In 1974, the rape of singer Connie Francis at a Howard Johnson motel on New York’s Long Island led to better locks and peep holes on hotel doors.
The 1981 fire that killed 81 people at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas produced significant improvements in fire safety at hotels.
In the same vein, last month’s terrorist attacks on two famed hotels in Mumbai are expected to lead to security improvements across the industry, according to experts.
“I would anticipate that we would all be held to a higher standard after this,” said Jim Stover, a hospitality loss-prevention expert with the A.J. Gallagher insurance brokerage firm in Houston. “There will probably be an increase in teaching and training employees, more drills, better technology, expanded access control.
“If you stop and think about it, these are the things that prod hotel companies into providing these things,” he said, alluding to the MGM fire and the Francis rape. The singer sued, claiming inadequate security, and won a $3 million judgment.
Though most security experts agreed that the attacks in Mumbai by apparently well-trained terrorists would have been hard to prevent, questions have been raised about how to protect guests without turning hotels into fortresses.
“We are getting a lot of hits for interest in hotel security because of the conflicts in Mumbai,” said Mitchell Fenton, vice chair of the American Society for Industrial Security’s lodging council. He also is executive director of security at the Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J.
“One of the things we are working on is actually building guidelines for hotels and hospitality,” Fenton said. “But it’s very complicated, as you can imagine. … We are welcoming people into an atmosphere that is supposed to be relaxed, comfortable.”
Stover said he expected the attacks to dominate discussions in February at the annual Hospitality Law Conference.
“We are going to have to look at things like access control,” Stover said. “More and more hotels, particularly major chains like Hilton and Marriott, are limiting access to external doors with key cards. I think that is probably going to end up being the industry standard. Upgrading fire and life-safety systems to include [public address systems], I think, will be a new standard, too.”
Better staff training for handling emergencies and better cooperation with governments also are expected to be key topics.
Stephen Barth, founder of HospitalityLawyer.com and the Hospitality Law Conference series, and a professor at the Conrad N. Hilton College at the University of Houston, predicted closer ties between hotels and government security agencies.
“I think the first trend you are going to see is more hotel groups that operate internationally or domestically working much closer with government agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and spending more time in communication with those people trying to determine if there is a threat level,” Barth said. “We will also see more and more hotel companies working together to discover best practices to be more safe and secure.”
Major hotel chains declined to discuss what, if any, changes their companies might be making in response to the Mumbai attacks. But Ritz-Carlton spokeswoman Vivian Deuschl said the attacks certainly had “re-energized” the security debate.
Some changes may be driven by customer demands. Last week, the Association of Corporate Travel Executives released a list of recommendations for corporate travel managers to follow when deciding which hotels will house their traveling employees.
“We expect they will raise the bar in their contracts,” said ACTE spokesman Jack Riepe.
As an example, Riepe cited requiring that a hotel files building blueprints with security, police and firefighters.
In the Mumbai siege, police and commandos were hampered by a lack of information about the sprawling Taj Majal Palace, while the attackers, who controlled the site for three days, seemed to know the layout well.
“The first thing is to make sure that hotels have a good working relationship with local security officials, police and fire departments,” Riepe said. “The second is to make sure they have a secondary communication system. During the entire event in Mumbai, people were complaining that the phones didn’t work and they couldn’t get information. There has to be a way to communicate information to these people.”
Additionally, Riepe said the entire staff should be focused on emptying the building: “It can’t be every man for himself.”
Stover said he did not expect to see the hiring of more security guards. “If the Third Marine Division in Iraq can’t stop bombers from going through a checkpoint, I don’t think extra security guards are going to help [protect hotels], he said.
The Islamabad Marriott, which was attacked with a car bomb earlier this year, was considered by some security experts to be the most secure hotel in the world.
At the Taj Majal Palace, there had been extra security in place before the attacks, and the Oberoi had banned parking in front of the hotel after the Marriott bombing.
“I was at the [Taj Mahal] a week before this incident happened, and you could not even drive up to the portico of the hotel,” said Manav Thadani, managing director of the Indian office of HVS, a global hospitality consulting firm. “They said they had a threat after a bombing in another part of the country. But I guess that extra security had been removed.”
Indeed, security had been eased, said Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata Group, owner of the Taj Majal Hotel. But it wouldn’t have made a difference because extra security had been focused on the main entrance.
“From what we can make out, they actually climbed over the wall in the back into the pool area, and that’s how they got into the restaurant,” Thadani said. He added that he expected security at Indian hotels would henceforth be comparable to airports, with metal detectors and X-ray machines for luggage.
Hotels in other countries with a history of terrorist attacks have deployed everything from baggage checks and barricades to giving colored chips to guests each morning to show guards as they return.
Terrorism expert Brian Jenkins of Rand Corp. said the odds of being killed by a terrorist in a hotel are one in a million. Still, hotels have increasingly come under attack as prior targets, such as embassies, have become virtual fortresses.
“Hotels meet the terrorist criteria,” said Jenkins, noting they have a landmark value, there is a concentration of people and attacks on hotels can cause major economic damage by disrupting tourism and travel.
In developing countries, such attacks have an “additional psychological value” because there is a high probability of hitting Westerners, said Jenkins. Plus, luxury hotels are gathering places for the local elite, he said.
“They want a target that will have iconic value,” Jenkins said. “They also want to create a high body count.”
But in most countries, the experts agreed, hotel security will remain invisible.
“The nature of hospitality is that we provide a warm, open, inviting … experience,” Stover said. “We can give the traveling public the level of security they demand. If they want to do X-rays, bomb-sniffing dogs, we can. But I don’t think people will stand for much more intrusion into their lives.”