Most organizations don’t inspect every hotel property they tell travelers to use. They can do some of that with the help of travel management companies and risk specialists, but covering the globe is a tall order. So how do travel management pros really know if properties in their programs are safe? Mostly they’re taking the hotels’ word for it.
When the GBTA Risk Committee sought travel managers to speak about hotel security programs on a November webinar, “it was difficult because so few of the folks out there have a comprehensive hotel security program,” said webinar moderator and Private Jet Service Group CEO Greg Raiff.
There’s a lot to know, and it’s not just about location. “Even if you have three hotels on the same block, the risk profile is going to be different,” said iJet International senior security consultant Edward Clark, also speaking during the webinar.
Many rely on responses to security questions posed in requests for proposals. Self-reported by hotels, those only go so far. But they are a good place to start — especially if buyers actually read them.
It’s helpful when buyers work with security and risk managers to craft questions and review responses. All the better if they can verify that the right hotel personnel answered. Advito senior director Marwan Batrouni said his company works with an increasing number of clients to customize safety and security questions in RFPs.
How questions are worded “is critical,” according to Facebook global travel safety and security manager Erin Wilk. So is communicating repercussions when standards aren’t met.
CWT Hotels Solutions Group director Eric Jongeling said hotel responses generally are accurate. There are exceptions. Sometimes hotels rush through, using outdated answers and skipping questions, he said. Follow-ups may be in order.
Travel risk experts said RFP responses cover the basics. They may indicate that chain properties are abiding by brand standards. From the buyer’s perspective, these responses at least help in mitigating liability.
Site inspections, though resource-intensive, fill in the gaps. When companies send lots of people to particular hotels — or send anyone to hotels in risky locations — inspections may be essential.
Security pros know to check on site that staff are well-equipped and trained, and that safety patrols occur regularly.
Travel managers can see some things for themselves.
“I spend a tremendous amount of my time doing site inspections,” said Bonnie Darkey, a veteran travel manager who spoke in September at the Business Meetings Travel Technology Expo in New York. “I have had hotel reps come in, the brochure looks great, the PowerPoint presentation is beautiful, and then I do the site inspection and find out it is in a really crummy neighborhood.”
Also GBTA’s Risk Committee chair, Wilk recommended using both the RFP and in-person visits to collect info. She acknowledged the challenges in doing lots of the latter, but dusted off an old adage: Trust but verify. “Conducting on-site security assessments, or employing those who do,” she added, can be valuable.
Asked about the trustworthiness of hotel safety info, iJet’s Clark in a follow-up email wrote:
“The degree of trust should be based upon the following protocol:
1. Ad hoc or informal assessment
2. Formal (written) self-assessment and reporting
3. Self-assessment with corporate audit
4. Corporate security assessment
5. External security assessment performed by a trusted security professional
The travel manager should only accept security assessments from trusted vendors. Otherwise, treat them with the same level of trust as corporate security assessment.”
Jongeling noted that CWT is considering third-party partnerships for independent safety certifications and accreditation.
That’s something Safehotels Alliance has been doing. It said Carlson Rezidor in late 2014 was the first global hotel group to accept an independent third-party certification. By last summer, Safehotels certified 120 Radisson Blu and Park Inn by Radisson properties.
The company has certified individual properties from several other brands. Safehotels CEO Hans Kanold said he expects “comprehensive” relationships with more major global chains shortly. He also noted growing demand from corporations to directly engage with Safehotels. Work with as yet-unnamed corporate travel agencies, he added, will be announced in 2017.
An industrywide standard, though, doesn’t exist.
Kanold said the demand for one is coming from the travel management profession. For hotels, he argued, independent certification “gives a lot better consistency and more motivation for the hotel to maintain a certain standard.”
You, Me And Google
There are other ways to collect info. Travelers themselves can be a great resource.
“At the end of the day, it’s each one of us walking into that hotel, making site inspections, verifying where the exit is and what to be on alert for,” said Craig Banikowski, global head of travel operations at Amgen, also speaking at BMTTE. “It can’t just be the hotel providing that. We have to expect that from travelers as well.”
International SOS EVP Tim Daniel said traveler feedback, especially for new hotels, is “probably equally important” to RFP responses.
Speaking during the GBTA webinar, Daniel said scanning online hotel reviews might be worthwhile. “It’s anecdotal to be sure, but if you see a pattern of negative reviews referring to incidents or what people perceive as problems, it might give you pause and go back to review what’s on the RFP,” he said. “Also, if you are eating meals at the hotel, the last thing you want to do is get sick. It is harder to vet food handling practices but you may see that mentioned in the reviews.”
Also during the webinar, New York Life corporate vice president of travel Ray Greeve pointed to the utility of Google Maps. Using it recently, he said he saw that one of the company’s hotels in an overseas location was “literally attached” to the U.S. Embassy. “That’s something you want to know before adding it to your program.”
The lay of the land can be critical. Banikowski noted that as civil strife hit Turkey this summer, his company pulled several hotels from the program. “It could be proximity to unrest, to government buildings or to town squares,” he said.
Daniel explained that appropriate security measures vary by country, city or even neighborhood. Is terrorism the primary concern, or is it street crime?
He cited one client’s challenge in Johannesburg. Its office was “not in a particularly great location,” Daniel said, but there was a hotel nearby. Other hotels were in an upscale business district, but putting up travelers there meant possible road travel risks and transit disruptions. “It’s not always a black and white answer,” Daniel said.
Higher Profile, Higher Risk?
Greeve said one employee didn’t want to stay at a preferred, luxury property in London because anyone can walk into the big lobby. The individual wanted to stay at a quiet, boutique hotel.
Many others prefer to stay at big brand-name hotels because they think they are safer. It’s a common perception. Major chain properties usually must meet certain standards to keep their brand flags. They can more easily afford risk managers and top private security.
Common as the perception is, it’s not universal. Banikowski, who once managed travel for Hilton, said he risked hate mail when challenging “the misconception that big brand hotels have security buttoned up.” He shared an anecdote from an unnamed five-star property in London. It’s a property where his current company holds executive leadership meetings. One morning at breakfast he witnessed a “frightening” security incident. An individual “lost their mind” and started throwing food. “The hotel staff did not know what to do,” he said. “At one point, 20 hotel staff were running around like chickens without heads.”
It’s impossible to prevent all such incidents, but guests may expect big hotels to have response protocols.
HospitalityLawyer.com founder Stephen Barth said it’s important to distinguish franchised properties from those controlled by the brand. “If Marriott or Hilton owns and operates it, I think you can expect a higher level of safety and security,” he said. “But if it’s a franchised property, I am not saying that it is not at a higher level of safety and security, but you can’t make that presumption.”
Barth said brand standards typically relate to building codes, occupancy codes and fire safety codes. “But when you get into levels of security, slip-and-fall prevention, training of employees, etc., today that is almost always left to the franchisee operator,” he said. “Brands are hesitant to participate with the franchisees in safety, security and risk matters so that they don’t get caught up in the litigation that might ensue for a breach of the franchisee’s duty of care to their customers.”
IJet’s Clark wrote that travel planners should ask franchises if property owners have safety and security requirements, and whether they’re audited.
These distinctions are worth noting. Regardless of owners and managers, though, a property that is part of a major U.S.-based chain is a more likely “soft” target for terrorists than lesser-known hotels. (Especially if the owner, or namesake, is Donald Trump.)
“It’s a Catch-22,” Barth said. Smaller, independent properties have a lower profile while the larger, branded, owned and operated hotels often employ ex-military and ex-law enforcement personnel “because they can afford it. You’d like to think that means a deeper level of safety and security.”
Wilk pointed out that major chains have “corporate muscle” for appropriate security, but also bureaucracy. “Independent and boutique properties tend to build personal rapport with their clients and listen to their concerns,” she added. “As a result of this and a smaller footprint, they can often make changes at a faster rate.”
Matt Bradley, regional security director for International SOS/Control Risks, also said independents can be just as capable. “In many instances,” he added, “the approach to safety is dictated by a combination of legal requirements and the local environment, with enhancements sometimes linked to the property’s star rating.”
The profile of an organization’s travelers matters. Are they younger folks more likely to go out at night? Are they women?
“At one point, [previous employer] HSBC decided to remove all 5-star properties from the program to save all this money,” Darkey said. “My argument was, ‘Absolutely not. There are certain cities where you need that security and safety.’ ”
Daniel pointed out that hotels in some regions of the world offer dedicated floors for female travelers.
GBTA webinar speakers provided a bunch of other pointers. For example, Daniel noted that in New South Wales, Australia, hotels aren’t required to have chains or deadbolts on room doors.
That, he said, is “a good reminder” not to assume safety standards are the same, even from one Western country to the next. Travelers may consider bringing a door stop with them in case their hotel room doesn’t have a second locking mechanism.
Cyber security also should be on the radar. As some high-profile incidents have shown, credit card theft is one component. Protecting intellectual property is another. Clark said companies should ask preferred hotels about it. He said travelers should consider leaving devices with IP in safety deposit boxes at front desks, if available. Good thieves, he said, can get into in-room safes.