Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

He used to think "Why is it always me?" It seemed that no matter where he was stationed, hotelier Markus Platzer, currently general manager of Washington's Willard InterContinental, found himself in crisis situations.

In 2002 in Prague -- with the post-9/11 drop in travel still a recent memory -- floods caused drainage water to back up into his property. The hotel closed for six weeks to clean up.

"We were meeting in the lobby in Welly [rain]boots," he recalled.

The 2008 recession caused pain felt by hoteliers worldwide -- Platzer didn't feel singled out by that -- but in 2010, it again felt specific to him. For three weeks, he endured 7% occupancy at the two Bangkok properties he was overseeing because they were in a part of the city that was convulsed by violent political demonstrations. When activists took firm control of the area, he sent his few remaining guests elsewhere and closed the doors, again for six weeks.

Covid-19 presents a very different kind of challenge to hoteliers and others in the travel industry, but Platzer identified threads that were common to all his previous crises, and he has developed, if not a plan, a point of view.

Typically at this time of year, occupancy at the Willard would be in the high 80s; it's in the low 50s. "March is finished," he said, and April's looking problematic: The annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund has always kept the Willard buzzing, but it has already been announced that the conference will be conducted online this year.

As I was speaking with Platzer last week in an antechamber of the Willard lobby, a worker put a small flower display on the table in front of us. It reminded me of something Ritz-Carlton co-founder Horst Schulze had once shared with me. In the dark days after 9/11, I told Platzer, Schulze went into the lobby of a Ritz-Carlton and was surprised to see an empty vase where there typically had been an enormous display of flowers.

Markus Platzer, general manager of the Willard Intercontinental in Washington. To combat Covid-19 he has, if not a plan, a point of view.
Markus Platzer, general manager of the Willard Intercontinental in Washington. To combat Covid-19 he has, if not a plan, a point of view. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

"I asked the GM why, and he told me that their occupancy was only 70%," Schulze had said. "I asked if he were trying for 50."

This struck a chord with Platzer.

"Flowers brighten the moment," he said. "We have cherry blossom season coming up in Washington. Everyone is wondering what will be canceled. The Willard, in particular, is known for cherry blossom decorations. All the palm trees you see in the lobby are replaced with cherry trees. Would we skip this year because of low occupancy? It's not even discussed.

"That would be the wrong thing to do. It's more important than ever to [maintain the tradition]. We hosted the first Japanese delegation to Washington in 1860. This is what we do. You will be able to have afternoon tea in the Willard, with cherry blossoms. As usual. I may change some other things that you won't notice, but you won't see that change."

He added: "There needs to be hope in times like these. The blossoms give us hope. It makes my day."

A tremendous amount has occurred since I spoke with Platzer six days ago. Regulations about public gatherings have been enacted and people’s attitudes about going out in public have shifted dramatically. But other comments he made about weathering a crisis still have relevance.

He believes the key to crisis management -- in addition to valuing and ultimately preserving what is unique and essential to your business -- is clear communications to both guests and staff.

"The most important thing you can do as a leader is stay calm and focused," he said. "Make sure the staff knows that you -- and not rumors -- are the credible source for facts. With social media, that gets tougher every year."

Guest and staff safety and security have to be the top priority, he said. "And if the guests go, it's more important than ever to look after your people."

Ironically, it is the negative experiences of the past that make him an optimist. 

"I'm very positive and maybe wouldn't have been so convinced we will get through this if I hadn't been through some of those terrible times," he said. "The Willard has survived 202 years. It will survive this."

This column was updated March 16.


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