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Hotel Security

We will always keep the light on

Dr. Elinor Garely, eTN  Aug 25, 2010

Bad Guys Want in
According to Chris McGoey, a noted security expert, “... hotel room invasion robbery” occurs more frequently than travelers may know. Private space invaders prowl hotel corridors in the evening, taking advantage of the situation (a reduced staff and an occupied room). Although the attack may appear to be random, it is likely that the guest and the room location have been under surveillance and the bad guy waits for the right moment to attack the guest.

Vulnerable and Planned
The most at-risk travelers are women traveling solo, elderly guests, people flaunting their wealth, or people engaged in nefarious activities. Because the event has been planned in advance, the bad guy comes equipped with the tools of his profession: handcuffs, tape, rope, and weapons.

Once inside the room, the perpetrators have complete privacy and they are able to take total control. Since they no longer have to worry about security staffers observing their activities, they can force guests to open safes, reveal cash and electronics, surrender car keys and PIN numbers and, after collecting all the valuables, vanish into the night knowing that the guest, bound and gagged, will be unable to get help until the morning.

While guests may talk about security concerns, in reality they do not believe it will happen to them. Hotel room crimes might decrease if guests could be persuaded to stop bringing cash, jewelry, and high-end branded clothing and electronics with them when they travel. Security alerts are discussed in all the media, but unfortunately, leisure and business travelers continue to be hell-bent on toting their valuables with them as they traipse around the planet.

Outsourcing Increase Vulnerability
South Africa’s Grandwest Casino and Entertainment World’s security manager, Duane Firmani, finds that many room “penetrations” are perpetrated within the bubble, i.e., staff. The increased number of outsourced employees creates many pitfalls, according to Firmani. In some cases, he finds that “cheap labor is often not properly vetted, and syndicates use these outsourced companies as conduits to infiltrate sleepers into the property, tasking them to target specific items, such as electronics and currency.”

Locking In or Locking Out
Situation crime is part of the hotel environment. No matter how sophisticated the locks, the bad guys are finding ways to enter the room, reach and disable their intended victims, steal their stuff, and/or kill the guest.

Patrick M. Murphy, director of Global Safety and Security Services/Risk Management for Marriott International, counsels that, “It is up to the individual to be wary and to take responsibility. In the Marriott Courtyard and Fairfield Inn properties, we harden the target by making sure that perimeter doors are secured and key card accessible. The only open door is through the lobby and this is controlled by security and front office personnel.” Security information may also be available on the back of the door, on the key-card and the key-packet and should be read upon check-in, according to Murphy.

Firmani believes that, “... each room should be fitted with a panic button located next to the sleeping quarter and near the bathroom that can instantly alert the front desk/security of an in in-room emergency. In some situations, guests may be unable to pick-up the telephone and vocalize the nature of the emergency because they are incapacitated by injury or the perpetrator is still on the scene.”

Guest Security: Not an Afterthought
Since it is not possible to reduce the rewards of crime, one would expect that crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) would be a reasonable approach to diminishing room invasions; build the hotel room in a fashion that prevents the bad guys from reaching their target. According to Dr. Ronald Clarke of Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, punishment and not prevention continues to be popular among USA business executives. This may be the accepted response - because no one has been able to figure out what else to do.

Firmani suggests that: “Whilst hotel properties want to portray an environment of safety and security, the international guest who comes from a home base of low criminality, gets lulled at times into a false sense of security and leaves items unattended; this allows opportunistic crime to be perpetrated.”

According to Dr. Marcus Felson and Andrew Lemieux of Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, the denial of crimes against tourists is motivated by economics. Destinations, hotels, and attractions rely on tourism expenditures for profitability. If visitors think they are heading to an unsafe hotel or destination, they will not go.

Keeping the Bad Guys Out
Rather than the continuous denial of responsibility by hoteliers (personal loss is not the responsibility of the hotel), Dr. Clarke of Rutgers suggests it might be more useful to actually collect data about the specific crimes, analyze the conditions under which the crimes occur, study the multiple means available for blocking the crime from happening, estimate the costs of preventing the crime (including loss of image and customer goodwill), implement the recommendations that appear to be the most enterprising, measure the results of the changes, and share the good/bad news with industry personnel for further refinement.

Grandwests’ Firmani recommends that security executives be part of the conceptual and actual design team as the property is being built. “I am a firm believer of visible policing of properties backed up by technology. Technology is normally great when reconstructing events not necessarily in the preventative aspect.” Firmani continued: “There must be a zero tolerance toward the prosecution of criminals. Often they get apprehended, barred from the property, and then not criminally prosecuted due to potential bad press and endless headaches with the justice system. When we do not prosecute the deterrent factor is lessened.”

Security Going Forward
Firmani believes that “...biometrics is an option” (i.e., fingerprint recognition) for the future. This process could replace they need for codes, keys, etc., and “narrow the margin of error or penetration.” Marriott’s Patrick Murphy is reviewing the use of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) cards to replace the popular magnetic stripe, which was introduced in the 1960s and is not reliable. The mag cards scratch easily and are wiped out in proximity to magnets. They do not offer the same level of security as RFID and do not store as much data.

Contactless (RFID) cards offer many benefits as they carry and capture data, are multi-functional (i.e., provide access to the exercise room and swimming pool, act as credit cards for purchases at the restaurant and gift shop), and eliminate the guests' need to carry money or credit cards. Of one of the challenges in using RFID technology is the cost, current mag cards cost .08 per piece while the RFID cards are .60 per card.

Murphy is also looking at the use of Smartphones. A guest downloads an app patron’s audio code to their iPhone, Blackberry, or Android, and passes the phone by the door lock to open. While interesting and efficient, it can be very expensive, as it requires a special lock without a keyhole or keycard swipe.

One of the newest products from Assa Abloy is an online system that triggers an alarm message that is immediately forwarded to security whenever there is a forced or unauthorized room entry (i.e., from windows, balconies, or connecting rooms). The organization also has security alerts for “wandering cards.” According to Rune Venas of Assa Abloy, “If someone finds a valid key card and tries several doors to find the right one, the card is automatically cancelled.”

Although not currently available, Venas suggests that it would be easy to add an emergency panic button to the company’s ZigBee online system. With an emergency reader placed next to the door, the guest could present the card within reading distance, and a signal would be sent to the security department and/or the front desk.

Increased Security vs. Profitability
Firmani understands that “Business and security practitioners have to be able to strike a balance in terms of what is desirable and what is practical. Security…want(s) to tighten access to the property,” allowing only the “desirable and vetted patrons; often the mighty dollar supersedes rationale and the opportunist is able to gain access.”

Personally Responsible
The security industry has consistently been cited as one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, and Rutgers’ Clarke “... is concerned that the new technology will bring us closer to Aldous Huxley’s ‘brave new world.’” Unfortunately even with the technology, crime continues to take up residence in hotel rooms. At the end of the day, it is up to the guest to be wary, watch their back, and keep the door double locked, no matter the brand of the hotel or the location.

We will always keep the light on
Rune Venas, Assa Abloy Hospitality


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