The ash crisis: an opportunity lost or gained?

Darroch Crawford on hospitality during the ash crisis.

Darroch Crawford
Darroch Crawford
The crisis began on April 15 when Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted causing an ash cloud to fill the air.
The crisis began on April 15 when Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted causing an ash cloud to fill the air.
Airport closures following the volcanic eruption meant many people were stranded in the UAE for six days.
Airport closures following the volcanic eruption meant many people were stranded in the UAE for six days.

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 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.

What the operators said

“We didn’t have any guests that we could identify as being stranded passengers but the occupancy was also good because there was a holiday in Saudi Arabia at the same time, so we were running quite a high occupancy. We definitely did not take advantage of the situation because we wouldn’t have hammered any stranded passengers with an increase in rates because they have no choice.”
Daniel Hajjar, CEO, Layia Hospitality

We were blessed with the layover crowd, for seven days it was 100%. There were people who were due to leave who couldn’t leave and people who were due to come who couldn’t come, so there was a balance plus every time there’s a layover the first hotels to be filled are the ones closest to the airport; the three and the four stars really did well.
Rohit Rattan, head of sales and marketing — hospitality division, Wafi

Dubai took a very good decision backed up by DTCM of what to do with guests who were stuck and I will tell you that there was a lot of discussion and my colleagues did the right thing, but there were some that should be ashamed for what they did. I heard a complaint from one of my guests who had flown first class on Emirates and was booked into Dubai for three days en-route back home [to the UK] from Australia with his wife. They were at a beach hotel in Dubai, not a cheap hotel, and he checked out because they were told there may be a window [for flights]. When they arrived at Dubai airport, the UK closed its airports again. They sent them with a chauffer driver, as they should as first class passengers, back to the hotel on the beach; that hotel would not check them in at their original rate. Now this is what gets me, they checked them in plus £300 (US $431) on top of their original cost — they had stayed there for three days and only checked out a few hours before. It is just gross profiteering.

We had people booked into [Al Maha] because it was a special time for them. You’re stuck and these are people who have saved a long time to be able to spend those three or four days and now they can’t leave, so what must I do, skin them? No, I had people that were staying there for a week that paid for meals only because that’s what they had on their credit card, they couldn’t afford it. I could have said ‘sorry your credit card has dried up, you’re out of here’. That’s hospitality? And yet that was happening.

I watched my colleagues in the airline industry and my admiration for them soared because they were just unbelievable. It was logistics and the guys really were unbelievable at it.
Tony Williams, Senior Vice President of Emirates Hotels & Resorts

What the guests said

Some excerpts from Premier Inn’s guests, taken from letters sent to the three Dubai hotels and Premier Inn head office shortly after the ash crowd crisis…

Premier Inn Dubai Investment Park
“Your staff at the hotel were some of the kindest, patient, good natured and approachable people I have come across in my time in the Middle East.”

Premier Inn Silicon Oasis
“My husband and I ended a cruise around the UAE stranded because of the volcanic ash. We were taken to Premier Inn in the middle of the desert [by Emirates Airline]. First impressions were not good when we drew up to the hotel with no landscaping around it but lots of activity from diggers and bulldozers…but the staff was marvellous. We spent six days at the Silicon Oasis and they were the best part of the whole holiday.”

Premier Inn Dubai International Airport
“The relationship between Emirates and your management really shone through. I actually do this sort of planning for a living, so I speak from some experience when I say just how professional your staff are. What a refreshing change it was to stay with people who had a real “can do” attitude.

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