Hilton University of Houston Hotel Weathes Storm with Service

September 30, 2008

Maintenance chief Donnie Rowell battled a 90 mph wind to secure a broken window. Housekeeping supervisor Maria Trevino-Sassa worked two full days without sleeping, without stopping. Food and beverage director Demetre Souras waited tables, folded bed sheets, cooked bacon and vacuum-dried soaked carpet. They never took their eye off the ball, never shied away from a task that needed doing.

For millions of southeast Texas residents, the winds and rains of Hurricane Ike brought hardship and suffering like few Americans have experienced in their lifetime, and some along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and its inland bays lost nearly everything.

But in the aftermath of the storm, stories of courage and endurance, of generosity and kindness began to interweave into the tales of struggle and misery. The Texas spirit began to show itself in small gestures such as a bag of ice for a neighbor without power and in large operations such as churches opening their doors to hundreds of refugees without homes.

It was in this spirit that the Hilton University of Houston Hotel, with a new leader thrown into the fire and a core of dedicated, tireless staffers, saw Hurricane Ike not as a disaster but an opportunity to fulfill its mission. It became a port in the storm, a refuge for those who had seen hotels shuttered and roads clogged, and a temporary home for top UH officials who could not afford to stay away from their campus.

“While other hotels shut their doors, closed up shop and sent guests away, we stayed open because of the needs of the University of Houston community,” said John T. Bowen, dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management.

About 15 families, plus some individual guests, rode out Hurricane Ike at the hotel, served by about as many hotel employees, who also stayed in the hotel rooms with their families —many barely slept and some didn’t sleep at all. But in the end, all were safe and satisfied, as not only did the hotel maintain power and clean water (at one point the water pressure fell), but guests were also given personalized service and some surprising amenities.

And those guests, some of whom had fled their homes in low-lying coastal areas, were both grateful for and impressed by the hotel’s performance. Among the guests was Jerald Strickland, interim senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, who was “wowed” by the service as he stayed on campus to begin planning for the return of students and staff. Elaine Charlson, associate vice chancellor of academic affairs, also gave the hotel high marks.

“It was great,” Charlson said. “They were very professional, but more than that. They were helpful and courteous. They ensured that we were comfortable. I was very glad to be there.”

Clear Lake resident George Hall, who stayed with his wife, was so “blown away” by the quality of the service during the crisis that he is planning to show his gratitude with a donation to the Hilton College. The college, which oversees the hotel and uses it as a real-world laboratory for its students, is one of the top ranked hospitality programs in the world.

“When I filled out my evaluation of the service, I checked every box with a 10,” Hall said. “The general manager and his staff handled everything in a first-class way. They took such a professional approach to ensure that not only everyone was safe but was inconvenienced as little as possible. I’ll always remember that.”

Hall was far from alone in his praise of general manager Ed Carrette, who faced an early test of his leadership and, by all accounts, exceeded any expectations. Carrette, who came to the hotel from Dallas’ Rosewood Crescent Hotel, one of the top-ranked luxury hotels in the nation, had been at the helm of the Hilton University of Houston Hotel for less than a month.

“We were so fortunate to have someone of Ed’s extraordinary caliber and experience to see us through this,” Bowen said. “He had the hotel so well prepared and executed his plan well. It’s about being proactive rather than reactive. He and his entire staff anticipated the needs and safety of the guests and provided for that. That’s what hospitality is all about.”

Carrette said he used his previous experience dealing with hurricane preparation – he was director of operations at the St. Regis Hotel in Houston during Hurricane Rita in 2005 – as a guide to planning for and operating during Ike. But he said the real credit for seeing the guests through goes to his staff.

“Everybody was working together as a team,” Carrette said. “They went way beyond their job descriptions. People just stepped up and realized that things needed to be done, and we were the only ones to do them. I was so proud to see everyone with minimal direction, not sleeping, pull everything off. At the end of the day, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to be working with during the storm.”

The preparations, quick decision-making, teamwork and dedication to service all seemed to coalesce in the Conrad Hilton Ballroom. Because of high winds and the danger of broken windows, Carrette told guests to go to the windowless ballroom and bring their bed clothes and essentials. From about 11 p.m. Friday night, they rode out the storm in safety and in comfort.

Abbas Jaffari, the executive chef at the hotel and a lecturer at the Hilton College, whipped up a delicious fajita dinner, to be followed by a complete breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage and toast the next morning. A large television was set up in a “community room” (within the ballroom) where everyone could watch the news on the storm and chat with other guests to make the night less stressful.

But nowhere was the sense of community stronger than with the hotel staff members who grew closer, who through the ordeal forged a bond of trust and reliance that many said will last for a long time to come. Trevino-Sassa, the housekeeping supervisor, spoke from the heart, and switched to her native Spanish to convey how she felt.

Un huracán destruye, pero tambien contruye. La tormenta creo algo especial. No vamos a olividarla.

Or, in English:

“A hurricane destroys, but it also builds. The storm created something special. We won’t forget it.”

Barrett Goldsmith