Hoteliers Grapple With Security

Hotels face new safety concerns in era of terrorism

By: Lisa Jennings

Earlier this summer, federal officials received intelligence about a possible terrorist attack at three Boston hotels over Memorial Day.

Officials at the three hotels were warned, but other hoteliers in Boston knew nothing until after the threat was discredited. Details were never released.

But the situation raised troubling questions for the hotel industry as a whole: If one hotel is threatened, shouldn’t all hotels at the very least those in the same community be alerted?

Joseph McInerney, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, thinks so, and recently the association joined the Real Estate Information Sharing and Analysis Center. The center, a coalition linked to the Department of Homeland Security, is intended to facilitate sharing more information about threats to the lodging industry.

The center’s Web site ( posts warnings and bulletins on the tactics of terrorists. A recent bulletin, for example, urged building owners to monitor official uniforms, badges and vehicles.

But, with the two-year anniversary of Sept. 11 approaching, the hotel industry continues to struggle with the balance between hospitality and security.

The more restrictions put into place to keep guests safe, the less welcoming a hotel may feel.

Yet the recent bombing of a Marriott hotel in Jakarta has again reminded hotel operators just how vulnerable they are.

McInerney said that every hotel, from the biggest to the smallest, has some security plan in place, with more emphasis at hotels in higher-risk areas, and, perhaps, during certain events.

Joining the center will give hotel operators more industry specific information about potential threats, said McInerney.

If an incident like the one in Boston happened again, for example, the lodging industry would hear about it through the alliance. Also, hotel operators will also be able to report suspicious activities or threats to the Department of Homeland Security.

“Terrorism is the most significant challenge we’ve ever had,” said Ray Ellis, a professor and director of the Loss Prevention Management Institute at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston.

Ellis advocates more training for hotel staff members, from parking valets to front-desk clerks, so they can become “eyes and ears” for the security force. Many hotels also have increased their use of closed-circuit TV, a measure that initially was used for theft prevention long before Sept 11.

Other general trends that are emerging:

" More hotels are requiring guests to show photo identification when checking in.

" Hotels in urban areas are likely to say they will store luggage only for registered guests.

" Hoteliers are increasingly likely to check on guests who hang “do not disturb” signs on their doors for long periods.

" And, in general, hotels are being more vigilant about reporting illegal activities, according to Stephen Barth, an attorney who is professor of law and leadership at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management.

Barth, who founded, a Web site for industry executives on security issues, noted that hotels are legally required to provide “reasonable care” to protect guests and staff members from any “foreseeable” threat. But with terrorism, he added, “The real issue is there’s only so much they can do.”

Barth said he believes the hotel industry has not yet found that elusive balance between hospitality and security.

Since Sept. 11, hotels have cut staffing, including security positions.

But cuts in security budgets have not been excessive, and some hotels are spending much more on security, said Cathy A. Enz, Lewis Schaenman professor of innovation and dynamic management at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration.

Enz has been studying changes in safety and security features in the U.S. hotel industry since Sept. 11.

One study of 2,123 hotels in late 2001, found key safety and security amenities varied widely, depending on the size, age, price segment, hotel type and location.

About one-third of responding hotels scored highly on both safety (protecting people) and security (protecting property and guests’ possessions, as well as staff and guests’ personal safety). Luxury and upscale hotels had the highest scores, while economy and mid-priced hotels scored the lowest.

In another study, Enz found that some hotels had changed safety and security staffing and procedures since Sept. 11.

And a new law may encourage a greater level of change: The Public Safety Investment and Protection Act of 2003 will allow building owners to immediately deduct 50 percent of the costs of security equipment put in place before 2005.

One problem in the quest for increased security post-Sept. 11, Enz said, is the diversity and fragmentation of the hotel industry.

“Who is responsible for ensuring safety? The hotel owner, who’s on the other side of the world? The management company? The franchisee?”

In the end, she said, “It’s extremely difficult for someone to plan and design a safety system around the unknown.

“Terrorism is a random act of violence,” said Enz. “How do you secure a public space?”