by Sarah J.F. Braley | November 24, 2009

About 620 members of the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association met last week for their Annual Leadership Conference. Held Nov. 18–20 at the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco, the event coincided with a three-day strike by Unite Here Local 2 at the hotel. Guests received a letter from manager Richard Hill, informing them that housekeeping would be spotty and the restaurants would be serving buffets only. Guests also were asked to carry their key-card packets at all times to prove to security that they were staying in the hotel. Ceci Zak, vice president of marketing for Sanofi Aventis, a pharmaceutical company based in Bridgewater, N.J., and president of the HBA's board, spoke with M&C about the association's stay at the property.

M&C: How did you find out the workers would be on strike?
Zak: At 4 a.m. on the day we were starting the conference, we found out that this was a real situation. I heard the picketers outside my window. They were using whistles and driving down the street with their heads out the window screaming. They were my wake-up call an hour earlier than I wanted. The hotel had 500 people who went on strike, and they were filled to capacity. It was pretty amazing how they were able to take care of us.

M&C:  What were the most noticeable differences at the hotel?
Zak: Our group focused on three key areas: safety, food and housekeeping. Safety was not an issue. The hotel had hired the same security company that had worked at the two hotels that had had strikes two weeks prior. But we had senior leaders in the health-care industry who were presenting at our conference. We were concerned for their safety because the workers were picketing about health-care issues. The hotel was very attentive to our concerns for those people.

As for housekeeping, they did come in the first day and the third day. The first day they emptied the garbage and brought clean towels. On the third day they did the same.

M&C: How did your attendees handle three buffets a day?
Zak: Luckily, the way the conference was set up, the only time we had planned a seated dinner or lunch anyway was on the second day. It was 620 people in the ballroom for lunch. It went off without a glitch. We didn't have salt and pepper on the table, and maybe they just had water in a pitcher, but really if you didn't know what we were supposed to have, you couldn't tell if we had it or not.

M&C: What kind of comments/complaints did you receive from your attendees?
Zak: The first day there were a few comments about people wanting to get a room reduction because of housekeeping. But I had sent out an e-mail to all the participants prior to the conference about the labor shortage. We also commented on it at the first dinner reception, and in the morning we commented on what the hotel had promised they would do. I didn't hear anything, and I assume that the third-party planning company we were working with would have told me if there were issues.

M&C: What was the mood of the workers on the picket line?
Zak: I crossed the line on day one so I could see what the situation was like. And then Friday evening I crossed again when I went out for another event. It was just noisy. You just accepted it. I knew the situation that was going on, and I knew that it was under control.

However, on Friday evening I did have a worker confront my sister, and he did touch her. I told him not to touch her again or he would be arrested. He attacked her again verbally, and security saw what was going on and got between my sister and the man. He wasn't violent or anything. He was just trying to make his point.

M&C: Is there anything you feel the hotel could have done better?
Zak: No. I really don't. They exceeded my expectations on how they handled it. I didn't feel there was anything missing except that my bed wasn't made and my room wasn't tidied up. And I was out of my room most of the time. Our meeting planning group even felt that they got more attention than they usually would. And I know they were constantly reaching out to make sure our needs were seen to.

M&C: What's the strangest thing that has happened?
Zak: The strangest thing was just hearing the hecklers outside my window. They were using the whistles. The beautiful thing about San Francisco is that there's a noise ordinance for quiet at 10 p.m. I was a little worried that they wouldn't honor that, but they pretty much quieted down at 10 p.m.