The terrifying uncertainty of the word ‘uncertainty’
The terrifying uncertainty of the word ‘uncertainty’
14 MAY 2020 7:33 AM

I hadn’t fully grasped the meaning of this word, and now I’m trying to find ways to change my thinking and approach.

Do you know how sometimes when you’re in the middle of a situation that’s a little thorny or complicated, you have an unexpected moment of clarity? That moment may not give you a solution to the problem at hand, but sometimes it just sheds some light on part of the problem?

Let me give you an example: Last week I moderated a panel at an excellent online conference, the New England Lodging Conference, organized by Pinnacle Advisory Group and the Boston University School of Hospitality Administration. I moderated the panel on operations, and our directive was to talk about what hotel operations would look like in the future as we work through the current pandemic.

The incredibly smart and experienced speakers on all the panels in that conference had one thing in common: Nobody knew what was going to happen. They could compare this period with past catastrophic events, but they’re not the same. They could draw on data to provide something to cling to that shows hope, but no data sets can paint a complete picture. They could prepare for lots of scenarios, but even that is a bit of an exercise in futility.

Then it was my turn to moderate, and I found myself throwing out that phrase we’ve come to hate because it’s become a tiresome placeholder that evokes Lexus commercials set against images of front-line healthcare workers: “In these uncertain times …”

Only this time after I said it, I stopped for a second and I thought about it, and I turned it over in my brain and had that illuminating millisecond of clarity: “Holy crap,” I thought. “This is uncertainty. This, what we’re all living through now, is 100% what ‘uncertainty’ really means.”

Try it for a second. Really chew on that word, “uncertainty,” and what it means truly to not know the outcome.

It’s a little scary. It’s more than a little scary—it’s terrifying.

We’ve had the luxury of using that word wrong for a long time. A year ago we may have said, “we’re uncertain about how group business will perform in Q4,” when we really meant, “we can’t see it quite yet, but based on forecasts and modeling and past behavior, we can assume it may shake out this way, so we’re going to make some informed assumptions and will be pretty close to the mark.”

That wasn’t uncertainty at all. True uncertainty is that inability to see the other side and not having enough information or experience to make a reasonably confident guess.

Our industry doesn’t like uncertainty. Anything based on a system of public companies and consumer sentiment relies heavily on economies at different levels, and any drops of uncertainty really mess up the works.

Plus, the pieces of the big-picture global travel industry are tremendously dependent on one another. If nobody will fly, who cares if your hotel is clean and ready, with protocols in place?

My intention isn’t to scare you more. My intention is to remind you—or maybe challenge you—to acknowledge and accept what uncertainty really is, accept that our industry doesn’t like uncertainty, then try to work through what that means for your business with a clear head.

I’ve witnessed a lot of hot heads in the last two months and I’m sure you have, too. I’ve been on calls with people who slam hands on desks and yell and insist WE WILL BE FINE, DAMMIT, DO NOT CANCEL THE EVENT.

That doesn’t work (and it’s massively unprofessional).

Personally, I’m struggling a bit with how to work through true uncertainty. I think I’ve been trying hard to force my parameters of “normal” thinking and business approach to this abnormal situation. That works to an extent, but it’s baseline, and it leaves me wanting more.

I’d love to hear how you are opening your mind to working through true uncertainty—really addressing head-on what it means, and trying to adapt your thinking around that to result in an even better outcome than you may have reached normally.

This is a little New Age-y, I know. “Acknowledging uncertainty” doesn’t pay utility bills for empty hotels. But giving myself space to think about it over the last few days has fueled some interesting brainstorming. Maybe it will do the same for you.

I want to leave you with a comment that Chad Crandell, managing director and CEO of CHMWarnick, said on my panel at the New England Lodging Conference last week: “Rarely have we ever had a second chance to open a hotel,” he said. “Let’s see if we can do it better this time around. We have to.”

Please share how you’re working through uncertainty with a clear head. Recommend articles, Ted Talks or other resources. Comment below, email me at or find me on Twitter @HNN_Steph.

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