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Sun 6 Jun 2010 04:00 AM

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The ash crisis: an opportunity lost or gained?

Premier Inn Hotels LLC managing director Darroch Crawford asks whether hotels in Dubai looked after guests as well as they could have done during April's volcanic flight disruptions.

The ash crisis: an opportunity lost or gained?

The recent disruption to flights to and from Europe was an opportunity for the UAE to reach an audience of visitors largely ignorant of what it has to offer, other than as a transit stop. Thousands of passengers were stranded here for a week or more in the aftermath of the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano, yet despite the disruption to their travel plans and the personal traumas caused, many left raving about their experiences here and determined to return. Others however, may never come back. If you are a hotelier, was it an opportunity lost or gained?

I first got to hear about the disruption to flights to Europe quite early on April 15, when Paul Bridger, general manager of Premier Inn at Dubai International Airport, called me on his mobile from Terminal 3.

"You wouldn't believe the scenes here" he said. "All flights to the UK have been cancelled and transit passengers are arriving in Dubai in their hundreds with no connecting flight to take. Emirates are looking to book people in to hotels on full board and we're gearing up to take as many as we can."

By the end of the day all 819 rooms in our three Premier Inns were full and we were gearing up to serve three meals a day to some 1500 guests. All days off were cancelled, but little did we know then that this would continue for at least six days. From the beginning we decided that the most important thing we could do was communicate effectively with our guests. Disruption Notice Boards were installed in each of the properties and updated whenever there was news, but it was face to face conversations that were really required. Our three GMs spent all weekend and most of the week in their front halls talking to guests, providing what information was available and often just listening to their woes and helping them deal with them as well as they could.

What could have been a disastrous situation, with stressed and disgruntled guests, turned instead into a triumph that will stand us in good stead for years to come. It cost us a minimal amount to provide nappies or baby food for infants or toiletries to those without, but what an impact it had. As the delay became longer and longer, we laid on free shuttle buses to the malls and also once a day to the beach. Our customers in many cases became our friends as well and there was many a tear shed on both sides when they eventually left. Emirates Airline too gained fantastic goodwill for standing by their stranded passengers throughout.

When the flights eventually re-started we rang every guest in the early hours of the morning and laid on buses to take them to the airport. Nearly everyone got away on that first day, because they were well forward in the queue and whilst we could have had another night's business from many if we had not acted so fast, most of the goodwill we had generated would have been lost. Since our guests left we have been inundated with letters and e-mails from them, praising the way in which they were looked after and thanking our management and staff for the personal care the received. I have never experienced such an overwhelmingly positive response from guests staying in an absolutely packed to capacity hotel and I've been trying to figure out why it is that people were so grateful for what we did.

Creating camaraderie

There is no doubt in my mind that good communication was a key factor and that empathy with their situation was essential in winning them over to our side. As a "limited service" brand we don't employ porters, but as the coaches arrived, all hands, including some from our regional office, were employed to smooth the arrival of guests to their rooms. Over the days strong friendships were formed between guests and they had little else to do much of the time except talk. Camaraderie in adversity evolved and guests shared the experiences they had. Small gestures became big news and our people became heroes, because they showed that they cared.

Now in truth I have little to go on about what happened elsewhere, but anecdotally the situation was very mixed. An airport hotel that shall remain nameless allegedly asked its stranded passengers to leave, because they could get a better rate from other guests. We found that passengers staying at another nearby hotel were coming to us for information, as none was being provided in their own. Such was the need for people to communicate it seems that our guests were now talking to others staying elsewhere. Two of our complimentary letters contained reports of a competitor hotel, where the guess were so ill-informed that it took them two days longer to get a flight home.

Tripadvisor tells similar stories if you are interested to check. Such websites sort out the sheep from the goats these days, and rightly so. The DTCM got involved and instructed hotels not to raise rates and not to raise cancellation charges when a guest couldn't get here through no fault of their own. How sad an indication of our industry it is that we had to be told to do that. It's a well known fact that disgruntled guests tell more people about their experiences than happy ones. I think that in this case, the reactions were so extreme that the reverse might be the case, but was the situation an opportunity won or lost? Was your hotel's reputation enhanced or seriously damaged? Only you can truly judge, but good or bad we all learned something that week that should help us out the next time the world suddenly becomes a much bigger place.

Darroch Crawford is the managing director of Premier Inn Hotels LLC.

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