The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Caution is the key as star hosts don SARS shield

Star hotels — the first stop on the tourist roadmap — have sounded the SARS alarm. To pre-empt panic and to fortify against the spread of the virus, staff of the hospitality majors are on red alert. With the country count growing rapidly for the dreaded disease that has claimed hundreds of lives, tourism and allied industries are expecting a blow. The international ripples have hardly been felt in Calcutta, which depends largely on business travellers from across the country. And the few foreigners who usually do check into the five-stars opt for the cooler winters to travel. The local threat is far more worrisome, with the number of SARS patients going up to two positives and one suspect.

For the time being, however, hospital masks are outnumbered by watchful eyes. “Even if a stray customer comes in with SARS, we should know what to do,” explains Taj Bengal spokesperson Modhurima Sinha. Taj, which attributes “90 per cent” of its clientele to domestic business travel, is conducting awareness seminars for all 600 of its staff, with support from external specialists for in-house doctors. “We wanted to spread awareness to counter the hype and paranoia, so there is no panic in case someone with the disease does come in,” adds Sinha. Consultations with doctors are also on with regard to specific medication that can be kept on hand at the hotel.

How the disease can spread, the likely symptoms and how to react when confronted with a possible patient are part of the training. Front-office personnel have been put on guard and asked to find out if any guests consulting a doctor have symptoms of SARS. If there are any cases found, they will be taken to the hospital and the hotel room occupied by them will be quarantined.

The ITC hotels across the country have received a common advisory note. Sonar Bangla has been sent a circular to “prepare well in advance to meet any emergencies that may arise”. The Bypass hotel, like Taj, has advised employees about the need for precautions on the homefront, as well as the workspace. Clinical masks are to be stocked, “before the panic purchase starts”, and “made available to the guests”. Posters around the premises on the “dos and don’ts, symptoms, medications, treatment” have also been recommended at the hotel that will host a high-level Vietnamese delegation on Tuesday.

While the hope that airports are conducting a thorough screening is shared by all players, the hotels cannot rest at that. At the Hyatt Regency, too, the staff has been briefed. The importance of “all aspects of personal hygiene” has been driven home and training camps have been lined up. A watch is to be kept on guests for possible symptoms and “deep cleaning of ventilation and air filtering systems” is to be initiated. Food-handlers are to wear masks. A tie-up with a “reputed hospital” is in place in case of a positive detection. Says Praveen Chawla, general manager, Hyatt: “With no direct flights from the worst-affected areas in China and Hong Kong, there has been a measure of security in Calcutta.”

Caution is made more difficult by the lack of precise information about the modes of transmission and the variable symptoms. But the stars are not losing their cool — even in the face of disease — in the service-with-a-smile industry.

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