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Hotel Security Are we listening to the wake-up calls?

Wednesday, June 5, 2019, 12:55 Hrs  [IST]

It seems hotels are not learning lessons from the past. Security is still not getting the required attention. That is what the series of incidents targeted at hospitality assets from around the globe prove. Before the attack on a luxury hospitality address in the heart of Nairobi Kenya fade away, more barbaric and serial attacks on popular hotels and religious centres in Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, happened. Close on its heels, another dastardly act happened in a hotel in the port City of Gwadar in Pakistan. Although a decade has passed, the notorious 26/11 attacks are still fresh in our own memory. What makes hotels most vulnerable targets? Can technology alone safeguard the hotel edifices? How can security be made foolproof without compromising the guest experience? P Krishna Kumar tries to find answers….

While I was about to put down this feature, a news flash about a “possible settlement” that MGM Resorts International, which owns the high-rise hotel and the concert venue across Las Vegas Boulevard, is negotiating with litigants for failing to adequately protect the 22,000 people attending the Route 91 Harvest festival country music concert, came on my screen. As per reports, the plaintiffs in the case were seeking compensation for a range of physical and psychological harm after a shooter rained gunfire from a Mandalay Bay suite into an open-air concert crowd back on October 1, 2017, killing 58 people and injuring more than 800. The possible settlement figure as per the reports was between USD 750 to 800 million. Serious security lapses were found on the part of the hotel by the investigators which allowed the culprit to stock 23 firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition in the hotel room.

The reports came out afterward has shown hotel security in hotels across the US lax and pretty ordinary. At major hotels, security teams are often lightly staffed and poorly paid, with no more than a few dozen employees for more than 1,000 rooms resulting such establishments becoming soft targets for mischief mongers.

But it seems our hotels are not learning lessons from the past. During a recent visit to a Gurugram hotel for a grand opening party, I found to my surprise gross dereliction on the part of the security staff manning the entry gates while ushering vehicles one by one without even conducting the mandatory scanning or checking. Even walk-in guests were ushered in freely without frisking to the party area located on the second floor of the hotel.

What makes hotels soft targets?
According to experts, the service orientation of the industry and the business is the primary reason for hotels becoming the soft target for ultra-elements. Any kind of bad or bitter guest experience for any reason could harm the image of the property in this age of proactive social media. Says Pratikkh Shetty, Associate Consultant - Physical Security Practice, Mahindra Special Services Group, “Hospitality industry as an industry itself is a welcoming one. Guests are always welcomed into a hotel either to reside in their rooms, or use their specialty restaurants for some events organised in the banquets. In such a case it becomes very difficult to have a visitor management system implemented and thus verifying the identity of the people entering. In addition, an infiltrator can easily make a fake ID and stay in the hotel. An infiltrator entering into the hotel premises can conduct complete recce and devise strategies to attack it. It would be having all the security systems in place, but the easy personnel access into the hotel is the biggest threat to the security of the hotel. Also, at times the security equipment used do not fulfill the requirement for which it is being installed.”

Vineet Verma, CEO & Executive Director, Brigade Hospitality
Services, also agrees partly to this predicament, “The hospitality industry has always been a soft target since we play host to a diverse clientele from across the globe, allowing them access to a cross-section of individuals as well as intensive media attention. Establishing fool-proof security is always a work in progress as we have to adapt to changing circumstances and technology.” However, as a hotel owner, they do deploy state-of-the-art equipment and follow strict training regimen and employ multiple levels of security at their assets, he adds.

There has been a paradigm shift in safety and security preparedness in Indian hotels ever since the 26/11 incident in Mumbai, says Nivedita Avasthi, General Manager, Crowne Plaza New Delhi Mayur Vihar Noida. There has been large scale technology adoption upfront in hotels in the last few years as a part of strengthening safety and security of the property as well as the guests, she says. However, in most cases hotels are accused of lacking in terms of investing in a human resource support system to make these systems work efficiently, which in turn make hotels soft target for any kind of malicious activity, she adds.

Many reports from neighbouring Sri Lanka on the Easter Sunday serial attacks on key hotel assets in Colombo point fingers to serious security lapses. The attackers in all the cases had an easy entry into the premises with bombs and other ammunition to execute their acts.

Is technology the sole answer?
Yes, there has been increased investment in technology to ward off security threats in recent years across industries including in the hospitality industry. But the question relevant is, are technology and equipment alone sufficient to protect the assets? People who follow the industry and its security regimen suggest that hotels cannot leave the entire responsibility of technology and gadgets. “Technology is only one part of a program that encompasses physical, operational and technical security and on the other method we use sniffer dogs to sensitize the vehicles/bags. But I believe that the best sensor on the planet is one that has the capability to detect when something is not right. And that’s a human being. Hence in today’s world of security threat, we humans (owners + managements + custumers) need to understand and sensitize about security threats around the world along with business development and customer satisfaction of hospitality services,” informs Yogesh Khatri, Director of Loss Prevention, The Westin Gurgaon, New Delhi. Khatri also draws parallels between airport security and hotel security. “In airports, customers expect a good experience after the security check as they know that if they do something wrong then they will be in legal trouble. And in the hospitality industry customer expect a good experience before the security check, hence the humans’ mindset needs to be changed to upgrade the hotel security environment.”

The soft character of hotel assets can be changed by being more “vigilant”, says Arvind Kochar, a hotel security Adviser, and Consultant and former Corporate Security Head of Lalit Hotels.

When it comes to safety and security, hotel security staff need to be “firm”, he opines. “Guests, today, are well aware of the security & safety aspects,” he says. “Technology has to upgraded and updated from time to time. Manpower manning the security equipment should be well trained and should be briefed about the latest security threats. A specially trained person should be deployed 24-hrs on the equipment for effective scanning/ screening at different check points,” suggests Kochar.

Commenting on the role of technology, Shetty says that hotels have to wake up to the new threat perceptions and invest in the latest security solutions. “Hotel industry generally prefers to stick with its standard technological equipment which would provide the basic security and safety features and also comply with the global standards of the operator. But with the maturity of video analytics and the benefits shown by them, the hospitality industry should also adapt and adopt the new analytical features. Face recognition is something that is of great advantage to the hospitality industry. The hotels can easily collate a database of all local, national and international suspects/thieves/ terrorists and run the same on their video footage through the analytics. By doing so they can easily identify any of these infiltrators in their premise.”

People and Processes:
Along with technology, it is people and processes which are quite critical to keep the hotel assets safe and secure. But it is seen that people and processes are not given due importance leading to difficult situations. “It is a combination of people, process and technology which leads to effective risk mitigation and security plan in any asset environment. There have to be improvements in all the three components to make hospitality edifices impregnable by unwanted elements,” says Shetty.

“We as an industry are already driving according to the internal security threat strategy as well. However, there is scope for improvement and to strengthen the strategy/ procedures within the hospitality environment,” admits Khatri.

Although people associated with safety and security recommends strong measures and improvements in people, processes, and technology being deployed, there is still no unanimity on using armed guards or personnel within the premises. Opposing the suggestion, Verma said, “Hotels have been recognised as a traveller’s ‘Home away from home’ for generations, and no one would appreciate perceiving their home as being hostile or in contradiction with its signature warmth, service, and care. Being inheritors of this legacy, we believe that the right approach towards safety is by active individual vigilance complimenting the system we already have in place.”

However, the suggestion finds favour from a few others. “With the present situation it is strongly advisable to deploy armed guards at critical areas along with local police support team,” observes Kochar. Expressing similar sentiments, Khatri said, “I totally agree that this is the time to have armed security personnel to counter threats like an active shooter or a suicide bomber on the first hand rather do defence only to safeguard yourself and others by adopting the method of RUN, HIDE & FIGHT. It needs a change similar to the aviation industry/security.”

Outsourcing – Good or Bad:
Today, the bulk of the security responsibilities across industries are outsourced to external agencies. The hospitality industry is no different. This has become a normal procedure as the industry believes that security is a niche area which can be better handled by people and agencies with expertise and experience. However, the quality of the manpower and their grooming is a question in many places.

The quality of manpower provided by the outsourced agencies is a worry, confirms Nivedita Avasthi. “The guards of the outsourced agencies are mostly found to be untrained in handling the latest security equipment. Therefore, hoteliers need to ensure that they are taking proper steps to hire the right security consultants. Hiring outside consultants can be a good resource but they have to be managed closely,” cautions Avasthi. Khatri also carries the same sentiment. “There are many reasons that hotels outsource security agencies to secure the hotel periphery but ideally we should have on roll security personnel, as it gives them the sense of their job security, and make them more responsible and loyal for the company they are working for.”

Sharing his long experience in the hotel security, Kochar also is not in favour of outsourcing the responsibilities to external agencies. “It is not 100% effective. They are not fully skilled and have no idea of hotel security/ safety operations, service standards, risk and crisis management.” Moreover, their loyalty is also in question. Since they work on 12-hr shift, their productivity is also less, he says. In an ideal situation, the ratio of hotel’s own manpower in security duties should be more than that of the contracted agency, he suggests.

In a nutshell, it is high time the hoteliers took safety and security with utmost priority as incidents of physical attacks on hotels are increasing day by day. Hotels and tourist places are targeted primarily to gain international mileage. Its ramifications are quite big not only for the business and industry but also for the tourism economy of the destination!

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