Special Series: Hotel Security

8 MINS READJul 6, 2011 | 18:35 GMT

Editor's Note: This is the third installment in a series in which Stratfor discusses the many facets of travel security. Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7.

On July 1, at 7 p.m. some 1,500 guests at the Park Lane Hilton in London were forced to leave the hotel when a basement fire spread to the hotel's second floor. Firefighters were able to extinguish the fire, and no fire-related injuries were reported. Three days later, a shooting at the Doubletree Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, left one guest dead and one of the two responding police officers dead after he separated from his partner to find the assailant.

That two people were killed during the Doubletree shooting is regrettable and should not be understated. However, both situations had the potential to be much worse than they were — in terms of human casualties — and are all the more reason for travelers to understand the various emergency situations they may encounter while staying at a hotel. Knowing what information is needed and what steps should be taken in those situations will give a traveler the best possible chance of survival. Stratfor has written extensively on militant threats to hotels as well as steps a traveler can take to mitigate those threats. It is important for travelers to recognize the personal security issues relevant to a typical hotel stay.

Avoid the Chaos Factor

Typically, the largest threat to a traveler in an emergency situation is chaos. People's instincts to protect themselves can lead to unpredictable and, at times, dangerous behavior when their survival is at stake. This is why it is even more important to plan for and practice emergency situations, especially in places like office buildings or hotels, where confusion and fear are compounded by the unfamiliarity of the location and the people around you. Preparation, common sense and situational awareness remain the most important aspects of personal security anywhere; personal security at a hotel is no exception to this axiom.

Before even making a reservation at a hotel, a traveler should first learn whether it has enacted adequate security measures. This information is best acquired from a trusted business associate or other source in the country, rather than the hotel itself, which could provide hollow assurances. After all, a hotel has every reason to want to retain your business at the expense of a competitor, even one with superior security.

Most Western hotel chains have safety protocols for emergencies, and the employees for those hotels are trained and competent in security procedures. Government agencies in Western countries will, for the most part, respond promptly and reliably to emergency situations. Equipment such as fire alarms, water sprinklers, closed-circuit television cameras and emergency exits all function properly. But, for these reasons, a traveler tends to take his or her safety for granted, trusting that others will come to the rescue in case of an emergency. This creates a false sense of security because it is impossible for hotel staff to watch everyone at all times. Closed-circuit television cameras are valuable only if someone monitors them at all times (and if someone is available to promptly respond to an emergency), which is often not the case.

In the developing world, travelers must take even more responsibility for their security. Some hotels, especially in small towns, may have no security measures or procedures in place at all. The security equipment they may have, such as metal bars on windows, can actually cause more harm than good, and sprinklers and fire extinguishers may be inoperable. Buildings are typically not built to Western fire code standards, locks on doors may be easily picked or manipulated, and hiring practices can be substandard, especially when the hotel does not have the wherewithal to perform thorough background checks for potential employees.

There are some measures a traveler should take no matter where their hotel is in the world. When choosing a hotel room, the room should not be so high that an extension ladder could not reach it in the event the hotel is evacuated. Standards on ladder lengths vary, but the second through fifth floors generally are acceptable. Moreover, it is important to take note of fire exits in a hotel in case of an emergency event. A traveler should physically walk the exit route from a room to safety to verify that doors and stairwells are unlocked and free of obstructions — locked doors and obstructions can occur both in developed and developing countries. Because smoke inhalation is the most common cause of death in a fire, having a flashlight, smoke hood and cell phone at the ready is recommended at all times. Absent a smoke hood, a traveler should cover his or her mouth with a wet towel and remain low to the ground. Hotel guests should also bring along a map of the premises when they flee the building (many hotels provide such maps on the doors of their rooms). If traveling with others, a person should have a designated rally point outside the hotel.

Personal Safety Precautions

Fires are by no means the only threat a traveler may encounter during a hotel stay. Theft, kidnapping and other attacks present real threats to a traveler’s security, and measures to counter such threats abound.

When possible, a guest should choose a room location above the ground floor of a hotel, decreasing the room’s accessibility to criminals. Once inside the room, a guest should avoid opening doors to unannounced visitors, all of whom should be told to wait in the lobby so the front desk can verify their identity and reason for being there. Most important, a guest should ascertain whether someone has a reason for knocking on the door and asking for entry. When in doubt, do not open the door.

A traveler should accept at least two keys when checking in to the hotel, and he or she should clarify to the front desk who is allowed to receive a key if one is lost or stolen. A traveler should also avoid returning their room key to the front desk — this allows people to easily see that a room is unoccupied. It should be kept in mind that a room safe is not safe, so a traveler is better served keeping important valuables on his or her person or at a secure location at the front desk. Security door locks should be used at night, and the door should never be propped open when going out — a thief needs only a small window of opportunity to enter a room. For the frugal traveler, an inexpensive wedge door lock (a rubber wedge placed between the floor and the bottom of the door) can also provide added security.

Cleaning staff should not be allowed into the room in the absence of the guest, and the "Do Not Disturb" sign should always be placed on the door handle to discourage anyone from entering the unoccupied room. Whether the hotel staff is complicit in criminal activity or not is irrelevant; a discerning traveler should minimize access to his or her hotel room at all times so that complicity is never a factor.

If driving a car, a traveler should park only in hotel parking lots that are well lit — preferably near the lobby or in a spot visible from the hotel room. When walking in the parking lot, a traveler should have the keys in hand, always checking inside the car before getting in. Valuables should be kept out of site or in the trunk of the car, as thieves are more likely to target a car known to contain valuable items.

In some countries, such as China, hotels are used to gather intelligence on guests. Using Internet services at a hotel can make a guest’s computer vulnerable. A traveler should assume telephone conversations on hotel lines are tapped and rooms are bugged for sound — and probably video. He or she should never leave a laptop, PDA or important documents in the room when away because the devices could be stolen, cloned or copied.

Hotels — often erroneously — are seen as a secure location where the every need of a traveler is cared for, from turning down his or her bed to ensuring his or her personal safety. Indeed, hotels try very hard to make a guest feel at home; the onus of the guest is to remember that he or she is not. A false sense of security can lull a traveler into letting his or her guard down and abandoning the state of relaxed awareness needed to practice personal security when traveling.

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