Marriott International

Pin-to-pin and texting proved reliable during Katrina. So when Rita hit, employees were briefed and ready.

Marriott International Inc. has found itself in the middle of some of the world's worst recent disasters. It had dozens of properties damaged in Hurricane Katrina, its World Trade Center hotel was destroyed in the Sept. 11 attacks, and its hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, was bombed in August 2003, to name a few. Even recent accidents have affected its operations. For example, February's undersea cable cut in the Persian Gulf disrupted Internet service to Marriott hotels in the region. (Read more about the broken cable's impact.)

"We have been tested as a company in nearly every natural and manmade event that you can think of over the last 10 years," says Wendell Fox, senior vice president of shared services.

Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott's crisis response teams have learned that no two disasters are exactly alike and each offers its own lessons. But with the right people, processes and governance in place, it's possible to be better prepared for whatever the next disaster might be.

Take Hurricane Katrina, for example. Though Marriott's crisis teams were prepared for the storm, its magnitude and the subsequent isolation of the affected area because of flooding surpassed their expectations.

As Katrina rolled northward through the Gulf of Mexico, crisis teams made sure that all systems were backed up and that all generators were working properly. They took a detailed inventory of assets on-site for insurance purposes and established shutdown procedures. But not even those precautions could protect the hotels. Some 63 Marriott properties in the region were flooded, and many faced security issues. Network circuits were knocked out, and communication was difficult.

The disaster highlighted some crucial recovery steps. For example, Page Petry found that when assessing a property's needs, the needs of employees personally affected by the disaster also have to be considered. "Have the right complement of associates coming in on a task force" from outside the region, says Petry, Marriott's senior vice president of information resources, North American lodging field services.

Put to the test

After Katrina, Marriott created a rapid-response plan to pull together people with a cross-section of skills from various regions. "Once you identify the situation, you can determine what skills you need and then deploy," Petry notes.

And make sure the recovery teams use a mix of cell phones and BlackBerry devices with service from different carriers, she advises. "Different components would fade in and out at different times as the city came back online. Our challenge was to get a good handle on what technologies were up," Petry explains. BlackBerry pin-to-pin communication and texting proved to be the most reliable.

Just two weeks after Katrina, that lesson was put into practice when Hurricane Rita struck the region. Employees were quickly educated on the BlackBerry features, which became part of the disaster recovery plan. "So it was that immediate sense of turning something around and putting it into practice," Petry says.

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