Rapid reaction

04 August 2005
Rapid reaction

After the 2004 Madrid bombings Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens stated chillingly that an attack on London was "inevitable". And last month he was proved right.

His conviction, long shared by many in the intelligence services, meant it was no longer enough for businesses in the UK to base security procedures on wishful notions of vigilance and prevention. They had to expect the worst and prepare for it. Fortunately, many did, and it is thanks to that preparedness that the emergency services were able to kick-start their disaster plan so successfully on 7 July.

At least three hotels played a major role in coping with the aftermath of the bombs, which flipped the businesslike routine of their everyday London mornings into something altogether and shockingly different.

The Hilton Metropole, situated near the Edgware Road bombing, became a triage centre, taking in nearly 100 of the walking wounded.

The Holiday Inn on Marchmont Road in Bloomsbury provided a place for the emergency services to administer first aid - and, in some cases, surgery - to the worst-injured. And the Tavistock hotel, which was cut off within the police cordon set up around the bus blast, did the same.

Other hotels became debriefing centres for the police, while yet more provided temporary accommodation for those members of the emergency services rushed into the capital to help. The suitability for hotels to play a part in these scenarios is obvious.

As Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, points out: "Hotels are very open places, and always open to the public. They also have good, large spaces to act as dressing stations and will often have good contacts with their local police."

Indeed, hotels have a long history of stepping into the breach. "Our emergency plans have been in place for many years," says Richard Walduck, director of Imperial Hotels, which owns the Tavistock. "We survived cholera in the 1860s, typhus in the 1880s and at least this time the bombs didn't come from above."

While the very nature of such attacks makes it impossible to ever prepare your staff and business 100%, hotels do need to have a plan of response. As well as co-ordinating with police, medical crews and other services, there need to be special arrangements for looking after staff and guests.

The larger chains have very precise contingency plans for emergencies. But so important are these contingency plans to the survival of their business, and so sensitive are the details, that spokespeople from Hilton and InterContinental did not wish to comment on which parts of those plans had been put into place.

Shevaun Porter, director of communications at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, explains that the hotel has a crisis management team and manual. "On that morning all the team knew who the crisis team were and we met together every hour with a representative from each department," she says. Actions taken included setting up a separate phone line, television and internet connections so that all staff and guests could have access to up-to-the-minute information.

Staff also went out to buy air beds so that they could set up a makeshift dormitory in the ballroom. "We knew there was a chance we might run out of beds, so decided to get more," she says. "And we weren't charging for them."

Operators must also expect the police and other emergency services to take over, and be ready to comply with whatever requests they have. Walduck notes that one of the main problems he has had in recent years is the deterioration of the hotel group's contacts with the Metropolitan Police, a situation he puts down to the continued reorganisation within its ranks. He sees it as vital that businesses establish, or fight to re-establish, direct links with their local police.

"You need to be able to consult with the police, but at the moment we don't have the contact we used to enjoy," says Walduck. "The beat officer is no longer there, and we don't have a telephone line direct to someone at the station with authority."

Another piece of advice from Porter is the need to remain calm. "Our head of security always says, ‘Remain alert, but not alarmed.' We decided not to search people's bags coming into the hotel because then we'd only create panic."

On this occasion, the worst-case scenario did not happen. Hotels only had to offer back-up support, and most of the large luxury hotels in London noticed a dip of only 5% in bookings the following week. But what would happen if the attacks were much worse and hospitality operations were hit by a severe crisis?

"We also worked out a worst-case scenario," says Porter, "in case suppliers couldn't reach us. That means checking how much water you have and at what point you don't let any more guests check in to the hotel." Imagine an attack at 4am with a skeleton staff and three inches of snow outside, for instance.

In the long term you may need to review staff costs, and then variable costs at a later date, depending on the acuteness of the situation. Other issues include the possibility of staff counselling, and reviewing your advertising and marketing.

It is also worth planning how your business would cope if disrupted over different lengths of time. According to the London Prepared website, 80% of businesses affected by a major incident close within 18 months. After the IRA bombing of Manchester in 1997, 40% of businesses that were affected closed completely. Although in that case, unlike London, a large section of Manchester's centre was completely destroyed, the eventuality cannot be ruled out.

Crisis management

This is a summary of a document posted on the London Prepared website (www.londonprepared.gov.uk) by the London Development Agency and Visit London.

  • Keep yourself informed about the latest developments so that you can keep staff, customers and the media informed. Know the actions and decisions of the emergency services and help-line phone numbers.
  • Contact any staff whose whereabouts is unknown to ensure their safety.
  • Communicate an attitude that will be beneficial to you in managing a crisis. Remain positive, calm and motivated, so that employees and customers will be encouraged to do the same.
  • Maintain a "business as usual" policy to prevent terrorism from having the desired disruptive effect.
  • Keep staff involved in the proceedings.
  • Prepare a bulletin for staff and customers, guaranteeing that a consistent message is delivered.
  • Be ready to answer basic questions from the media up to a week after the event, and make sure that staff are ready and able to so the same with a consistent and coherent statement.
  • Know the legal implications of any cancellations. If the cancellations is made by a guest , they are liable to pay for any losses suffered by the business; whereas is the cancellation is made by the business , the customer is entitled to claim for any losses made to them. If the contract made is considered "frustrated" (a legal term describing the situation when accommodation is available but access has been restricted due to security controls or when those controls become intrusive), any money paid before the event is entitled to be refunded, and neither party has any further obligation. However, this is dependent entirely upon the individual business's cancellation policy, which should be made clear to the customer at the time of booking.
  • Assess whether staff can get get to work. If this is not possible, arrange for alternative staffing through local businesses and agencies.
  • Contact any bookings in the immediate future to assure them that business is running as usual, and research what activities have been restricted by the event.

For more up-to-date advice on disaster planning visit http://www.ukresilience.info/whats_new.htm

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