Emergencies come in many forms - the recent riots are one frightening manifestation. David Tarpey explains how to plan for the unexpected in an attempt to prevent the drama from becoming a crisis
Nobody guessed that Eyjafallajökull would blow; the Met Office couldn't predict how much snow we would get for two winters on the trot; and few foresaw the worst civil disturbances in a generation when they erupted across England last month.
As a hospitality operator, you're no crystal-ball voyeur, but your attributes should include forward planning, crisis management and a clear head.
With the advent of London's mass street protests such as G20, May Day and student demos, budget hotel operator Travelodge has adopted a new kind of crisis management procedure designed to protect guests and staff from the effects of civil disorder.
With hotels in Croydon, Ealing, Manchester and Birmingham, the company was exposed recently during the riots at several flash points. But as chief executive Guy Parsons explains, the early August mayhem took them by surprise, resulting in them putting in place a tight set of controls.
"We closed and locked front doors early and allowed access only to guests with ID and confirmation numbers. We pulled down blinds and lowered the lights in the restaurants and asked guests to steer clear of the ground floor," he says.
"We wanted that area to look as 'closed' as possible. Some customers were frightened and wanted to leave, but once we explained that the police said they were safer by staying put, they understood. Overall, the feedback from guests shows they felt secure."
Travelodge works closely with a private security firm and called on many extra staff during the nights of looting. Some were "fixed" while others roamed. This meant, for instance, that some left central London hotels (where there was no trouble) to man the chain's Battersea property, just a quarter-of-a-mile from the turmoil at Clapham Junction.
"You can't plan for everything, and nothing really prepared us for this, but I'd advise having a clear plan of action in place for sudden emergencies, with the resources and extra security to call on to back it up," Parsons adds.
"With events like 7/7 or civil disorder, I call the crisis team together. It's really important to show strong leadership."
The British Hospitality Association advises businesses to think about how best to deal with exceptional situations such as riots.
"Operators would be wise to obtain advice from the police and security experts so that they have contingency plans in place in case there is any repetition of the violence," explains a spokesman. "These plans will need to be regularly updated and they will need the same attention that fire safety procedures attract."
Emergencies, of course, are often not man-made. The past two winters have seen the UK suffer several episodes of prolonged and heavy snowfall, causing havoc to the hospitality industry. Some have coped better than others.
Luton Hotel, Golf & Spa in Bedfordshire, remained fully operational during the snow of December 2010. The estate and green-keeping team used 15 snow shovels, leaf blowers (good for fresh snow) and grit to keep paths open, while an external contractor kept the roads gritted. "For this coming winter we've acquired different types of grit for different areas and a vehicle-mounted snow plough," says general manager Matthew Long.
Unfortunately, the Ashdown Park hotel, half-a-mile off the A22 in Wych Cross, East Sussex, did not cope so well. General manager Ben Brooker says that known losses during December 2010 due to cancellations were £50,000, although he estimates that the real figure is double that because of business the hotel would have gained in kinder weather conditions.
"A few guests stayed longer because of the snow, but mostly we went to great efforts to help people so they could get back to their families," he explains. "The snow was coming down so fast that our snow plough couldn't keep up. Staff with 4x4s ferried other staff to and fro.
"For next winter, we're considering buying another 4x4. We will always have enough manpower and supplies to stay open."
On the subject of emergency planning, John Firrell, director of the Considerate Hoteliers Association, says there is nothing like a real emergency to get businesses to focus on the need to plan for such occurrences. "Responsible hoteliers will constantly review and update their procedures to take account of new threats and dangers to the safety of guests and staff," he says.
"Plan for the unthinkable - it may well happen at some point - and take into account how such emergencies will affect your immediate neighbours and local community."
Imago, which runs a four-star, 225-bedroom hotel at Burleigh Court, Loughborough University, has adopted the university's emergency planning procedures drawn up for security, fire and food hygiene. Operations manager Guy Hodge says it is necessary to regularly audit an emergency planning system to identify weaknesses. "It is a process of consistent and continuous improvement and an integral part of your total due diligence procedure," he explains.
"For example, in the case of fire, you need to carry out - among other key activities - tests and drills on a weekly basis, check fire doors regularly, and ensure your staff are fully aware of the procedures and are properly trained for an emergency situation."
With Imago hosting Team GB and the Japanese Olympic team in the run-up to the London 2012 games, it will be paramount that the hotel has its emergency planning procedures in place to meet and exceed the expectations of the visiting teams.
Being prepared for a crisis: Linthwaite House hotel, Windermere, Cumbria
Simon Doddrell, Linthwaite House's finance director, explains how the hotel is prepared for a variety of crises.
We have a snow plough blade for the garden tractor, a stock of snow shovels and plenty of rock salt and grit to spread.
Last year we bought a second-hand 4x4 for £4,500, which we use for ferrying staff and supplies to and from the hotel during snow, as taxis and delivery vehicles can't always make it up our drive. At other times it's handy to have as a pool car. Without the 4x4, we couldn't stay open.
A back-up generator is essential in emergencies. Supply has improved in recent years but we still need it two to three times a year. In years gone by it was much more frequently used.
We are thinking about installing a tank with enough water for two to three days in case of interruption to supplies.
Three ADSL lines have been installed into the building with different suppliers, along with a wireless ADSL. ADSL is now business-critical with the advent of online reservations systems. I have also approached mobile phone operators to consider locating a mast on our hilltop so we can get 3G coverage in case of interruption to phone lines.
We have the usual risk assessments, which are regularly updated, and we run weekly alarm tests.
At 500ft above sea level, thankfully this is not a problem for us.
Civil disturbance - useful points of contact
● The Metropolitan Police provide advice and information to businesses with regard situations like the recent riots.
● The Cabinet Office website has a section on Business Continuity for information on recovering from the impact of a disruptive event.
● Under the umbrella of the London Resilience Partnership, help and information is available for businesses affected by the recent disorder as well as help on planning for emergencies and recovering from them.
● The Emergency Planning College offers training in emergency planning and crisis management.
● The Institute of Hotel Security Management offers free advice to hotels on all matters of security.
William Worth, fire safety inspecting officer at the London Fire Brigade, gives his fire precautions
● Sometimes snagging work hasn't happened or contractors haven't done remedial work such as laying cabling. If there are holes in fire-resistant walls, the insurers might not pay out if they consider this to be your fault. So it's about careful management, checking the contractor's workmanship, insisting they do what they were asked and, of course, ensuring they make good.
● Staff awareness and training in fire risk is vital. It's important that staff know how to use all equipment safely.
● Most accidents in hotels seem to happen at night, so it's even more important that night staff have an acute awareness of safety issues and how to handle an emergency.
● Big areas of risk include kitchen ducting. Most fires there are due to poor maintenance. So check how often the extractor duct is cleaned and consider what the contractor has recommended about maintenance.
● Piles of linen, trolleys or stacks of cardboard boxes are an obvious risk as they can reduce escape widths or block them completely.
● The Fire Risk Assessment is not about the piece of paper but the ongoing process of assessment that allows the operator to make the premises safer. You always have to think, "What if?" So think through the potential hazard and problems linked to it and the protection you have in place. If it's not enough, deal with it.
Legal advice on liability
Hannah Clipston is head of the hotels team and a partner at law firm Thomas Eggar
What kind of insurance can a hotel take out to cover itself in case a guest has an accident while on the premises?
A hotelier can minimise its exposure to guest accidents by taking out public and product liability coverage as part of its insurance policy.
The type of compensation payable if a guest injures themselves while on your premises depends on a variety of factors including: what injury was suffered; how old the guest is; what impact the injury had on the guest; whether the guest works; and what job the guest does.
What are my options in terms of insurance?
It will probably be important for you to have buildings/property insurance, public liability and employer's liability cover (to protect yourself should a guest or an employee hurt themselves at your premises).
However, you can also build in coverage for all sorts of other risks including: business interruption; product liability; legal expenses; goods insurance; loss of licence; events of terrorism; business contents; fidelity insurance; and food hygiene.
Is it possible to insure against food poisoning?
If a potential food poisoning issue arises, it is vital that you seek legal advice on what approach to take, including: whether to close down while the issue is resolved; how to handle the press; and how to co‑operate with any investigation carried out by the Health & Safety Executive or local environmental health officers.
It is possible to obtain insurance coverage for food hygiene, and your public liability insurance might also cover any claims brought by customers. If a claim or the loss caused is contested by you or your insurance company, then the individual will have to prove that your kitchen was the source of the poisoning.
There is no limit to the amount claimed. However, unless serious permanent illness or death has been caused, the financial claims might not be particularly large.
It should be noted that if you plead guilty to a Health & Safety Executive or environmental health prosecution, any insurance policy is unlikely to cover the fine or your legal expenses.
Can one insure against acts of terrorism?
Risks of a terrorist attack should be identified when analysing your business exposures and considering what insurance coverage to take out. It is unlikely that your standard insurance policy will cover acts of terrorism. If you consider terrorism a risk to your business, you should specifically build it into your business interruption coverage.
Emergency check list
Robert Allan, human resources director of Apex Hotels, which has eight four-star properties in London, Edinburgh and Dundee, outlines the company's emergency policy
● Managers are advised to call the emergency services as soon as possible.
● The general manager and executive team need to be informed of the specific nature of the emergency.
● An assessment should be made to consider whether it is necessary to evacuate the building or whether it is safer to congregate all employees and customers in one specific part of the building.
● Communications to all employees and customers should be loud and clear so that there is a full understanding of the decisions being made.
● The hotel emergency plan should be activated, with the manager on duty taking charge and specific duties being allocated accordingly.
● All employees are given guidance on measures to take during emergency situations at their orientation, utilising the group's Safety First booklet. Key messages include remaining calm, listening to specific instructions, and not putting themselves or others at risk.
● Employees must never put themselves, their colleagues or the public at risk at any time. They are told to act in a calm manner and not to attempt to tackle any armed member of the public under any circumstances. If the threat involves demands for cash, all employees are instructed to hand this over in a calm manner.