For the general manager at the Sandman Signature Hotel Kamloops, housing evacuees from aggressive wildfires in the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast region was a matter of balancing business with being a good citizen.
“While on paper the summer looked typical, in reality it was anything but,” said Tyson Andrykew at go2HR’s Tourism and Hospitality Occupational Health and Safety Summit held in Kelowna this past November.
For every booking from a tourist or corporate guest that was cancelled in July and August due to the impact of the fire, there were two or three government bookings, whether it was an evacuee, wildfire employee or pilot. When evacuees from Cache Creek initially began to trickle in, Andrykew established strong communications with the volunteers and emergency social services to make sure the hotel knew what to expect.
The Sandman’s role began to change on July 11 when Andrykew allowed a group to use the hotel’s 2,000-square foot banquet room as a donation distribution centre for evacuees. Hotel traffic increased as donations flooded in and thousands of evacuees came to pick up necessities.
When Williams Lake was evacuated on July 15, the Kamloops evacuation centre was relocated to the Sandman Centre off the east side of the hotel, bringing in a tremendous number of people. People were lined up at the evacuation centre day and night, whether they were staying in the centre or accessing hotel and food vouchers.
As Kamloops hotels reached capacity, evacuees had to be housed on the floor of the Sandman Centre where the ice would normally be. Air quality declined as smoke from the wildfires rolled into Kamloops, filling the hotel hallways. That, combined with the stories of hardship from the more than 30 rooms of evacuees was taking a toll on the staff.
“You can’t really get out of the smoke,” Andrykew recalled. “You go home and you feel socked in. You go to work and you feel socked in. You’re trying to provide a service to people who are going through a really tough time.”
Andrykew quickly realized he needed to shift the mindset from being a hotel to being an essential service. At the daily morning meetings, Andrykew encouraged his team, telling them that “we are here to help these people in their greatest time of need”, bringing out the staff’s desire to help. He put on additional hands so staff could take their time, really listen to the evacuees and try to connect with them. This played a critical role in turning the team around and having them step up to the challenge.
Andrykew himself recalled being a sounding board for one evacuee from Loon Lake who was going through an emotional roller coaster – he was certain his ranch had burned, but then he was getting pictures of it from people on the ground and realizing the actual building itself was still intact amid the devastation.
“[Spending time with the evacuees] had a tremendous impact,” said Andrykew, adding that the team had never had so many thank you’s, and the guests were talking about how great the staff were.
Andrykew learned many lessons from the wildfires, like how people make mistakes in emergency and disaster situations that can lead to letdowns in communication. There were cases where the hotel held a room it thought was booked when it was not — tourism operators must prepare to experience unexpected business costs when dealing with disasters.
“It can be difficult to balance business with being a good citizen when disaster strikes and you’re thrust into action,” he concluded. “Finding that right balance is important. Flexibility, mindset and finding where your business can best help is really critical. That’s where you can really make a difference and it’s doing right by your people, your company and ultimately your community.”