The autopsy photos still haunt Norm Bates, Esq. “She was stabbed 96 times,” says Bates, president of Liability Consultants Inc., in Bolton, Mass. “I’ve done hundreds of murder cases, but this was the worst one I’ve ever seen.”
Roughly a year prior to the October 2007 murder of 21-year-old Layla Banks, the former Stamford Sheraton Hotel in Connecticut had cut the property’s security staff of 10 to one as a cost-saving measure, says Bates, who served as a security and liability expert for the Banks family in the case against the hotel. The security office became a storeroom, and the director of engineering doubled as the director of security, a position that he was “incompetent” to serve.
A group of people, mostly underage, hosted a party at the hotel on the night of the murder, he says. Roughly 100 individuals came and went over a two-to-three-hour period. Police evidence showed empty beer and liquor containers and pot.
At the party, Banks ran into a man that she had dated for a short period, but they had stopped seeing each other because he had anger issues, says Bates, also a former head of security and in-house counsel for three hotels. They ended up talking away from the party in a common area hallway, where in another effort to save money, the hotel had shut off the lights—despite the fact this hallway led to an emergency exit. An argument ensued, and he started to stab her.
“She screamed for help for over an hour,” Bates says. Two employees heard the yells but were too afraid to investigate because of the lack of light. “When we analyzed the case, there were so many deficiencies,” he says. “There was no assessment of what their security needs were. They were just arbitrarily cut to save money.”
In addition to having an inexperienced and under-qualified director of security, the hotel had no way to record security rounds, and when the guard took his half-hour break, he punched out and there was no security on duty at all. Also, nobody monitored the entrances to the hotel from the garage and off the street, and they removed the cameras. “I’ve never seen something so egregious in my life,” Bates says. The multimillion-dollar lawsuit was eventually settled for an undisclosed sum of money.
While this is an extreme case, properties must contend with a variety of security-related issues, from rapes and murders to alcohol-fueled fistfights, room theft, and prostitution.
The key to a successful security program across the board is staying hyper-vigilant and having a rapid response to incidents. “The toughest thing is to stay abreast of everything coming at you,” says Chris Gernentz, director of safety and security for the Americas, Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group. “You have to make sure that you’re prepared as much as you can be.”
As a recent example, he pointed to the security flaw in the Onity locks that allowed hackers to easily break into hotel rooms with just a $50 homemade device, he says. “That broadsided everybody and threw the whole industry off.”
Following the discovery, Carlson Rezidor partnered with different lock companies and other AH&LA members to work to ensure that a similar incident doesn’t occur. “Does that vet everything out?” Gernentz says. “No, but at least you’re on the forefront of it.”
Carlson Rezidor also continually trains its staff on the latest security trends and tactics to keep everyone on high alert. They encourage employees to report issues, no matter how minor they might be, Gernentz says. “I’d rather hear something and it turns into nothing than hear it when it turns into a big issue.”
Educating staff about security best practices will certainly reduce the rate of incidents, agrees Bob Chartier, vice president of key accounts for AlliedBarton Security Services, which works with Hilton. Many common issues occur when an unscrupulous person takes advantage of a staff member who’s actually attempting to serve the customer. Examples of this include providing an extra room key to someone but not checking an ID or returning luggage without the claim slip. “Oftentimes, employees just want to be helpful,” Chartier says. “Hotels have to be guest-centric, but they also need to remind staff that security is just as important.”
If an incident does occur, whether it’s an act of violence or a minor theft, responsibility rests with lodging management to respond immediately, Chartier says. That may mean correcting the physical surroundings, barricading an area, having appropriate security personnel respond, or calling the authorities. Situations will be further complicated once an incident spreads via social media or a news crew shows up.
At Carlson Rezidor, everyone is trained on incident investigation through its risk management department. “We try to get everything reported and investigated within 24 hours,” Gernentz says. “It just closes that loop. You may not have resolution with the guest at that point, but at least you made contact and you’re moving in that direction.”