Hotels Ramp Up Security

How hotels have intensified their efforts to keep guests and staff safe

As security cameras would later reveal, at precisely 6:28 p.m. on Saturday, May 1, 2010, a dark-blue sport utility vehicle with tinted windows pulled up to the curb on the northeast side of the intersection of West 45th Street and Broadway, in the heart of New York City's bustling Times Square. Some minutes later, two street vendors noticed smoke wafting from the rear of the car, now empty with the engine still running. They alerted a police officer patrolling nearby who went over to the SUV, noticed the smoke and saw what looked like canisters in the rear cargo area. Then he recognized the smell: gunpowder.

Within minutes, a bomb-disposal team, the fire department and dozens more of the patrolman's colleagues had gathered at the spot to cordon off the area and move pedestrians out of the way. Businesses up and down the square were alerted to the danger of a possibly imminent explosion -- including the 1,949-room New York Marriott Marquis directly across the street. That's when Mike Dominguez, the hotel's director of risk management, went into action.

The imperative was to evacuate the guests most in harm's way -- those in rooms facing the east side of the square. Following a well-rehearsed playbook, Dominguez and other hotel staff quickly dispersed. "We went floor to floor and room to room, knocking on doors and explaining very calmly why they had to leave and where we were going to put them up," says Dominguez. Ultimately, several hundred guests were evacuated from 35 of the hotel's 49 floors and gathered in the sixth-floor ballroom, tucked into the very heart of the building and well away from windows facing the street, where they relaxed as best they could on hastily arranged cots.

Within a few hours the crisis was over; faulty wiring had prevented what would likely have been a devastating explosion, and the car subsequently was traced to its owner, who was promptly arrested. Most importantly, no one was hurt -- and the real-life drill went off without a hitch at the Marriott Marquis.

Hotels are, by nature, busy public gathering spots. Every day, untold numbers of people flow through their lobbies, dine and entertain in their restaurants and bars, and gather in their meeting rooms. Ensuring the safety and security of all those visitors, not to mention their own employees, presents an enormous challenge for properties, which have to strike a delicate balance between physical protection and public access. The good news: Hotels really have stepped up and embraced the challenge.

In the decade after 9/11, hotel security evolved from the role of a few dedicated employees to encompass a property's entire work force, notes Jimmy Chin, chairman of the security committee for the Hotel Association of New York City. "We are much more aware now that if you only train the security staff, you don't have a program in place at all," he says. "The more emergency training every single employee has, the better their awareness."

Everyone Out!
Evacuations might not always make national headlines, but when they occur, they can cause significant disruption to a hotel's operation. Some recent examples:

The Gaylord Opryland Resort
& Convention Center in Nashville was forced to evacuate some 1,500 guests and relocate several groups in May 2010, when the city declared a state of emergency due to the flooding of the Cumberland River. The 2,880-room hotel, which was shuttered for six months, lost an estimated $35 million to $40 million in profits and eventually reopened following a $270 million overhaul.

The 144-room Hyatt Place Hotel in Las Colinas, Texas, was evacuated this past March due to extremely high levels of carbon monoxide that sickened several guests.

The 390-room Back Bay Hilton in Boston evacuated all guests and employees in March 2012, when a four-alarm fire was triggered by the explosion of a nearby transformer.

 

Top priorityMarriott Marquis in Times Square
The Marriott Marquis is a prime example of marrying public openness with security diligence. Not only does the property sit in the center of one of the city's (and the world's) busiest locations, it also is home to retail shops, several restaurants, the 1,611-seat Marquis Theatre featuring daily Broadway shows, and more than 101,000 square feet of meeting space.

Mike Dominguez estimates that on any given day, as many as 10,000 people stream through the hotel's revolving doors -- posing a significant challenge for one security team. But Dominguez says the constant training and review that his team -- and all employees -- undergo throughout the year, as well as the close working relationship they maintain with New York City's varied emergency services, ensures they are prepared and confident to meet any challenge.

Earlier this year at the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group's annual meeting of owners held in Nassau, Bahamas, a session on security was an important part of the agenda. Paul Moxness, the company's vice president of safety and security for 400 Rezidor properties around the globe, told a room full of hotel owners that they needed to put as much muscle behind security procedures as they did maintaining their physical properties. "You and your hotel staff need to know the temperature of your city and what you should be doing to ensure the safety of your guests and employees, because security is dependent on the everyday actions of every employee at every level," he told the group.

To emphasize a hotel's return on investment with regard to security, Moxness pointed out an interesting statistic. Rezidor's top 100 corporate clients had an average room growth of 17 percent in the first quarter of 2010, yet of those clients, the ones that had asked for and were given security presentations by the chain had increased their business with Rezidor by an average of 65 percent.

"Companies look at travel as one of their biggest risks," said Moxness. "They know we can't guarantee the safety of their people, but they know we are doing the absolute best we can, which builds trust and loyalty."

Trained and certified 
Following 9/11, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reached out to hotels that it deemed "soft targets" and began providing them with a "fair amount of training," said security secretary Janet Napolitano in a December 2010 speech aired on CNN. That training, which major hotel companies including Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Marriott International and Hilton Hotels & Resorts were instrumental in helping develop, has added one more layer to already tightened state and local security standards.

For example, New York City now requires all security officers, including those at hotels, to be certified, which can be achieved through training by private security companies. They also must undergo 16 hours of mandatory refresher courses every year. In Washington, D.C., security officers now must complete rigorous training on issues ranging from crowd control to surveillance, and they are considered "special police," which means they can make civil arrests.

Also revising its training in recent years to meet new challenges was the Washington, D.C.-based American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA). In 2010, the hotel industry association updated its Certified Lodging Security Director (CLSD) certification, which it first began offering to members in 1996. Today's study materials include instruction on handling terrorism threats and hazardous substances, dealing with occupational safety and health issues, accessing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and spotting credit card fraud.

Hotel staff also are being trained to watch for suspicious behavior, such as guests who pay for large transactions with cash, request specific room locations, or leave the hotel for days at a time and then return. Furthermore, many are taught to keep up with disease alerts from government agencies and share information with other hotels in a region to uncover possible threats.

According to Brenda Vazquez, senior vice president of marketing for the AH&LA's Educational Institute, to date 535 U.S. hotel security staff members have received the certification -- a full 75 percent of them in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks. "There was a renewed interest after 9/11, with some of the major hotel brands mandating that their security directors obtain their CLSD," says Vazquez. In addition, last year the AH&LA began offering the Lodging Security Officer program, which contains instruction on topics such as hostage-taking situations and identifying terrorism indicators.

Stepped-up training efforts have targeted frontline staff, in particular, including housekeepers, valet parkers and bellmen, who have direct contact with guests. Last year, the AH&LA, in collaboration with the DHS, launched its "If you see something, say something" campaign. Now in place at 5,500 hotels around the U.S., the short tutorial routinely airs on 1.2 million hotel-room TV sets. "It provides the skills and knowledge essential for employees, as well as guests, to recognize, report and react to suspicious situations at their property," says Vazquez.Shared intelligence 
At last year's first Global Congress on Legal, Safety & Security Solutions in Travel, which was held in Houston and jointly hosted by the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau and Hospitalitylawyer.com, representatives from hotel and security companies gathered to share best practices on security measures. Hotel executives from several companies noted that they are now actively involved in intelligence gathering through locally contracted services in certain global marketplaces, and they openly share that information with other hotel companies on various security platforms.

Marriott Wardman ParkSuch connections are critical for Ferrell Cook, director of loss prevention for the 1,189-room Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, D.C. He takes part in regularly scheduled meetings with the city's metro police, security directors from other area hotels, the DHS and several local agencies to discuss upcoming events, identify threat levels and VIP movement, voice concerns and share information. The relationships he has forged through these meetings, says Cook, benefit his hotel's security operations. "It is good when you can pick up the phone and have that name recognition," he says.

Attention, planners 
For a hotel's crisis management plan to be truly effective, it has to be a living, breathing entity, constantly reviewed, updated and shared with employees, and not a static how-to manual on an office shelf. And every meeting planner should want to discuss it.

In reality, though, meeting planners typically ask for just a quick brief on a hotel's evacuation procedures. What they should be asking is, "Where do we end up when we go outside? What happens then?" says Chris Gernentz, director, safety and security, for Carlson Hotels, Americas.

Ferrell Cook agrees that security doesn't get the attention it deserves from meeting professionals. A former forest firefighter, Cook was just three weeks into his new job as director of security at the Ritz Carlton, New Orleans, when Hurricane Katrina struck. He remembers all too well the around-the-clock evacuation of guests and staff that took place under dire conditions. Today, he always offers harried planners at the Marriott Wardman Park a pamphlet detailing the layout of the massive convention hotel, which has 195,000 square feet of meeting space, 60 meeting rooms, and often hosts VIPs and foreign dignitaries among its meeting guests. He wishes, however, that they would allot more time to discussing the hotel's contingency planning.

"If I were a planner, I would want someone to walk me through the hotel's evacuation route and show me areas that would be evacuation points for my attendees" says Cook. "Most of the time, though, planners just ask for a quick meeting in the lobby, and that's the only time we have with them to give them as much information as we can share." 

Achieving Award-Winning Security

Concorde Hotel Singapore 2In October 2011, the luxury 407-room Concorde Hotel Singapore, which hosts more than 1,300 meetings and events annually, earned the island nation's top award at the annual Hotel Security Conference, which recognizes excellence in security operating procedures. The hotel's general manager, Leo Llambi, recently spoke with M&C about the significance of the award and the ongoing importance of security in the hotel industry.

Why and when was this award established?
The Hotel Security Award was established 14 years ago by the Singapore Police Force in conjunction with the National Crime Prevention Council and the Singapore Hotel Association. It recognizes hotels that have achieved a high standard of security, and it also encourages the hotel industry to raise security awareness.

Are there specific qualifying criteria in order to be eligible for the award?
Yes. In order to qualify, hotels must undergo an extensive audit, based on stringent security policies and procedures known as SS545. Hotels must be able to demonstrate that adequate security operating procedures, such as employment and training of security officers and emergency and crisis-response plans, are in place. We have 270 full-time employees, and our security and emergency procedures as well as our training manual had to be reviewed and updated to include new security practices in order to be in compliance with SS545 mandates.

What local government and security officials does the hotel regularly work with to establish a safe environment?
Through our affiliation with the Singapore Hotel Association, the Concorde Hotel Singapore maintains a close working relationship with the Singapore Police Force, as well as the Singapore Civil Defense Force. Our security and safety manager and I regularly attend meetings organized by all of these agencies. We also are active members of the Safety and Security Watch Group, a neighborhood coalition consisting of security managers from hotels, shopping malls and other main buildings in the vicinity of our hotel.

What are some typical safety mistakes business travelers make when visiting a foreign city?
Leaving cash, documents and other valuables unattended in their rooms or public areas; failing to familiarize themselves with emergency procedures, such as their hotel's evacuation route, and inviting strangers back to their hotel room.

Top 10 Security Dos and Don'ts
Security experts from inside and outside the hotel industry shared with M&C the typical mistakes committed by meeting groups and business travelers. Here's what to keep in mind, what to avoid and what steps to consider implementing.

Safety sign Illustration1. Do focus on fire safety. Terrorism is a dramatic concern, but fire safety should be every hotel's security priority. Ask when the hotel conducted its last fire drill and if it can provide documents of its last fire inspection showing it is up to all required fire codes and standards.

2. Do read your contract carefully.
 Should an attendee get injured on-site at an event, who does it say will be held liable, the organization or the venue? Better yet, have legal counsel take a look before signing off.

3. Do share details about your meeting. Is a speaker or topic controversial? Might someone or something in your program provoke a demonstration? Will highly classified data be exchanged? Are attendees nervous about a possible merger? Such scenarios can affect a hotel's crisis plan.

4. Don't ask to see the security plan. For security reasons, it's classified. Do ask to walk the evacuation route, and inquire about how many security staffers are on detail, their level of certification, and the name and contact of their supervisor during your event.

5. Don't leave registration stations/material unattended. Attendee lists, name badges, and event agendas are easy game for criminals who can use the data to gain access to meeting rooms, events and guest rooms.

Ambulance Illustration6. Do be prepared for medical crises. Even minor slips and falls can create a safety headache. Ask where the nearest hospital is and the distance to it, and if the hotel has a doctor on call 24 hours.

7. Do befriend the concierge, especially if you are a female traveler. The location of concierge desks allows these employees to garner first-hand knowledge of a guest's movements. Let them know when and where you are going when you leave the hotel, when you expect to return and if you will have guests with you. If they suspect something is odd, they will be the first to act.

8.  Do keep meeting rooms locked between breaks and meals. Just because your event is being held in a five-star hotel doesn't mean laptop theft doesn't occur. And if you are concerned about presentation material going astray, ask security to monitor those rooms when not in use.

Trash can illustration9.  Don't be careless about what you trash. Never allow sensitive meeting materials to be discarded in the hotel's trash bins. Ask for a shredder -- and use it. Likewise, do make sure PowerPoint downloads and other audiovisual data are accounted for and properly secured.

10. Do keep mum in the elevator. Never announce out loud what room you are in, where you are going or any other personal information that could possibly compromise your safety.  

Ilustrations (safety sign): ©iStockphoto.com/designalldone; (Ambulance) ©iStockphoto.com/imgendesign; (trash can) ©iStockphoto.com/Mr_Vector