April 13, 2004

Prof Studies Effect of NYC Blackout

Print More

When Prof. Robert Kwortnik, marketing, information systems, strategy and tourism, saw the picture on the front page of the Ithaca Journal during last August’s huge blackout, it triggered a strong response. The picture, which showed dozens of hotel guests sleeping on the streets in Times Square because they had been turned away from their rooms during the blackout, inspired Kwortnik to conduct a study on how the blackout impacted the hotel industry.

“The news articles painted a very bleak picture and I wanted to see how accurate it was,” said Kwortnik, who teaches in the School of Hotel Administration.

The study, entitled “When the Lights Went Out: Hotel Managers’ Perceptions of the Blackout of ’03,” was published two weeks ago by the Center for Hospitality Research. It details problems experienced by hotels during the August 14 blackout, which affected tens of millions of people in nearly a dozen states and Ontario, and recommends preparations for future blackouts.

“I was surprised that things got as bad as they did. I would have expected that hotels would have been better prepared,” he said.

Kwortnik’s survey of 93 hotels — which ranged from small highway motels to luxury resorts — revealed a plethora of problems caused by the power outage, everything from darkened rooms to broken toilets.

However, he stressed that most of the problems were not the fault of the affected hotels and that hotels generally did the absolute best they could under the circumstances. Employees “just went above and beyond to try and provide the basic comforts,” he said.

Kwortnik’s study addressed some of the more severe problems which hotels encountered. “There were people who were stuck in elevators. There were people with emergency medical conditions who had to be sent to hospitals,” he reported.

For some hotels around Cleveland, Detroit and Toronto, plumbing became problematic. “Managers said they were getting five-gallon buckets from the swimming pool to flush toilets manually,” Kwortnik said. His study found that at least half a dozen hotels had to resort to manual toilet flushing.

According to Kwortnik, some hotel managers made the best of a bad situation.

“A lot of hotels lost the ability to cook,” because exhaust fans in the kitchen lost power, so instead, “many hotels cooked on grills outside.”

“One manager said he sent his staff out to the supermarket and grabbed burgers and dogs and turned it into a party,” Kwortnik said, adding that many hotels fed their guests for free as a courtesy.

Despite the problems at many hotels, Bill Dowdall, the facilities director at the Statler, reported no problems during the blackout. The Statler’s powerful backup generator “would continue to run… as long as we could get fuel for it,” said Dowdall. “We’re very lucky here,” he added.

“[The power in] the average hotel was out for about 16 hours,” Kwortnik said. Some of the hotels, like the one in Times Square, “were in utter darkness by nightfall,” he said. “In better than 90 percent of the hotels there were no lights in the guest rooms,” Kwortnik said, adding that hotels could not let guests return to their rooms for fear of the fire hazard if the guests tried to make a light. According to Kwortnik, although some hotels had full backup diesel generators, “about half the hotels were down for the count,” and had to rely on flashlights.

“Not to have guest room lighting really surprised me,” he said.

“I can’t imagine how any businesses dealt with the blackout,” said Helena Man ’06. Man, who lives in Queens, said that her family lost power for more than 24 hours.

Problems from the blackout could have been much more severe if it had struck at another time of year, said Kwortnik.

“The industry actually lucked out,” he said. “If this had occurred in January, heating systems would have failed,” he added.

Kwortnik’s report also addressed the issue of planning for future blackouts. Kwortnik said that many managers had treated the blackout as a unique, one-time event, an attitude that he cautioned against, noting that blackouts were more common than many people believed.

Kwortnik said that the blackout should have been a wake up call for the hotel industry, so he found it “unsettling” that “about 40 percent of the hotels that I heard from said that they had done nothing after the fact,” to prepare for another blackout.

Hotels should at least “stock backup lighting, non-perishable food items and bottled water,” he advised.

“We continued to revise our emergency plans,” said Dowdall. However, he added that no significant changes were planned at the Statler.

“Guest rooms have no emergency power in them,” he said, but added that “we have a sufficient supply of flashlights and glowsticks.”

In order to conduct his study, Kwortnik sent e-mails to around 1,500 hotel managers throughout the states affected by the blackout. Of the 150 hotel managers who responded to his e-mail survey, 93 reported that their hotels were hit by the blackout. Kwortnik said that although there were some multiple choice questions on his survey, “managers had the chance to tell the story in their own words.”

For Kwortnik, the study was his first as a professor in the two years that he has taught at Cornell. He received his Ph.D. in business administration and marketing from Temple University just before being hired by the hotel school.

Archived article by Elijah Reichlin-Melnick
Sun Contributor