November/December 2003 Hotelier

Hoteliers in China coped with SARS
by taking swift action BY RUTH LOR MALLOY

When the World Health Organization (WHO) first
advised travelers to avoid certain cities in China
in March 2003 because of SARS, hotel occupancy
plunged to between zero and 20 per cent. Put to the test,
hotel managers were forced to make decisions about pay-
cuts and layoffs, whether or not to enforce the use of face
masks for both staff and guests, and whether or not to take
guests' temperatures.

In Beijing, which had the most cases ---2,521 probable
the Holiday Inn Lido disinfected its elevators once an 
hour and its hallways twice a day. "Our cleaning expense*
went up 250 per cent." says general manager Jeffery
Blown, who doesn't expect business to recover until at
lease the spring 2004. (The WHO lifted the travel ban too
late for overseas tourists to make plans for the autumn.)

"We were the first hotel to wear gloves and masks," says
Cecelia Lui, Director of Public Relations at The Peninsula
Palace in Beijing. "We felt we were giving people confi-
dence. We disinfected our public areas once every
30 minutes, and also stopped putting ice cubes in the

SARS ATTACK: Metropole Hotel n Hong Kong - from which SARS spread to Toronto; 2. At the Capital Hotel, Beijing, assistant manager Ann An and David Cao of Sales demonstrate a temperature scanner; 3 Wang Zheng Rong disinfects the elevator at the Holiday Inn, Lido, Beijing, while General Manager Jeffery Brown observes; 4 Disinfectant mat at The Salisbury, Hong Kong; 5. Doctor on duty Leni Gu of The Peninsula Palace's medical services, demonstrates an ear thermometer on Cecelia Lui, director of Public Relations

closed some floors and left individually packaged masks in all guest rooms." Staff were also required to wash their hands for 15 seconds.  As business slowed, and after seven days of staff meetings, the hotel decided to give staff a choice between four days unpaid leave per month or home leave with 40 per cent of salary for one or two months.

In an effort to prevent the spread of SARS, after guests checked out of the five-star Kunlun Hotel in Beijing, housekeeping closed guest rooms for three days. At the four-star Capital Hotel in Beijing, staff took temperatures using a Chinese-made scanner that sounded an alarm if anyone with a fever passed its lens.  "In some cities, if a hotel had a single case of SARS, the government closed the hotel," says Andrew Guo, Marketing manager of the InterContinental Hotels Group, which has more than 40 hotels in China. "[Luckily] we had no cases in any of the InterContinenal hotels."

In Haikou, in southern China's Hainan Island, the Crowne Plaza had zero occupancy, according to Leon Lee of the Crowne  Plaza North Beijing.  Nevertheless, staff were prepared to work for nothing, says Lee, nothing they preferred being in the hotel "learning English from the general manager" rather than languishing at home. Lee also relayed a story about the owner of the Holiday Inn (in Hanghou) whose general manager suggested a 50 percent cut in salary.  Touched by the gesture, the owner promised no one would get a pay cut, no matter how long the recovery took.

The city of Shanghai, a two-hour flight southeast of Beijing, quarantined all arrivals from infected areas for two weeks, despite the fact it had only eight cases of SARS. Several Chinese-operated hotels temporarily closed, whereas international hotels remained open throughout the ordeal. The Pudong Shangri-la, in Shanghai, took everyone's temperature upon entering the hotel, and referred the sick directly to their rooms or to a hospital. At check in, guests were asked to fill out forms for tracking information - names of people they were in contact with the last city they visited and flight numbers. The hotel also kept a record of taxi receipts. Staff were required to wear masks but guests were given an


At the Westin Shanghai Bund Center, staff didn't have to wear masks until it was deemed mandatory by the government. Many western guests fled the hotel, while those who lived there avoided going outside, says Veronica Ann Lee, director of Marketing Communications at the Westin Shanghai. The hotel did not lower its room rates, and only laid off casuals and trainees who finished their contracts. The hotel also trained staff to look for symptoms of the illness. .  Many women guests fled the hotel, while those who lived there avoided going outside, says Veronica Ann Lee, director of Marketing Communications at the Westin Shanghai.  The hotel did not lower its room rates, and only laid off casuals and trainees who finished their contracts.  The hotel also trained staff to look for symptoms of the illness.

At the Shangri-La in Shenchen, China, next door to Hong Kong and about 80 kilometers from the virus' origin, the hotel avoided contamination by refraining from serving tables in its dining room until after guests sat down.  Staff also served individual meals, rather than the usual common serving dishes, says T.S. Cheah, director of Marketing.  During SARS, the Shangri-La did not drop in room rate but over the recovery period in June, it set out to capture the local market with a 50-percent discount that ended in August.  In mid-July, business was back to normal with a 70 to 80 percent occupancy rate.

Despite the virus, Beijing's Peninsula hotel still attracted diners. In fact, Hong Kong's Urban Council has for the past several years declared it the "Cleanest Hotel Kitchen."  Hand-cleansing gel is available at the reception desk and in the restaurants and there are also sneeze guards at buffet tables.  Three staff members were designated to disinfect the 25 elevators twice an hour during the epidemic.

The Harbour Plaza Metropolis in Hong Kong closed its buffet and Thai restaurants during the crisis.  Over 50 per-cent of its rooms are service suites with long-term leases, so these were the least affected. It did not close entire floors like most other hotels. 

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, which saw 1,755 cases of SARS, the Hong Kong Hotels Association (HKHA) reported hoteliers consulted each other by e-mail but in the end made their own decisions.  Some decided to stop offering buffets and cleaned their swimming pools every hour or twice a day.  Suppliers further helped the cause by deferring loan payments. 

" We always felt confident SARS would go away like a typhoon," says James Lu of the HKHA. "In times of crisis, everyone has to come together.  When SARS broke out, we issued daily circulars - collecting the most reliable info from the government.  We engaged a public relations agency to handle crisis management and squelch rumors."

At the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong, where the first cases of SARS spread to Toronto, the manager declined comment.  But his occupancy rate in August was 97 per cent. 

If this should happen again, "the fear level will be lower," notes Sian Griffiths, regional director of Public Relations at the Peninsula. "The media will not treat it as dramatically.  If SARS comes back, we will handle it quickly and efficiently." 

Ruth Lor Malloy is a freelance writer and photographer based in Toronto, Ontario.

Ms. Malloy is author of "China Guide" a regularly updated travel guidebook on China.

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