Building a Security Culture: The Most Basic Best Practice Is to Train All Staff in Protecting Guests

security culture

Discussions of guest expectations in today’s hotel industry often involve aspects such as hyper-personalization, digital transactions, guestroom entertainment, wellness, and sustainable practices. Perhaps because security is so fundamental to hospitality, it is less common as a trending topic. But the protection of guests and their assets will always be a priority, one that guests themselves are highly cognizant of. In fact, security deficiencies—perceived or actual—are among the most common complaints on guest satisfaction surveys, observed Brent Jackson, president, Jackson Hotel Management, and those complaints impact future business. “It’s simple. If guests don’t feel safe and secure, they won’t come back for another stay,” he asserted.

Most guests aren’t likely to notice security equipment such as surveillance cameras, and many staff security practices are “behind the scenes.” However, other security measures are more overt. For example, guests are likely to notice inadequate lighting in the parking lot or a front desk attendant storing their luggage without a tag system. Moreover, travelers have become more attuned to the safety of their hospitality environment in the wake of COVID-19. Recent incidents have also elevated security concerns. For example, last month a flight attendant was found dead inside her room at the Philadelphia Airport Marriott by the cleaning staff. Furthermore, the mass shootings of recent years, the deadliest of which occurred at Mandalay Bay in 2017, have also brought to light security concerns in the public consciousness and spurred protocol updates among hoteliers. “In the wake of the Mandalay tragedy, major hotel chains swiftly issued a directive to their franchisees emphasizing the importance of conducting regular wellness checks in guestrooms every few days, regardless of guest preferences,” Jackson recalled. “The aim was to ensure the safety of our guests and prevent any potential security issues, like stockpiling guns or human trafficking.”

Ideally, hoteliers wishing to enhance guest and staff protection will hire more devoted security personnel, but the budget may not allow for that measure, especially with ongoing inflation. In addition, “staffing for all positions continues to be a challenge, including security,” observed Daniel del Olmo, president of Hotels & Restaurants, Sage Hospitality Group. In response, Sage deploys several talent-attraction best practices. “For our properties where we directly employ security associates, we have leveraged a number of different incentives like flexible scheduling, along with competitive pay and benefits. Where needed, we will leverage third-party security resources as well.”

Inculcating Security Awareness

Whether or not security specialists are brought on board, a key practice is to establish a “culture of security” on property, so that all staff are trained to have a security mindset. “For us, building a ‘security culture’ means training constantly in both formal settings like new-hire and annual refresher training, plus solid regular reminders and scheduled safety topics in staff meetings and stand-up meetings along with ad hoc reminders if something is happening or scheduled in the area,” del Olmo explained. “We always remind all associates that it is their responsibility to ‘see something, say something,’ and to never assume that somebody else has already done it. What an associate saw may not seem that important, but when it is put together with other reports, it may mean something.”


Jackson Hotel Management has a similar process. “Starting with orientation, we ensure all our employees, no matter which department, are trained to prioritize safety and security,” Jackson explained. “They are taught when it is best to address a security concern in house and when additional support is needed; that’s when we involve the authorities if necessary.” General managers are at the helm of the security culture, and so Jackson ensures they will uphold all the best practices. “When I am onboarding a general manager, the first words out of my mouth, on Day One, is that the general manager’s job—above all else—is to protect the people and the property,” Jackson pointed out. “This statement is intentionally broad because it means different things in different situations, but I hope it establishes a foundation for a security-conscious culture, starting from the GM and extending through department heads to all employees.”

Jackson gave examples of what it means for staff to have an eye (and ear) for security. “From the moment they arrive at the hotel, we ask that everyone is keenly aware of their surroundings. They check for any burnt-out light bulbs or they report any cars that appear out of place in the parking lot,” he explained. “As housekeepers move through the hallways, they listen for anything unusual and watch for any strange traffic patterns, like a lot of people going in and out of a guest’s room or doors left propped open. They should question why a staff-only storage room door is left open because our standard is to keep everything locked and secure 24/7, 365.”

Surveillance cameras are essential, but they can only go so far in detecting suspicious activity and potential security threats. “On the ground” surveillance must complement that technology. “We have tech systems to increase the level of security, but the reality is there’s no substitute for the housekeeper who goes into every room every day and cleans,” maintained Justin Jabara, president, Meyer Jabara Hotels. “We have a strict policy that rooms need to be entered every couple of days. So, it’s not just a front office manager who’s trained in security—everybody is the eyes and ears.”

Creating a Dialogue

Optimizing that security culture takes more than training staff on such practices: regular discussion among staff is ideal to address concerns as they arise. Thus, Meyer Jabara Hotels stages monthly security calls organized by Terri Stanganelli, senior director of risk management/communications. Participants include GMs, staff, security guards, and sometimes external security experts—typically totaling about 35 attendees. “We cover a different topic each month, and recently started recording the calls,” Stanganelli said. “We may talk about an incident that happened at a particular hotel and ask, ‘Have you experienced that? Does anybody have an idea of what we could have done better?’ So, we do a good job of sharing with each other and learning from each other.”

On-property training sessions on specific skills are also staged as needed. “For example, we just did active-shooter training across the company, something that you hope you never have to utilize, but in today’s environment [it’s important],” Jabara related. “The training was presented by a property along with an expert.”

For hotels that host group functions, pre-event security training sessions are advisable. “In the case of events, large and small, stressing to associates that the days of assuming everything will just be fine are gone,” del Olmo said. “Before an event begins, it is important that training is provided to the management team on what is important in a good investigation and making sure that one is done for every event. Each property should also have a formal Use of Force policy in place that everyone is trained on so that associates are fully aware of what actions are considered acceptable to the company. If the Use of Force policy is violated, even if the outcome is desirable, appropriate actions must be taken with the associate involved.”

Gradual Employee Access

Arguably, new staff members who are still undergoing basic training on security processes and other matters should not have full access to all hotel areas and systems. “Given the high turnover in the hotel industry, including situations where someone is hired but doesn’t stick around beyond a single shift, it’s crucial that we take a gradual approach when granting new hires access to systems,” Jackson advised. “We need to avoid granting a new employee access to sensitive tools like the portable programmer for the electronic lock system or master keys on Day One.” (See page 39 for more on key control.)

Monitoring employee access is greatly facilitated by technology. According to Jabara, “Digital key access has given us the ability to ‘interrogate’ the locks and see who’s been where and do that very seamlessly, because the locks and the systems have just gotten so good over the years. So, if a guest comes to us and says, ‘My laptop’s missing,’ we have the ability to go back and see that key XYZ was [used on that lock], and key XYZ was checked out by this individual.” (See sidebar on page 34 for more on digital lock technology.)

Securing Guest Assets

Among the basic measures in this area is the installation of in-room safes and Innkeeper Liability posters, which protect hoteliers under the applicable Innkeeper Liability statutes of each state. In addition, Sage ensures “that all properties have good controls in place for a detailed incident investigation of any reported issue or loss to see who had access to a guestroom or area,” said del Olmo. “It is also essential to have good processes, documentation, and training in place for lost and found, and for opening guestroom safes.” Another circumstance where guests’ belongings are potentially at risk is luggage storage. This issue is especially salient for hotels that regularly host conventions where many guests tend to stay on property past their checkout time and need their bags stored. “Ensure that if your staff is handling and storing guest luggage, they approach it with a high level of responsibility and do it correctly,” Jackson advised. “In my view, it’s completely acceptable for smaller hotels without the proper infrastructure to say, ‘Sorry, we don’t offer this service.’” Risk-management practices here include a tag system, a secure storage area (not simply behind the front desk), and practices such as requiring the guest who’s lost his or her luggage receipt to correctly describe the contents to prove ownership.

Protecting Staff

Ensuring staff are safe is just as important as the protection of guests, and housekeepers are among the most vulnerable staff members as they often work in solitary conditions. Apart from implementing panic buttons for housekeepers, which some brands are requiring, certain training procedures can help to prevent incidents. “We’ve put in place a detailed procedure for our housekeeping team, and it’s all about keeping the employee safe. We stress the importance of the procedure and explain why it’s crucial for their well-being,” Jackson explained. “For example, when they’re cleaning a guestroom, they’re trained not to leave the door propped open. Instead, they place their cart across the door threshold in the hall and they open and shut the door several times as they move in and out of the room. When they return to their cleaning cart, they must check through the peephole to ensure the cart is still there and nothing seems unusual in the hallway. Then they step back into the room and close the door behind them. This practice is all about their protection because leaving the door propped open could potentially allow an intruder to enter and lock them in.

“We train our restaurant staff in a similar manner,” Jackson continued. “Just because the doorbell rings at the back door, possibly for a delivery, doesn’t mean they should skip the peephole check. It’s all about being cautious and ensuring their safety.”

Connecting with Law Enforcement

Beyond having police contact information on hand should a threat or security incident arise, hotel management should have a relationship with local law enforcement. “It is necessary that our hotels have a relationship with the local police,” Stanganelli said. “We want to be the place where every patrolman stops to use the restroom, get a cup of coffee, or get a bottle of water. If there is an issue, we want them to be familiar with the buildings.” Jackson elaborated on how to develop that relationship: “You can show support for your local law enforcement by offering them a complimentary breakfast during their shifts and providing 24-hour coffee to police, fire department, and emergency medical staff,” he suggested. “They can relax in your parking lot or lobby, enjoy their coffee, and even use your property as a place to complete paperwork. If your parking lot faces a busy road, you might choose to allow the police to use your lot as a place to park and monitor driving behavior, while their visible presence at the hotel should discourage negative parking lot activity.”

It’s also important for staff to realize when an incident should be handled by the police. “Based on our relationship with law enforcement, we don’t hesitate to reach out to them when needed,” said Jackson. “For instance, if someone accuses one of our employees of theft, we believe it’s better to call the police and let them handle it. We’re not in the business of conducting investigations ourselves.” Del Olmo added, “Reporting issues to [the police] when they occur, even if they do not respond, helps the property establish an official record showing that an issue was escalated to the authorities.”

A Constant Evolution

Camera systems are becoming “more sophisticated and less expensive,” Del Olmo observed, and that’s good news for hoteliers looking to optimize surveillance. Yet there is an entirely new level of surveillance product on the market that uses AI to provide a variety of data to management, beyond security-related information. Noted Jackson, “Some security systems nowadays incorporate AI to keep tabs on your employees’ productivity throughout their shifts. They can tell you how many check-ins an employee handled, how well they did them, and even the average time someone spends at the front desk talking to Employee A compared to Employee B.” These systems can also monitor guests throughout their stay experience with AI facial recognition, tracking how much time they spend in certain public areas. With the capability to monitor essentially all people on property, the tool can flag suspicious behavior such as an individual who hasn’t been to the front desk and is roaming the hallways, somebody in a car that’s circled the parking lot several times, etc.

Another evolving area of security technology is cloud-based solutions for access management, staff safety, and asset management. Cloud-based access management eliminates the need for onsite servers and allows hotel staff to manage security operations remotely. With cloud-based locational technology, employees can use personal safety devices to “transmit their real-time location to response personnel in the event of encountering a threat to their safety,” said George Winker, vice president sales, North America, ASSA ABLOY Global Solutions. Asset management solutions “combine cloud and location technologies to provide enhanced oversight and protection over valuable business items,” he added.

While a hotelier may not be prepared to invest in advanced tools such as AI surveillance or cloud-based security technology, their availability can only be a boon for the industry. “I believe that as technology becomes more robust in this area, it’s going to improve safety and security for everyone,” Jackson concluded. Ultimately, these tools are a powerful complement to the security culture that is the foundation for protecting guests and staff.

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George Seli is the editor of LODGING.