by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | November 9, 2012

Ten days after Superstorm Sandy pummeled the Northeast and left an estimated $50 billion in economic damages in its wake, hotels that were forced to close their doors and evacuate guests have reopened. But behind the business-as-usual facade that greets guests as they stream through lobbies and past welcome desks, a very different, little talked-about financial-relief effort has been urgently deployed. It has nothing to do with restoring occupancy levels or increasing room rates, but everything to do with taking care of employees, and the larger community, in a time of crisis.

From companywide initiatives to efforts by individual hoteliers, hotels have deployed emergency relief funds and assistance programs. Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels Corp., which has long been weathering a storm of pitched labor battles with hotel unions, has already raised close to $26,000 (more than half of its goal of $50,000) through its Employee Hurricane Relief Fund, which will go directly to helping Hyatt family members in need across the East Coast. The fund, which was established with GiveForward, an online fundraising site, is accepting donations through Dec. 31, 2012. "The  support has been simply overwhelming," said a Hyatt representative. In addition, employees at the company's Andaz 5th Avenue in New York City are collecting relief supplies, which they plan to drive and deliver to shelters in the hard-hit Rockaways section of Queens, home to many Hyatt workers.

On Thursday of this week, Marriott International announced that the company, which has hundreds of properties in the affected areas (including the Ritz-Carlton, Battery Park, and the New York Marriott Downtown, both of which remain closed until next week), along with the J. Willard & Alice S. Marriott Foundation, would donate $500,000 for Hurricane Sandy disaster relief. Of those  funds, $250,000 will immediately be directed to the American Red Cross to help those communities that are home to Marriott associates; the remainder is pledged for longer-term recovery. "Nearly 10,000 associates representing Marriott hotels work in the hard-hit New York and New Jersey regions, and a number of these associates have suffered significant damage to their homes or are still without power," said president and CEO Arne Sorenson in a statement announcing the donation. In addition, Marriott is encouraging members of its Marriott Rewards program to donate points for contributions to the American Red Cross.

For its part, Starwood set up a help line for associates who needed assistance, and also set aside rooms at several of its New York City properties for staff who lost power to come in to charge up, use the Internet, take showers, etc. The Sheraton Atlantic City offered rooms to staff as well as to local residents who had been evacuated from their homes by FEMA due to the storm. In addition, the chain has invited Starwood Preferred Guest members to donate Starpoints to the American Red Cross to help in relief efforts. SPG will match Starpoint donations made through the end of November.

In New Jersey, Caesars Entertainment also is making its community spirit a major focus. On Nov. 6, the casino company, which has four properties in Atlantic City, opened Sandy Central, a one-stop help center for the hundreds of employees that work at it's Bally's, Caesar's, Harrah's and Showboat resorts. Operating from the first-floor offices of Caesars' human resources department in the Bally's tower, Sandy Central will offer a centralized location where employees can register their needs, including the need for temporary housing, and pick up donations of clothing, cleaning supplies and food, much of it donated by the company's affiliates and suppliers. It doesn't stop there, though. Caesars has said that while in temporary housing, any employees can take their meals in the employee dining room. "We need to get our communities up on their feet, and there's no better way to do this than to get our employees  back to work and allow our visitors to once again enjoy the famed Boardwalk," said Don Marrandino, Eastern Division president for Caesars Entertainment.