|By Aaron Gray, The Virgin Islands Daily
News, St. ThomasMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
August 31, 2010 --ST. THOMAS -- When it comes to hurricane crisis management for hotel visitors in the U.S. Virgin Islands, safety is the No. 1 issue -- but how each hotel enforces its safety measures can vary quite a bit.
"There are certain core strategies that all the hotels keep," said V.I. Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty. "But I think each of the branded properties have a certain corporate culture with how they deal with visitors. You'll find variances from one hotel to the next, and you'll see that difference with any type of crisis."
On St. Thomas at Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort and Spa, which caught the worst of the hurricane-force wind from the north, hotel visitors were given bag lunches, asked to stay in their rooms at 2 p.m. and were told an automated phone message service would inform them about dinner plans. No alcoholic beverages were served.
Less than five miles away at Marriott's Frenchman's Reef and Morningstar Beach Resort, which is on the St. Thomas south side and faced milder winds, there wasn't an empty seat inside the lobby, as hotel guests socialized while playing board games, dominoes and cards. The bar was busy, the gift shop was thriving, and there was no talk of a curfew.
"They're doing what they can," said Jacob Villaret, who arrived at the Reef on Sunday from Dallas. "We understand the hotel can't help the weather. We're just trying to have a good time."
The eye of Hurricane Earl, a Category 4 storm, came within about 65 miles of St. Thomas on Monday afternoon before turning northwest and heading toward the United States mainland.
For most of the guests at Virgin Islands hotels, which managers said were at capacity, the only communication of changing weather conditions came in the form of a bulletin board posted near the check-in desks inside the lobbies.
"In a situation like this, the key is to keep communication very open with guests and on a timely basis," Marriott general manager Jose Gonzalez Espinosa said. "All the official information that goes to the customer goes up on that bulletin board, and it is updated about every 30 minutes."
Information pertaining to the enforced curfew on the island, radar images, phone numbers for various airlines and local government news were included on the bulletin boards, as hotel guests constantly walked up to view updates.
"The guests' safety is our top priority," Sugar Bay director of sales and marketing Sharlene Brenkus said. "We understand everyone is concerned, and we are here for them. Our communication lines are open, and that's the most important thing during a situation like this."
As winds reached 75 miles per hour outside, Rebecca Hunter of Arlington, Va., was trying to download a Scooby-Doo video for her two young children. But the Internet connection was slow -- it took more than two hours to download the 30-minute video -- and Hunter also was in a race against the clock.
Her family was moved from a seventh-floor ocean-view room at the Wyndham to a lower-level room the day before for safety measures, and she had only 10 minutes before the hotel's 2 p.m. room curfew would go into effect.
"I guess we're going to watch these videos on the computer and wait for this thing to blow over," said Hunter, whose family arrived Thursday and was hoping for one more beach day before their return home Wednesday. "I know they have to take extra precautions, but moving rooms was not fun."
Hunter is a Florida native and is familiar with hurricanes. She said she started to track Hurricane Danielle online before the family left for vacation and was hoping Earl would not come close to the Virgin Islands.
"I've been tracking the storm, but the hotel did not tell anyone about it until yesterday in the late afternoon," she said. "I'm not sure that was timely enough."
Hunter did her research, but not everyone thought as far ahead.
"We didn't hear about the hurricane until a few locals told us about it on the plane ride here," said Monique Villaret, who left Dallas, connected in South Carolina and arrived at Frenchman's Reef on Sunday. "When we checked in, they were sort of like, 'Oh, by the way, a hurricane is coming.' I think they could have handled that better."
The Villarets lived in Louisiana during the infamous Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and are veterans of Hurricane Rita.
"We've seen the worst before, so I'm not trying to complain, but the hotel could have offered a few more options," said Monique Villaret, who is scheduled to fly back home Thursday and passed the time Monday by drinking at the hotel bar with new friends. "We spent thousands of dollars on a vacation, and this is what you get? I could have had a frozen drink in Dallas. So far, this has not been a vacation."
Nicholson-Doty said the Tourism Department officially started to communicate with local hotels Sunday morning about executing their hurricane management plans. She also said updates started to appear last week on the department's emergency website, www.usviupdate.com.
It is too early to determine the economic strain the storm will put on the territory, Nicholson-Doty said.
She was hoping cruise ships will return to St. Thomas docks by Friday.
"As of now, there are several cruise boats that will be diverted that would have normally called on St. Thomas," Nicholson-Doty said. "The loss of those calls will certainly have its impact on the local economy."
While local businesses will spend the next few days recuperating from the storm, some island visitors have taken a Zen-like approach until everything is open again.
Lynette Ward, who was visiting from New York City, blamed Hurricane Earl on bad luck. She got married last Thursday and she said playing ping pong with her new husband at the Wyndham wasn't exactly what she had in mind.
"Hopefully, it will be sunny tomorrow," she said. "We're on our honeymoon, so we haven't had trouble staying busy."
Hotel managers said they've had to alter planned activities for guests because of the storm, and their staff schedules have been turned upside down.
"I'm happy to say our staff is here and smiling and that all of our restaurants and bars will remain open during the storm," Gonzalez said. "We're going to have a cinema night later on for the guests, but we haven't picked the movie yet. One thing I'm sure of is that we won't be watching 'The Perfect Storm.' "
-- Contact reporter Aaron Gray at 774-8772 ext. 352 or e-mail email@example.com.
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