It is no easy matter to keep hotel guests happy during high-profile visits by heads of state and other ranking dignitaries. As general manager of The David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, I hosted and experienced visits by President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Deputy Prime Minister of Britain John Prescott, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on short visits, and many more.
While it is of paramount importance that hotel security work with and assist the various security agencies (both home and foreign) involved in the visit, it is the ultimate responsibility of the host country to protect the dignitary. For this reason, the primary concern of security agencies is to keep the high-profile visitor apart from the regular guests as much as is possible. This also benefits the hotel itself, and its success is largely determined by the physical layout of the building.
However, as hard as one tries, the hotel’s normal daily routines for staff and guests alike will doubtless be disrupted during high-level official visits. All present in the hotel, including staff, guests and transient visitors, are viewed as potential threats and must therefore be processed. Background checks are conducted by Israeli security for staff members, and those staff members deemed a potential threat are sent home for the duration of the visit. As general manager, I was given a wristband to wear that signaled my “laissez passer” status to the various security agencies at the hotel during all shifts. It allowed me free access to all but the “isolated” floors reserved for the missions.
During Secretary of State Rice’s visits the hotel was used primarily as her residence. Most of her meetings took place outside of the hotel. Small meetings at the hotel were held in the Executive Lounge on the upper floors, so relatively little security was necessary in the main public areas including the entrance lobby, the lounge, and restaurants.
For the Secretary of State’s visit, the reserved floors were cut off from the rest of the building and more or less isolated. Metal detectors were set up at the entrance to her floor. From the moment her plane landed, no one was allowed onto those floors unaccompanied by security. Indeed, all rooms were inspected by both Israeli and American security and then closed off to anyone but the diplomatic party. Even the undersides of armchairs were taken apart for inspection, as were air conditioning vents, headboards and carpets. Since the terrace of the suite overlooked the magnificent ancient walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, a bullet-proof glass screen was placed there against sniper threats.
The security did not stop there. Back of the house stairwells leading to the closed floors were equipped with CCTV cameras that were monitored 24 hours. Lights were placed on the roof to illuminate the surrounding area during the night. American security and Marines were on duty throughout the stay, and coordinated arrivals and departures with both the hotel and Israeli security agencies.
The Secretary’s arrivals and departures were always through the underground parking lot, which afforded maximum protection from any perceived threat. The route taken to her suite was via dedicated employee service elevators. Arrivals and departures were like Harrison Ford movies: huge black American SUVs drawing up in convoy, security agents with earpieces and guns standing ready, doors opening and closing. It was exciting and an honor for me to be there and welcome these high-profile dignitaries to my hotel.
Simultaneously, the rest of the rooms were occupied by other guests. During arrivals and departures there was added security in the public areas, and the surrounding streets were closed off by the Jerusalem police for the motorcade. This did solicit some complaints, but who did not want to return home and tell friends and family that they were staying at The David Citadel at the same time as Condoleezza Rice? Most guests took it well and some even said they liked witnessing history in the making.
On the whole, it was reasonably easy to allow the regular guests and visitors to carry on with normal life during a high-level visit in the hotel, and the visits generally went quite smoothly.
However, when Ariel Sharon came to the hotel for a visit or meeting, short or long, it was a different case entirely. Since the Prime Minister came mostly for private or public meetings, State dinners, he came in through the front entrance. Security arrangements were set up hours before his arrival, if not the evening before. Metal detectors were set up at the entrance, and everyone—whether guest, staff, or visitor—was processed by the general security services, similar to today’s airport security procedures.
Certain areas of the hotel were out of bounds to the normal guests during the Prime Minister’s visits, and this did cause disruptions in areas usually frequented by them. Lobbies, restaurants, and certain other areas were sometimes off limits, inconveniencing guests. However, when the Prime Minister entered and guests crowded around to catch a glimpse of the famous man, and perhaps even snap a shot of him, all thoughts of inconvenience were usually set aside in favor of stories to be taken home from their visit to Jerusalem—leaving everyone satisfied.
Stephen W. Ayers has worked in and managed hotels in England, South Africa, Canada, Cyprus, and Israel, and is the author of The Taba Convention, a Middle Eastern thriller (available at eEstore.com and Amazon.com). For more information, visit www.stephenwayers.com.