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Facing disaster: lessons from a traveler who weathered the NYC snowstorm

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In the past, my January column has been about predictions for the new year and some New Year's resolutions I recommend for local business. This year is different. The latest issue of the magazine NNY Business has my general forecasts for 2011, so read it there. The magazine, formerly called Absolutely Business, has new leadership and shares a publisher with this newspaper, and I have great hopes for it. Read a copy — it comes out Tuesday — and let me know if you agree.


Instead of offering general advice on business, I want to share a personal experience. I just spent two days trapped in New York City, trying to get to Europe. I had a chance to observe how individuals and businesses dealt with the challenge, and it offered some lessons that might be worth more to some of us than my usual half-baked resolutions.


The day after Christmas, a freak snowstorm dumped near-record levels of snow on New York City, closing both JFK and LaGuardia airports and stranding thousands of travelers. I found myself and my family at the Doubletree Hotel near JFK, paying a ruinous price for second-rate rooms but desperately glad to have them.


I spent much of my days standing in lines and talking with exasperated airline employees who were on duty for long hours because they were the ones who got stuck when the snow fell and they could not get home. In many cases, none of their colleagues could get to work, leaving them as stranded as the rest of us. Winter apparently came as a surprise to the aviation community this year.


The hotel I was in is an aging place whose owners have not invested much capital in many years. Rooms are battered and old, plumbing creaks, lighting has a tendency to smoke alarmingly, and there is a shortage of towels and tissues. There are a number of hotels like that in our own community, so I suspect you get the picture.


The management was quick to point out that these are desperate times and the hotel was full to bursting with unexpected travelers. Fair enough, but those are the times businesses should plan for and dream about. What if hundreds of unexpected customers showed up on your doorstep? Would your response show your strengths? Or your weaknesses?


If the owners were a disappointment, the staff was not. They were an energetic and friendly group who did everything they could to keep us happy and safe. Most of them worked a 24-hour day and when they were finally able to go home, left smiling. The battered state of the building meant that they had to work even harder, fixing problems and sorting out scarce supplies at a time when everything was under pressure.


My first lesson: When businesses stop investing capital in maintaining competitive standards, they often try to remain competitive by demanding more from their employees. That works up to a point, but it means you'd better treat those folks like gold and make sure they stay. You need them more than ever. Don't let a high unemployment rate lull you into a sense of security. There is not enough talent in the world, and you cannot replace your best workers without it costing you more.


The airport and American Airlines provided a similar lesson. JFK had closed on the afternoon of Dec. 26 as snow and wind shut down air travel and prevented planes from taking off. They continued to allow international flights to land, however, probably because they had nowhere else to go. That meant a growing population of stranded travelers, most of whom were from other countries and none of whom could go home. The snow also shut down ground transportation — no taxis, buses, subways or trains. The folks at the airport were staying there.


JFK responded by doing very little.


I came through Frankfurt Airport in Germany last spring, a few days after the volcano calmed down and air travel opened over the Atlantic. Frankfurt was filled with cots and signs for water, medical aid, food and showers. JFK, by contrast, was filled with angry people being sent back and forth by a handful of overtaxed terminal and airline workers. The airlines have slashed employment to the bone, in an attempt to remain competitive and offer low prices. The result is the complete dependence on a small group of people to serve thousands of customers.


My second lesson: If you run a business that meets a critical need for customers, be prepared for the day when things get really bad. This includes hotels, restaurants, hospitals, bus stations, taxis and tow trucks. At some point, a large number of people may need your services very badly. That is not the time for business as usual and not the time for employees who are watching the clock. Think now about what you will do if you are faced with such a situation. Plan and prepare for it. Train your employees for it. Lay in some supplies.


If you are a certain kind of person, you can take advantage of the situation by gouging desperate customers, but they will probably remember and be someone else's customer in the future.


If you do this right, the people you help will be friends for years.


The ice storm in 1998 was a perfect example. We lost power across the entire northern half of the state for weeks. It was the single biggest failure of power service in decades, but we thought the power line crews were heroes and we liked Niagara Mohawk (predecessor to National Grid) more than we ever had when they delivered electrical power as promised.


It was not the failure that defined them for us. It was the way their employees responded. We expect good service, but we respect heroic service. If you don't hire heroes, who will save your customers and your business when things get bad?


At JFK, before we realized how bad the storm would get, my son led his girlfriend and our Ukrainian exchange daughter on a trip to his favorite Indian restaurant in Brooklyn. On the way home, things got bad. The roads became impassible and public transport stalled or shut down. The young people kept coming. When taxis stalled, they switched to the subway. When the subway closed, they rode buses. When the buses quit, they walked the last two miles from the airport to the hotel in a snowstorm. My son told me about watching people sitting passively in a freezing terminal waiting for someone to help them or to tell them what to do. No heroes for them.

My third lesson: The north country produces tough, self-reliant problem solvers who don't quit and don't panic. The young people in our community are as smart and fierce as anyone, and they can be your employees. If you need heroes, look at the graduating class of our high schools and colleges. I have listened for years to well-meaning people tell us that we don't have a work force for the 21st century. Not enough technology or global awareness. Fair enough, but don't overlook guts and problem-solving skills.


My fourth lesson: The New York City public transit system needs a lot more folks from the north country. At least we know how to drive in the snow.


Greg Gardner is an associate professor of business at SUNY Potsdam. His column on business issues in the north country is published monthly in Money Matters. E-mail him at ggardner@wdt.net.

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