"We take for granted the most basic things: water and power."
The speaker, Nikheel Advani, ex-Ritz-Carlton, ex-Raffles, current president of the Turks and Caicos Hotel and Tourism Association and COO and principal of Grace Bay Resorts, has acquired a double expertise in his career: managing luxury hotels and coping with disaster.
He was No. 2 at the Ritz-Carlton New York, Battery Park in lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, preparing for an opening scheduled for Oct. 9, 2001. Everything changed on 9/11.
"We were in the preopening phase. We had 80 employees, with another 120 scheduled to come in the next day," he told me. "We were having our morning meeting when the chief engineer said, 'You need to come and see this.' The first plane had already hit, and we watched as the second came in. You could feel the heat of the explosion. We were in shock. Your mind couldn't process that this was real."
But his instinct was to immediately make sure his employees were accounted for and to get them out of the area as quickly as possible. The following few months were a hard lesson in assessing an unprecedented situation, stabilizing operations and reassuring staff while moving as quickly as possible to open (the new date: Jan. 18, 2002).
All the while, he was dealing with his own disrupted personal life; his apartment was one block from the twin towers.
A few years later he found himself in the role of hotel manager of the flagship Raffles Hotel in his hometown, Singapore. It was a dream assignment, but it turned nightmarish shortly after his arrival when fear of the bird flu scared visitors away from the region and his occupancy rate plunged into single digits.
After working to stabilize the situation, Advani moved in 2004 to be principal at Grace Bay Resorts in Turks and Caicos. There, he has managed the company through the financial meltdown of 2008, which hit the luxury sector of hospitality hardest. He faced Zika, an incident of norovirus and now Irma.
As the hurricane approached, he took the threat of the storm seriously.
"You put up your sandbags," he said. "You establish a communications plan among other properties and government. You make sure you're well supplied. You watch the news. You sort out who needs to stay on property. You work with the airlines to help guests who want to leave before the storm hits. We had 100 guests with us, and about 20 didn't get off the island before Irma hit; some couldn't get a flight, others felt comfortable staying."
Grace Bay itself was set up as the regional command center.
The southern islands of the Caicos were hit the hardest; on Providenciales, in the northwest where Grace Bay is located, Advani said communications went down for a period, but ultimately most of the damage to the property was cosmetic. The island government had required hotels to adhere to Miami-Dade County building codes. Of greater concern was damage done to staff's homes in older settlements. In many cases, the storm left residences uninhabitable.
"Those who didn't have a home, or if the roof was leaking, we found them accommodations," Advani said. "We fixed their roofs so the government could focus on those less fortunate. The total cost related to staff, post-storm, was half a million dollars (the hotel has 500 employees). But they were coming to work, and they saw we had a commitment to them. Other hoteliers did the same thing. One of them converted a church into temporary housing."
The property reopened the last weekend in September, three weeks after Irma hit.
Terrorism, epidemics, financial crises, natural disasters -- there was no coursework covering these topics when Advani attended hotel management school.
He and I met for breakfast on the morning that the world learned of the horrific shooting in Las Vegas earlier this month. Shocks like that, he said, are part of a "new normal" dynamic, and those in the travel industry need to be prepared for dramatic challenges.
The protocols for emergencies are quite similar, regardless of the nature of the crisis, he said.
"Keeping calm, keeping people feeling safe, identifying areas of need, coordinating with governments and others in hospitality and staying organized is key," he said. "There are very few places in the world where there's no potential for natural disasters. Crises are going to happen, and there might be significant monetary impact short term, but doing what's necessary and doing it right pays off in the long term."
Advani said he believes that planning for the long term in the Caribbean, beginning today, is crucial to easing future threats.
"In the next five to 10 years, we must have an agenda that addresses the need to reconstruct to a higher code, particularly in settlements where our workers live."
Advani has started a hotel school on the property for his employees, and he plans to organize "a proper university, a world-class education" in Turks and Caicos. But he also observed that a crisis can strengthen survivors in a way that no training program can.
"We saw incredible examples of people coming together," he said. "Out of something so heart-wrenching came something so heart-warming. It resets values."