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A new hotel always has many pre-opening challenges to confront from deadlines going unmet or postponed, to products not arriving on time.
For Neves this was nothing new and with patience and hard work he and his colleagues always found solutions bringing the launch back on track. The team was recruited and trained in a very short space of time and Neves felt they were making real progress. The hotel opening was a success and bookings began to keep the hotel busy.
But, just three months after the hotel opened, the Ebola outbreak struck Sierra Leone.
Neves said, “I’d been through crises before, working as a GM for a private hotel in Tunisia during the Arab Spring. And I knew from the moment I arrived in Freetown that I had to be committed to my job as a leader, trying to instill trust, loyalty and confidence – both in the outside market and in the staff. So, when everyone else seemed to be leaving Sierra Leone, I decided to stay with my team. I also brought my family from Portugal to spend their summer vacation in Freetown.
“I know how important it is to the local community, including the owners and the staff, that our hotel remains open, whatever is going on around us. The daily rumours, the uncertainty of what might happen at the end of each day - plus wide-scale cancellations by most of the international air carriers - made life very uncertain and unpredictable.”
The crisis left Neves with some very difficult decisions to make as his hotel lay empty of guests, and he was forced to take some necessary cost cutting measures. Neves knew he had to find a way to reduce the payroll and he had two choices: either terminate the entire staff contracts, or find an alternative. He decided that the best solution would be to try to keep the entire team, they were after all well trained and had become the hotel’s greatest asset.
Neves sought support from the owners and unions and held a general staff meeting, where he fully explained the situation. The staff all accepted the proposed salary reduction, signing a document to safeguard the decision.
Neves says, “Since that day, our team spirit has been fantastic. We are like a family where everyone is motivated. Recently I invited the heads of departments and their assistants for a lunch in our restaurant as part of my team building process. We got to spend some time together in a relaxed atmosphere - it was a magic moment.”
As the crisis continued the hotel has welcomed many international guests from organisations related to the treatment of Ebola.
In mid-September, there was a three-day lock down in Sierra Leone when everybody had to stay in one place so that health care workers could visit them. Neves seized the moment and created a promotion for the local community - targeted mainly at expats – inviting them to spend these three days in the hotel. He organised an all-inclusive style programme including themed nightly buffets, daytime entertainment and evening movies. This received great coverage in the local press and was a huge success.
Neves says, “I feel that it has been important to stay with my team during this difficult and challenging period – and to tell everyone the true facts, while guiding our owners about what must be done to prevent any collateral damage. Our team is united and we are all are pulling in the same direction.
“Very importantly, we are not showing any fear to the local community. I have given a number of interviews to national and international TV channels and newspapers emphasising the need to face up to Ebola – and to prevent it by taking all necessary precautions. Our hotel must be kept spotlessly clean and orderly at all times. And we must continue to provide good service, good food and good comfort.”
And the hotel has gone even further in its bid to help the local community dealing with the crisis. A local orphanage has seen an increase in numbers as Ebola leaves children without their parents and although recovered themselves, extended family are fearful to take them in, in case they bring the virus with them.
Seeing it as a moral obligation to use their corporate responsibility pledge to help the children, Neves and his team donated assorted food items to the St George’s Foundation at Grafton as a helping hand to feed more than 35 orphans whose parents were killed by Ebola. Neves said, “We feel committed to do this, we feel naturally responsible to help these kids.”
Reported in the local press, front office manager and trainer on responsible business, Edward Mensah said that the donation will not be a one off event but a bi-annual one in which donations would be presented to the orphanage alongside planned activities. “It is our home now,” he said.
Reservations manager and business coordinator, Hassatu Serry said that the orphanage met the Radisson Blu criteria. She said, “Everyone knows how difficult it is (to survive) without your parents, therefore we want to support the children so that they know we are there for them.”
Receiving the items, the Foundation’s director Justina Conteh explained that when the organisation started 11 years ago it was intended to help street children who were abused, and trace family members to reunite them with their natural families. But she said, “With the advent of Ebola, we opened our doors to take in Ebola survivors, and orphans who were not infected by the virus.” The foundation is faced with numerous challenges, one of which is food shortages, so the intervention from Neves and his team was very welcome.
The story of the Radisson Blu Mammy Yoko Hotel highlights that disasters can come in all forms and hotels need to be prepared to deal with anything that may arise. For more information on Ebola and other microbials which might threaten the hospitality industry, hoteliers can visit the Ecolab website.