Wine country hotels navigate ongoing wildfires
Wine country hotels navigate ongoing wildfires
18 OCTOBER 2017 8:27 AM

The ongoing wildfires in California’s wine country have posed a danger to hoteliers and their guests, but the situation has also opened up the opportunity to show the true definition of hospitality.

REPORT FROM CALIFORNIA—The deadliest wildfires in Northern California’s recorded history have destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, killed at least 41 people and displaced countless others. Some hotels, resorts and wineries in the region are among the losses, while others have stepped in to host evacuees, which in some cases include their own employees and their families.

The Meritage Resort & Spa in Napa is one hotel that has opened its doors to evacuees and first responders.

Speaking last week, GM Michael Palmer said his hotel, which is not in an evacuation area, has been at about 60% occupancy, with guests made up mostly of evacuees, as well as some firefighters and a helicopter pilot. Many of the guests staying there from the Silverado area had just learned they were allowed back to their homes, he said.

The hotel saw some guest cancelations through the month, he said, but that allowed the hotel to open up much needed room for evacuees.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do that if groups hadn’t canceled,” he said. “It’s now about caring for the community rather than revenue for the month. What we do today will define us as an organization moving forward. I think that’s clearly the most important thing as we take care of these people.”

All guests are paying a flat rate of $99 per night when the hotel normally would charge $300 to $400 a night this time of year, he said, and the hotel has waived the resort fee.

The hotel’s director of food and beverage came up with the idea to turn part of the hotel’s ballroom into a community center/lounge for evacuees, Palmer said. The hotel provides them with breakfast, lunch, dinner and refreshments throughout the day, he said. TVs are set up to show the latest news on the fires, he said, but there’s also another area with a popcorn machine and a big-screen TV that shows nothing but movies.

“Instead of being stuck in a hotel room or in a lobby, people want to be with other people,” he said. “They’re all in the same predicament. There are neighbors talking to neighbors who evacuated. It provides a comfort level for them.”

Palmer said he and staff members help to provide that human interaction by being available to talk and hear their stories. That’s helped to keep the guests in good spirits, he said, despite the circumstances of their stay.

Some of the guests have lost their homes and can’t go back, he said. One couple actually has the same insurance broker as the hotel, and has made arrangements to stay 30 days, or more if needed, he said.

“They’re safe, and they’re happy despite losing their home,” he said. “That’s been the sentiment for people who are here. They’re more concerned about their safety than the asset they’re leaving behind. To them, their lives together are more important than what they left behind.”

The hotel waived pet fees for guests who fled the wildfires, and is allowing them to bring their dogs into the lounge area and walk them around the hotel. The staff normally provides pet beds and bowls, he said, but they ran out.

Because the hotel is operating at 60% occupancy and has a large laundry facility on site, the hotel is also helping two evacuation centers by donating and washing linens, Palmer said.

Five staff members had to evacuate their homes and were staying at the hotel, he said. Four were able to go back, but one lost their home. “We’re going to do whatever we can to take care of that particular person who lost their home,” he said.

Staff members overall have been stressed, he said.

The hotel has made exceptions for those who are unable to work because they have no safe way of getting to the hotel, or because their children’s schools are closed, he said.

Those who have come into work have a reduced workload, he said. Housekeepers typically handle 14 rooms a day, he said, but that’s been lowered to seven. Management is also making sure the F&B staff members don’t overexert themselves.

Current assessment
Firefighters have encountered lighter winds, which they hope will help bring the wildfires under control, Reuters reports. At this point, the fires have destroyed more than 213,000 acres, including Napa and Sonoma counties. The state’s firefighting agency stated it hoped to have the fires fully controlled by the end of the week.

As areas are cleared, more and more evacuees have been allowed to return to their homes; in Sonoma County, 40,000 remained displaced as of Tuesday, according to the news agency.

More than 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed, Reuters reports, including “entire neighborhoods in the city of Santa Rosa … reduced to ashes.”

Meanwhile, some wineries might run into issues making claims on their insurance policies, especially when it comes to receiving payouts for their vineyards, Reuters reports.

“Crops are covered, but not vines, and policies often impose quirky limits, such as when grapes spoil due to electrical failures instead of fires,” the article states. “The blazes came as harvest was ending and production was underway at many wineries.”

In 2016, Napa Valley reported receiving 3.5 million visitors—35.5% of whom stayed overnight, according to data from Visit Napa Valley. Visitors who stay in hotels spend on average $401.59 per person per day, according to the data, while day-trippers spend on average $146 per person per day.

Hotel industry statements
Through a statement, Hilton reported that a number of its properties in the areas near the wildfires remained opened and operational while a few closed, including the Hilton Garden Inn Napa, the Hilton Garden Inn Santa Rosa, Sonoma County and the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country.

“Hilton’s properties in the area have implemented their emergency preparedness plans, and remain in close contact with local authorities,” the statement said.

Marriott International initially stated that while it was closely monitoring the wildfires in the Napa Valley area, none of its hotels were at risk at the time.

“However, a few of our hotels are temporarily closing to incoming reservations as a result of poor air quality and/or reduced hotel services,” the company said in a prepared statement. “In the event the situation changes and we are instructed by authorities to evacuate, we have plans in place to facilitate the movement of guests and associates to alternate locations. The safety and security of our guests and employees is always a top priority at Marriott.”

On its website, the Fountain Grove Inn posted a statement explaining the hotel and restaurant “fell victim to the devastating fire in Sonoma County, and guests were subsequently evacuated.” The hotel is closed and unable to conduct business “in any capacity.” Attempts to contact management at the hotel were unsuccessful.

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