I just got off the phone with the general manager of the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, William T. Walsh, who reached out to me after he heard of my comments on social media. (I had this blog post and numerous tweets using the hashtag #APSAonFire.) Mr. Walsh said he had not read anything I had written because he “doesn’t do social media” (I guess the Marriott doesn’t have a printer for this stuff to be printed out before him before he contacted me) but he wanted to reach out to me “regarding the situation that occurred hear [sic] on 8/29.”
When we connected by phone, Mr. Walsh started by asking me what I thought happened at the hotel. I said I could not say what happened over all the hotel; I could only talk about my experience. I then highlighted three things: (1) poor evacuation planning, with no lighting part of the area on the evacuation route–people had to use cell phone flashlights to see the way out; (2) very poor communication over what was happening, with conflicting information, over the course of the 1 am to 8 am period of evacuation; and (3) failure to follow up, ever (at least with me, until I went to “social media”) to make sure guests were okay afterwards. On this last point, I told Mr. Walsh I saw elderly people and people with babies lying on the carpet in front of the hotel elevators for hours. Did they not think it worth following up with each guest to make sure everyone was ok after the emergency was over? (I did not even raise the issue of whether he offered anyone refunds for their night on the floor–something I heard was offered to some who complained. UPDATE (9/9): After hearing from someone that they received a refund, I went and checked my credit card bill and see I was credited for the stay on the first night on Sept. 5, something Marriott did not let me know they had done.)
On this last point, Mr. Walsh somewhat conceded the point. He said that he checked with the conference leader after the emergency who said they had heard of no one had gotten hurt. [Update: Seth Masket tweets: “Curious how they claim no one was hurt. I know of 1 person who went to GW ER for smoke inhalation. Could be more?”] I said that it was great news no one was hurt, but that someone in the hospitality business should be reaching out to make sure that guests who were inconvenienced and kept up all night were okay and did not need any extra help or accommodations. Especially those with special needs. (I watched two men carry another man, who was disabled, down ten flights of stairs.)
He had no response to my point (1) about the bad lighting on the way out and the general evacuation planning.
But he was emphatic on my second point that the 7-hour period of evacuation was handled as well as could be expected under the circumstances. He said that there were 7 separate fires across three separate buildings which were lit. He said the person that lit them was trying to hurt people, to kill people. (He suggested an arrest could soon be made, pointing to this Washington Post article saying hopefully police will be able to put “2 and 2 together” in this case.) He said they did not know what they were dealing with, and it could have been a terrorist attack. The priority was evacuating the building. He said that 110 people did not evacuate their rooms and they needed to help the firefighters get people out of the rooms. He said some people complained there were not enough blankets or food for people. “Are you kidding me?,” he asked. He said better communication was not possible because things were constantly changing.
When I said there should have been more staff brought in as this dragged on for 8 hours, he said that the metro was closed at the time and the police were not letting people into the area, so they could not bring in more staff.
I think Mr. Walsh is probably correct about how they needed to prioritize during this emergency, and the hotel no doubt faced a difficult situation. Still, the hotel could have (1) had better evacuation plans and routes; (2) made a better and more concerted effort to communicate with guests; and (3) followed up with guests afterwards to make sure they were okay.
It was a very interesting call because in my experience those in the hospitality industry usually are so pleasant to the point of obsequiousness in dealing with hotel guests. Mr. Walsh was not that. He was defensive, bordering on the belligerent. A very interesting model for customer relations.