"You think of every possible scenario and you try to prepare, but preparing in theory and in reality are two entirely different things," he says.
Indeed, the blackout of 2003 became a customer-relationship exercise for companies in the affected areas. A handful of companies were able to distinguish themselves with a commitment to customers.
Using a communication-centric approach adopted from a local hospital's crisis plan, the Waldorf faced the challenges posed by the blackout (of course, the 10,000 flashlights and glow sticks stockpiled in advance didn't hurt). The company regularly updated guests about the situation and provided bottled water and other amenities, making sure each of its guests was as comfortable as possible. One month afterward, Ben-Gurion remains convinced that the hotel's measured response to the crisis elevated it in the eyes of its customers. "You learn a lot about relating to customers during something like this," he explains.
Across town at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square -- which became media central during the blackout -- the staff faced similar challenges to the Waldorf. Medications had been left in rooms on high-up floors, yet elevators were grounded. And without working sprinklers, "It was the responsibility of the hotel manager to evacuate all our guests" from their rooms, says Kathleen Duffy, director of public relations for New York City Marriott Hotels.
After emptying 1,946 rooms and relocating guests to landings on low floors and to a drive-through area outside the hotel, a wire service erroneously reported that the mass eviction was spurred by the failure of the hotel's electronic room-key system. This fueled the fears of already-jumpy guests that they'd be without their personal belongings for an extended period of time. Nevertheless, the hotel was able to keep the peace by constantly communicating individually with guests and giving information updates, as well as providing bottled water, pillows and blankets.
"Were there guests who were upset? Sure," Duffy says. "But there were just as many, if not more, who chose to view the experience as an adventure."
Trusted agents come through in a crisis
While staffers at the Waldorf and Marriott Marquis dedicated themselves to calming and supporting people on their premises, Avis Rent A Car bent its rules in order to help customers. Of course, it wasn't as simple as matching individual with car. The company's systems were handicapped by the lack of power, and many Avis parking lots that rely on elevators to transport cars to street level were paralyzed.
Almost immediately, Avis relaxed its rules for one-way rentals to get customers in cars as quick as possible. It also shuttled cars from Newark Airport into New York City. Though the rental system was limited, some enterprising staffers stayed online by running laptops through available Pontiac Vibes, which are equipped with power outlets. Others kept a paper trail to process rental information. Avis employees are trained to meet their customers' needs, no matter how, explains Ted Deutsch, VP of communications and public affairs for the Cendant Car Rental Group, Avis' parent company.
And then there was Modell's Sporting Goods. While as affected by the outage as any other retailer, the company seized upon the crisis as a way to affirm its commitment to customers in its core metropolitan New York area. Learning about the thousands of people stranded in midtown, Modell's execs contacted an out-of-town service center and summoned two truckloads of sneakers to Times Square so people could walk home in comfort.
"A situation like that, you don't think in terms of 'how much will this cost us?'" recalls Modell's senior vice president Peter Lindenbaum. "You think about helping whoever you can and about being there when you're needed most."
The Waldorf, Marriott Marquis and Avis are already incorporating lessons learned during the blackout. All three institutions received a host of customer feedback, most of it positive. Deutsch says his company received plaudits from corporate travel managers, while the two hotels received emails commending employees for their patience in the face of a difficult situation.
Ben-Gurion says comments and suggestions from employees who experienced the crisis firsthand will ultimately prove more valuable. They offered insight into "things like making sure that the right services and areas are hooked up to our backup generators, like listing the items that customers asked for the most -- diapers or whatever it was," he says. "That's what will help us should this ever happen again."
In a future issue, we'll look at how utilities handled their customers during the crisis.
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