Hotel IT staff begin the road back after Katrina

With its three hotels in New Orleans out of commission in the wake of deadly Hurricane Katrina, IT workers at Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. are focusing on moving data systems elsewhere so they can get critical operations up and running again.

After five days of work by the four-person IT staff, operations at the three hotels — a Sheraton in the 500 block of Canal Street and two W Hotels in the city’s French Quarter and downtown — are far away from returning to normal operations. But data backup hardware and other equipment is being prepared for shipment to other hotel locations.

The three hotels share an IT director and a telecommunications specialist, while the Sheraton has two systems managers and the W Hotels share another systems manager.

“You just sort of cope,” said Mark McBeth, vice president of information technology, North America, at Starwood’s White Plains, N.Y., headquarters.

“The team was dealing with a crisis, and they don’t even know if their own homes are OK.”

As the storm approached and hotel guests were being moved into ballrooms in the buildings for safety reasons, the IT staffers were busy moving critical servers and other equipment up from the ground floors of the buildings to protect them from flooding. They also completed extra backups of on-site hotel data, including catering contracts and sales information for upcoming conventions and meetings.

To help stranded guests in each hotel, the staffers also went to work in the ballrooms, hooking up telephones and computers with Internet access so guests could communicate with loved ones until electricity and communications links were lost.

They even set up DVD players and screens to entertain young children as the storm approached and used power from backup generators to power up the hotel’s electronic card key systems. That way, guests could retrieve personal items from hotel rooms during the storm.

“We were obviously really proud of the response we got from our teams,” said Bill Oates, Starwood’s CIO. “They stayed focused on our guests and the rest of the staffs. I think they did some really good reaction up front. It looks like they really mitigated the classic IT issues.”

By Tuesday, when it became obvious that damage from the hurricane and the flooding that followed would not be reversed quickly, the IT workers began solidifying long-term disaster plans, McBeth said. Starwood is now preparing to shuttle sales, catering and convention data for the three hotels via its employees to a company-owned Westin hotel in Atlanta, where a remote office is being assembled.

The data is critical, McBeth said, because even if the New Orleans hotels won’t be operating again anytime soon, Starwood employees will be able to work with customers to move their events to other locations around the country, including South Florida or Atlanta.

The data will also be available to help emergency officials and others determine who was in the hotel during the storm so that their safety can be corroborated. “We’re really dealing with guests and [hotel employees] first and all of the data second,” McBeth said.

By last night, all guests and many hotel employees had been evacuated from the hotels by buses out of the city, he said.

Starwood is now bringing in a team of people from other locations around the world that have experienced massive storm damage, McBeth said. “We’ve got people who have done this before” and can offer their expertise and experiences in operations, IT and other hotel systems, he said.

While data is being moved and recovery efforts are beginning, said Oates, the job ahead appears enormous.

“This one is unusual,” he said. “The [typical] disaster planning certainly isn’t assuming you’re going to have extended problems” beyond a few days or weeks. “This is certainly going to be longer than we would have ever experienced at any individual hotel.”

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