- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 11, 2006

Washington area tourism executives gathered last week to examine how the industry would respond to an avian flu outbreak in the nation’s capital and remind themselves of the economic hit they could take.

One concern shared by public agencies and private companies was where the sick would be housed if the city’s 8,000 hospital beds were filled to capacity.

Peter LaPorte, vice president of consulting company Olson Group and former director of the District’s Emergency Management Agency, said hotels would be reluctant to shelter the sick.

“Would you want to stay there a year later?” Mr. LaPorte asked.

Reba Pittman Walker, acting general manager of the Washington Convention Center, said the facility can serve as a distribution center but is not equipped to be a shelter or hospital.

“We are concerned about housing 3,000 people,” she said, citing the center’s 1,500 doors and lack of blankets, first-aid supplies and sustainable food supply. But the convention center is pricing trailers to store health equipment.

Hotel managers realize their facilities are easy to transform into hospitals.

“We are really a natural hospital,” said Ed Rudzinski, general manager of the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. “We have beds, bathrooms, laundry facilities. … [We] just need doctors and nurses.”

A D.C. Emergency Management Agency official told the group of about 150 hotel employees, city government officials, restaurant managers and trade association executives that the department is ready to act. If a human form of the avian influenza reaches pandemic levels, the agency would take steps to keep the public calm and set up alternate care sites, such as D.C. General Hospital, so other hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.

Another concern is the accessibility of updated information.

Kyle B. Olson, president of Olson Group, a consulting company in Alexandria that led the discussion, said communication processes were strengthened after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and that maintaining contacts will go a long way toward disaster response.

“What we learned during previous crises, whether 9/11, anthrax or Katrina, it’s about personal relationships,” Mr. Olson said. “When the sky is falling is a lousy time to introduce yourself to a roomful of people.”

Many conference participants became aware of gaps in their emergency plans.

George Lare, chief engineer at the Holiday Inn on the Hill, said ventilation systems will be a major factor in containing the virus if a hotel guest is infected with the bird flu.

“The education of employees before this even happens is paramount,” he said.

Other ideas raised at the conference included speeding hotel check-in and checkout to limit human contact and using the hotel’s ghost channel — the cable channel that typically pitches amenities — as an information outlet.

Washington, DC Convention and Tourism Corp. President and Chief Executive Officer William Hanbury stressed the importance of a unified voice.

“Communication is the No. 1 issue for us,” he said. “Twenty-seven thousand people were out of work or had their schedules cut [in Washington] after 9/11. Those numbers could happen again if [the avian flu] becomes global.”

• Retail & Hospitality appears Mondays. Contact Jen Haberkorn at 202/636-4836 or [email protected]

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