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Evaluating disaster recovery plans

Corporate travel and event planners are rethinking their disaster recovery plans after Calgary’s epic high water

By Lisa Kadane

When the Fairmont Palliser Hotel in downtown Calgary found itself staffing a sold-out property in the middle of a city-wide state-of-emergency during the June flood, management never lost its cool.

“We did everything possible to maintain business as usual,” says David Woodward, director of sales and marketing. After the hotel lost power, the team switched over to a diesel-powered emergency generator and found a way to get regular fuel deliveries to the hotel despite numerous roadblocks. They handed out flashlights to guests, just in case. They suspended alcohol service to prevent frustrated, stranded customers from becom­ing intoxicated. And they dropped their room rates. “What do you charge people during a crisis?” wonders Woodward. “You can’t take advantage of them.”

Eventually, guests were relocated to the downtown Sand­man Hotel (which never lost power) after the Calgary Hotel Association suggested management close the Palliser’s doors for the first time in 99 years. The hotel was shuttered for a week, but went on to have a record August. What’s more, 99 per cent of Palliser customers impacted by the flood were happy about how hotel staff managed the emergency, says Woodward, speaking as part of a Duty of Care panel at an executive forum organized by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) in October.

For Calgary’s $2-billion tourism industry, the flood­ing couldn’t have happened at a worse time: a mere two weeks before the start of the Calgary Stampede, that last year accounted for one tenth of the city’s annual tourism revenue. The show needed to go on and against all odds it did, providing a rallying cry for the city’s tourism and events industry. But that doesn’t mean valuable lessons weren’t learned.

The ACTE forum revealed that though many businesses have disaster recovery programs (DRPs), it’s crucial to pay closer attention to the details. As the city recovers from what Mayor Naheed Nenshi calls “the greatest natural disaster Calgary has ever faced,” businesses must evaluate their emer­gency response plans and make improvements. Here are five takeaways from corporate travel and event executives who surfaced successfully after the flood.

1. If you don’t have a DRP, get one. Now!
Custom Travel Solutions (CTS) has a DRP, but the company still had to move its entire base of operations to higher ground as the Elbow River spilled over its banks and flooded the building where the company’s Calgary branch rents office space.

“We uplifted our entire server rooms and moved them,” says CTS president Vaughan Payne. This enabled the commercial travel management company to continue operations from a remote location until it could move back seven weeks later. Fortunately, CTS has continuity insurance that covered the expense.

“If you don’t have a plan in place it can cost you a lot of money,” Payne says. “Don’t put it off.”

2. Expand your DRP’s horizons
With 3,400 staff located in 11 buildings in downtown Calgary, the June flooding presented unique challenges to Cenovus Energy. In addition to keeping operations running smoothly outside the city, the company had to communicate with staff and let them know when they could return to work.

Cenovus has a detailed DRP and business continuity plan, and regularly holds table-top exercises to practise emergency response, but the company still had to adapt as the waters rose. For example, the uncer­tainty of not knowing when the downtown would reopen put pressure on the crisis team around staff communication.

“Whatever messaging comes out should be accurate,” says Dean Stobo, director of security for Cenovus Energy. “We all plan for fire, but not many of us plan for downtown to be shut down. We have to expand our DRP boundaries to make sure we are prepared for any eventuality”—including a once-in-a-lifetime natural disaster.

3. Put the right people in charge
Located adjacent to the Elbow River, Stampede Park—home base for the Calgary Stampede and over 600 third-party events every year—had weathered a smaller flood in 2005 and had adjusted its crisis plan accordingly.

“We were certainly prepared,” says Greg Newton, manager of sales development for the Calgary Stampede. Staff erected barricades and piled up sandbags when the water was rising, and began cancelling events before the rivers crested to give customers a chance to rebook elsewhere. Management also called in Belfor Property Restoration to begin the clean-up process before the team even knew the extent of the damage. These decisions made it possible to carry forward with plans for the 101st Calgary Stampede—“Come Hell or High Water”—that got underway July 5.

Newton credits leadership for accomplishing this amazing feat. “Our executive leadership team here is amazing. They were the ones who came up with the plans.” Stampede Park’s disaster response to the flooding was also diarized to help the team handle future emergencies even more successfully.

4. Communication is key
Not only did staff at the Fairmont Palliser hotel need to communicate the evacuation plan with hotel guests on-site, they had to let arriving guests know the hotel was shutting its doors and then help them re-book or find alternative accommodations. The Fairmont Hotels & Resorts “command post” in Moncton, N.B., e-mailed and phoned Palliser guests to apprise them of what was happening. At the same time, the social media team posted a Calgary travel advisory on the corporate website, and took to Twitter and Facebook with daily updates about the hotel’s status—and to tell the real story about what was happening. “There were all these rumours we were extinguishing along the way,” says Woodward.

Overall he says the Palliser’s emergency communication plan was very effective. “If anything, we over-communicated.”

5. Practise good will
For Jason Hopko, calling 2013 a “challenging summer,” is an understatement. Because of the June flood, the president of EGroup Canada, a Calgary-based total furniture and event solutions company, had 22 clients cancel Stampede-related events that represented over six figures worth of lost income. At the same time, EGroup Canada lost another dozen furniture sales deals totalling a quarter of a million dollars. “We’ll never recoup that lost income,” says Hopko, noting that, “in the event industry, crap happens.”

But rather than try to make up for the losses by keeping the deposits on cancelled events, Hopko chose to return them. “Those people were hurting too. It’s so important to me to be a great corporate citizen.”

Since Labour Day, EGroup Canada’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing—those same clients have returned to book their Christmas parties, with larger budgets than in previous years. “Good will buys you business,” says Hopko.

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