of us won raffles on high-ticket items. We were fed well, networked like crazy, met the founders of Her Campus and attended a launch party for Juicy Couture.

Our conference weekend was amazing — until the fire in our hotel.

Luckily we were still awake at 12:30 a.m. Our toilet was backed up, so we called the front desk to have them fix it. Around 12:45 a.m. the front desk concierge comes up to our hotel room to take care of the toilet. Then we started to hear screaming outside. We thought people were fighting. Then a distant beeping noise goes off. It sounded like a cell phone was ringing. Then we heard the people scream “Get out!” We turned around and asked the concierge what beeping was. He didn’t answer our question and left our hotel room.

Mistake #1: Not answering questions your hotel guests ask you. Then we heard people screaming “Fire!” We put it together. That distant beeping noise was actually the fire alarm for our hotel. No alarms went off in our hotel room. We ran downstairs from our third-floor hotel room. When I got to the bottom, I saw a wall of fire engulfing the breakfast nook area in the lobby and a ceiling beam fell. We all got out safely and no one was harmed. However, the five of us were quite shaken because the fire was exactly two floors below our hotel room. Had we been asleep, we would not have heard the fire alarm and we would have been in serious trouble.

Mistake #2: Not keeping your public informed. We were standing outside for an hour and a half without an update from any of the staff members. Many of us were wondering if we had a place to sleep for the night and if others heard the fire alarm. Quite a few said they didn’t hear it either. After the fire was out and the trucks pulled away, a crowd gathered around the entrance, asking each other what was going on. The hotel staff was gathered in a circle in the lobby talking among themselves. Then a woman very angrily screamed at them, “You’re not telling us what’s going on! What‘s happening? There are a lot of people out here wondering what’s happening and you’re not communicating with us!” They ignored her.

There’s mistake #1 again – not answering questions your hotel guests ask you. Quite a few people were upset about the lack of communication. A few minutes later around 2:30 a.m., the hotel manager made an announcement that he was going to call people back inside by floor. Okay, but that doesn’t answer the crucial questions about how the fire started, when it started, if the hotel is safe to stay in for the night and if not, what other accommodations were available. The public should have been given a full briefing about the crisis situation and what steps management was going to take to alleviate the situation.

When our floor was called back inside, we asked the hotel manager how the fire started. He said it was caused by a lit cigarette butt that was thrown into a pile of garbage near the building, which caught an awning on fire, which eventually caused the wall of the breakfast nook to catch fire. Mistake #3: Your hotel guests had to ASK what caused the fire. This should have been communicated to EVERYONE staying in the hotel BEFORE guests were called back inside.  

We walked past where the fire occurred and saw there was a gaping hole in the wall. We went upstairs to our hotel room to discover the room reeked of smoke and our door was broken into by the fire department. It no longer locked. Not only were we freaked out that 1.) our door did not lock, 2.) our door was broken into to make sure we got out safely because the fire was directly below us, and 3.) we could physically feel the floor was slanted since the supportive beam was no longer there. In addition to the gaping hole in the wall of the hotel and a door that didn’t lock, we didn’t think it was safe for us to stay there overnight. We decided to quickly pack up our things to leave the hotel.

The five of us went downstairs and I spoke to the manager because the hotel room was in my name. I told him that our door didn’t lock and we didn’t feel safe staying there and wanted to check out. The first thing he said was “You cannot check out here, it has to be done on the 1-800 number.”

That was the oddest thing I ever heard.

Since this didn’t sound right to me, I asked for his name, contact information asked for some type of paperwork to prove that we “checked out.” I got a receipt for the charges from Friday night. Then we asked the hotel manager to help us find another hotel to stay the night. He said “I can’t do that. I have to deal with that happened here tonight.”

Mistake #4: Not putting your guests first. Yes, dealing with a crisis such as a fire is important, but aren’t your hotel guests and their safety more important? The most he could do for us was tell us to walk to another hotel down a few blocks and told us to leave. Our hotel manager told five college-aged girls in their young 20s to wander around New York City at 3 a.m. to find somewhere else to stay because he was too busy. He didn’t give us the name of the hotel or an address.

Very angry, tired, scared and frustrated, we left with our luggage in tow. We made our way to a Holiday Inn Express on Wall Street and talked to the concierge there. He said he heard about the situation from other travelers and concierges and told us there were no available rooms in his hotel, but he would do everything he could to help us find a room. While he made some calls, he suggested a few of us should walk to nearby hotels near Wall Street.

So another girl and I walked to the two hotels the Holiday Inn Express concierge suggested we visit. The first didn’t have anyone staffing the front desk. The second was the Andaz Wall Street, a ritzy hotel. Their only available room was $400 for the night – something college students could not afford to put on our credit cards. The concierges did the best they could to help us find a hotel room and ran a program to see if there were any open hotel rooms in the entire New York City area.

Then we received the worst news. There were absolutely no hotel rooms available for the night in all of New York City.

We almost broke into tears. They called our previous hotel, the Best Western Seaport Inn, to ask if we could stay in our previous hotel room since we technically didn’t check out. The concierge at the Best Western said the best he could do was have us sit in their lobby.

Defeated, we walked back to the Holiday Inn Express and told the others. At this point, it was 4 a.m. and we had all been awake since 6 a.m. the previous day. We asked the concierge if we could sit in the lobby until daylight but he would not allow us to do so since we weren’t guests. We all broke into tears. The concierge looked like he was about to do the same. We asked if we could find a 24-hour store to sit in or even sit in Penn Station until daybreak. He advised it wasn’t safe for five girls our age to do so at that hour and he called a cab to take us back to the Best Western.

Mistake #5: Ignoring your guests. The lobby of the Best Western still reeked of smoke. The concierge there did not acknowledge us as we walked in the door. We received no apology, we were not offered any water or even a cot to sleep on. The concierge did not even try to start a conversation with us either.

We spent the rest of the night sitting in that lobby, frequently going outside to get fresh air since the smell of smoke was making many of us nauseous. We knew there was no way we were going to attend the rest of the conference, so we switched our train tickets to catch the first train out of Penn Station at 7 a.m. As we were sitting in the lobby at 4 a.m., we saw many other guests leave the hotel. One couple managed to find another room themselves and was waiting on a taxi. Another man “checked out” and told the concierge that his flight wasn’t for another seven hours, but he was going to sleep on the floor of the JFK airport.

Not only did the Best Western Seaport Inn management not help us find another place to stay, but they didn’t help anyone else in their own hotel to find another place to stay either.

Dawn finally broke. We took a cab to Penn Station and got on our train home. At that point, we all had been awake for more than 24 hours. We were exhausted, traumatized, scared, angry and upset that we had to miss the second half of our conference because of what happened at our hotel.

I knew I would have to check my credit card to make sure they didn’t charge me for the night of the fire. A few days later I checked, and they did indeed charge me for the entire weekend. I made a call to the hotel manager whose number I received that night and politely left my name and phone number and wanted to discuss my stay over the weekend.

A few hours later I received a call from a different number. This was not the hotel manager that I spoke with the night of the fire, but it was someone else who worked there. When I initially picked up the phone, he did not ask me “How can I help you today?” But he stated “These things happen, it’s not our fault. All I can do is compensate you for Saturday night.”

It seemed like he called me ready to fight with me.  

Mistake #6: Poor customer service. Once again, it seemed like they did not care about their hotel guests. In response, I said, “I understand that the fire is not your fault, but your staff did not help us find another room when they should have.” I tried explaining to him what our evening was like – the fire alarm in our hotel room failing to go off, coming back to a room that did not lock, not being able to properly check out, refusing to help customers find another place to stay, sending a group of young females walking around New York City at 3 a.m., etc. This man kept cutting me off and did not want to hear my side of the story. He kept trying to say to me “It’s not our fault.”

Which leads me to mistake #7: Not owning up to your mistakes. In an interview with Hotel Online, a daily email and news site for the hospitality industry, Don Peppers, a founding partner of customer-service consulting firm Peppers & Rogers Group in Connecticut, says the worst response that can be given is “Things went wrong, but it wasn’t our fault.” This is the exact response I was given on the phone by the Best Western Seaport Inn. 

Yes, I understand that the fire was not your fault, but it WAS your fault for putting a group of young women in danger because they did not have a safe shelter for the night. It should be written in your corporate crisis communication plan to accommodate guests in case they are misplaced during a crisis. According to the Marriott’s Crisis Management plan, Section F – Developing the Local Crisis Communication Plan, page 13, Marriot is responsible for arranging shelter facilities for their guests. So if Marriott, a competitor, has a crisis management plan, shouldn’t Best Western as well?

For those of you who don’t know what crisis management or crisis communication plan is, Didi Lutz, an internationally acclaimed hospitality public relations professional, defines it as a communications strategy that should be undertaken for each scenario identified by the Executive Committee of a hotel. The plan should identify a spokesperson, write out talking points, how employees should address the crisis, steps are to remedy the situation and much more.

In this situation, the Best Western Seaport Inn did not have a spokesperson to relay information to the public, talking points about the crisis were not made to the public, employees did not formally address the issue at hand with the public and there were no steps taken to remedy the situation.

As a public relations professional who is very well versed about how things should be communicated and known to the public, I am shocked and appalled with the crisis management and communication at the Best Western Seaport Inn. Your mismanagement caused five young women to have trauma, physical pain from stress and exhaustion for days. A few of us had to take off work to deal with the after-effects of this event. We also missed the rest of our conference and a lot of networking opportunities at that conference. At the time, I was a recent college graduate still struggling to find a full-time, salaried job in my field.

Not only that, but I have been left completely traumatized. I’ve always had a fear of fire my whole life – it took me years to muster up the courage to blow out my own birthday candles when I was younger. But now, it’s gotten worse. For a month after the incident, I thought everything was going to catch fire. I was afraid to cook, to drive a car, or even go near a campfire. Slight scents of burning wood, food or even flashing red and white lights were a trigger that sent me into a panic attack.

By far, one of the worst triggers happened on the first night I stayed with my fiancé in our rented townhome. Considering it was the middle of the night, I woke up to a loud motor running and flashing red and white lights. There was a fire engine in front of our house. My breathing started to intensify, my body started to shake, and I woke up my fiancé because I seriously thought the house was on fire. Considering he’s a former volunteer firefighter, I asked him to check every room in the house to make sure we were going to be okay.

However, the problem that arose from this nightmare is this: anytime I stay in a place that’s somewhere new, I have a panic attack that brings me back to that awful night. I’m hoping I can soon get over this, and I have my fiancé to thank for helping me cope with this because he helps to fight my fires, even if they’re imaginary and illogical.

However, I do have to thank the Best Western Seaport Inn as well – for providing a perfect textbook example of how to mishandle a crisis situation.