Safe and Sound: How Planners and Hotels Ensure Security for Guests

November 21, 2011

By Lisa Lance

News coverage of events such as the arrest last May of former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn for the alleged sexual assault of a member of the housekeeping staff at a hotel in New York and, more locally, the arrest of a man last March for entering the wrong room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Clayton and allegedly molesting a nine-year-old girl, have put a spotlight on hotel safety and security. The meeting industry is reliant on hotels for event space and lodging, so what should planners and hotel staffs do to ensure the safety of attendees?

A Higher Standard

“Hotels are held to a higher standard than other businesses with regard to safety and liability,” said Thomas Ishmael, an attorney with Hornbeek, Vitali & Braun PLLC in Oklahoma City. “When you stay in a hotel you’re vulnerable. You put a lot of trust in the people who own the hotel. People expect to be safe when they stay in a hotel, and the law affords that.”

Hotels strive to make things easy for guests, but there can be risks that go along with those conveniences. “By its very nature, the ‘open’ environment created to welcome guests also carries an inherent risk associated with open access to a hotel lobby 24/7,” Steve Dennis of Securitas Security Services USA said. “Depending on the geographic location of the hotel, the ‘open door’ can allow unfiltered access by pick-pockets, thieves, disruptive persons, persons under the influence of alcohol. [It’s the] transient nature of the function of the building – typically occupants change daily.” Some of the spaces that should be monitored by hotel staff include an on-site restaurant or late-night lounge that serves alcohol, convention halls or meeting rooms open after hours, parking lots, hallways and elevator access ways.

Ishmael noted that with the economy the way it is, staffs are leaner than in previous years but hotels still have to maintain their policies and procedures. “You have to do it right every time,” he said. “You have to train your staff to notice things, whether it’s the front desk clerk, the housekeeping staff or the general manager.” For example, if a hotel uses a security camera, someone needs to be in charge of it. If a patrol of the property is done each night, someone must be responsible for keeping track of it. “You need someone to follow up to make sure protocols are being done every time,” Ishmael said.

Rick Hughes, president and CEO of the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association, stressed the importance of staying alert. “I believe all hotels have encouraged their staffs to be vigilant,” he said. “And at the same time, staffs have diminished, so they have to be much more concerned with what’s around them.”

Ishmael was a hotel manager prior to practicing law. Regarding a security incident at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Clayton last spring, Ishmael said he believes the Ritz does a good job of training, but he also thinks this is a good opportunity for all hotel management to explain safety and security measures to their staffs. “Safety is not just for guests, it’s important for employees as well,” he said.

Missouri Meetings and Events attempted to contact the Ritz-Carlton to comment for this article, and Vivian Deuschl, corporate vice president of public relations at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company said she was unable to do so. “I’m afraid that I’m not able to comment on security measures,” she said in a voicemail message. “If we did that it would undermine the effectiveness of these measures.”

Common Measures

“It is difficult to guarantee guest safety,” said Gene Butler, director of global safety and security for Marriott Hotels’ Americas west territory. “However, hotels typically train associates to protect guest information, maintain key control, restrict access to registered room renters only, report suspicious activity, and conduct routine property tours for the purpose of identifying breaches in security, unsafe conditions or fire hazards.”

“The hotel has to have a security plan that is designed around the functional areas of the hotel,” Dennis said. “Each hotel is unique based on its location, facility design and guests. Many hotels choose to employ a physical security program that includes the use of security officers onpremise, as well as video camera surveillance around the property.”

Jason Blonde, general manager of safety and security at the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City, said closed-circuit cameras have come a long way and can now store information for much longer periods of time than in the past. They also have better zoom capabilities and image quality.

Both Blonde and Steve Shalit, general manager of the Westin Crown Center, said technology has offered several advancements in hotel security. Shalit remembers when room locks were secured with brass keys. “With electronic locks in place, now all guest room doors can be monitored so we know who goes in and out,” he said, and added that it’s important for guests to make sure doors close behind them whenever they leave their rooms.

Dennis recommended security procedures and personnel training for all critical traffic areas of the hotel, including the lobby, front desk, guest entry points, baggage storage area, parking lot access area and receiving dock area. He noted that proper lighting is important, as well as monitoring of the “back of house” or non-guest areas of the hotel.

Planning Ahead

So, what should planners keep in mind when working with hotels? “Just like the routine discussions regarding the number of rooms, comp items, rates and space, planners should ask if there are any issues with safety and security in your venue,” said Hughes. “This applies to hotels, convention centers, entertainment spots and venues such as the Sprint Arena. That’s a natural part of the discussion, and it should be.”

“In any contract or negotiation for a deal, it’s important to know exactly what you’re getting—it’s no different for an event,” said Ishmael. He recommended that planners not only read the contract, but also make sure the agreement spells out exactly who’s going to be responsible for what in the beginning. For example, if off-duty police officers are needed for a dinner, who is responsible for hiring them and for their actions? “Most hotels would be happy to have this decided up front so there’s not a misunderstanding later,” he said.

Dennis added that the planner should identify for the hotel in advance any unusual, costly equipment and how it will be used during the organization’s event, and should establish a plan for securing the equipment based on value.

He also pointed out that clear communication with event attendees is essential. “[The] organization should send an advance communiqué to all attendees reminding them of smart safety travel tips for their security (e.g., locking doors, awareness of surroundings in parking lots, paying attention to the lighting, being aware of habits with cell phones and laptops). For some travelers there is a tendency to feel like they are leaving the real world, and real danger, behind. They need to be reminded they are not!”

Guest Responsibility

“It’s a balance educating guests about safety versus eroding their positive experience,” said Ishmael. “It needs to be done in a subtle but consistent way.” For example, front desk staff can educate guests about their key cards at check-in and let them know there’s a reason why safety and security processes are in place. They can tell guests to avoid flashing room keys or yelling out room numbers across the lobby. When a bellman brings up the luggage and walks through the room with a guest, he can point out the deadbolt and the safe and urge guests to use them. “It just needs to be a part of how the hotel staff interacts with the guests,” said Ishmael.

And guests should keep their eyes open, as well. “If guests feel concerned about anything, they should bring it to the attention of the hotel,” Dennis said, “just as they should let them know if they felt safe and secure during their stay.”

Hughes agreed. “I think everyone today just needs to be much more vigilant, and it’s not just a matter of observing more,” he said. “If you see something suspicious, point it out to management. It’s vigilance paired with response and reaction.” MM&E

(Lisa Lance is a contributor from
Towson, Md.)

 

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