Keeping tourists safe

Dec 1, 1998 12:00 PM, WILL POLLOCK

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Security professionals combine technology with people skills and a shared pool of best practices.Armed with cameras, street maps and disposable income, tourists bring big business to the cities and towns they visit. They are also a population that is out of its natural element. Protection of distracted and wide-eyed tourists - some of whom experience language barriers or geographic confusion - can pose significant challenges to security professionals in the hospitality industry."The average tourist puts his brain on hold when he or she travels, and many of them tend to leave their inhibitions at home," says Peter Tarlow, a rabbi, former professor at Texas A&M University and specialist who lectures frequently on tourism safety. "It's what I would call the 'Sechel Factor,'" says Tarlow, employing the Yiddish term for common sense.How does the security industry help protect a group of people who are not always focused on safety? What are the roles of professional security, local police, advocacy groups and associations in keeping tourists safe?

Guest- and technology-friendlyCertainly, technology has helped transform this significant security challenge into a skillfully managed science. Tarlow notes that the biggest issue facing hotel/motel security efforts is keeping criminals from gaining access to locked quarters.Keycard electronics have been an effective roadblock to criminals looking to gain access. According to Ray Wood, head of tourist crime prevention for the Orange County, Fla., sheriff's office, the greatest technology gains in this security area are in electronic door keys and video monitoring."The electronic keycard locks are standard issue now," says Wood. "Every time a hotel checks in a new guest the lock combination is changed electronically. These card systems reduce liability for the hotel property and increase safety for the guests - both in real terms and in perception."The systems enable security personnel to poll room locks electronically - to provide detailed entry data, for example. Herman Clark, loss prevention director for Marriott Hotels' Northwest region, notes the swipeable card systems are comon."With this type of lock system, our capability to interrogate room locks means we can tell who accessed the room and [with what frequency]," he says. "We are moving toward having all of our properties on the electronic systems, so we can, for example, tell if a guest is telling the truth when they report something stolen."While electronic locks provide hard data on guest entry, advanced CCTV systems allow a hotel to monitor its premises and protect tourists from crime. The ability to call up the image of one hotel location from six different angles, in color and with pan-and-zoom capability, increases the chances of solving a mysterious theft."The use of miniature cameras and a decrease in the cost of the cameras and systems have contributed to gains in tourist security," says Wood. "The ability to install cameras and monitor them on a cost-effective basis has allowed for dramatically greater usage.""CCTV is one of the most advanced technologies that hotels use," says Jimmy Chin, director of risk management for the Peninsula Hotel in New York and chair of the New York City Hotel Association's Safety and Security Board. Chin adds: In the case of New York City, the local police department helps hotels by calling on the city's CCTV network."The New York Police Department, through itsstrong liaison with the city's private sector, has CCTV cameras that watch virtually every sector, block and street in the city. So if by chance a crime occurs in our vicinity, the NYPD would visit me to ask if I had any information on the situation. That's tremendous, and it makes us feel safer about our guests.""Nobody wants to work 24 hours a day," says Chin, who can view images from all 45 hotel cameras at home via a telephone-line connection."We want to continue to see technology take a leading role in protecting our guests from crime," Wood adds. "The use of video, electronics and electronic surveillance systems will certainly help."Tarlow, however, cautions security professionals not to rely too heavily on technology. Often, an advanced electronic safety system can be compromised by a small amount of determination, he warns."Equipment should never be seen as good; it should be seen as neutral," he asserts."The number one backup to high-tech is the human brain," says Tarlow. Machines and electronics have supplanted some functions that used to require brainpower, but "the moment security professionals let their guard down, they're open to all sorts of problems," he adds."Security professionals should be thinking, 'If I were a criminal, how would I handle it? How could I, with very little money, foul up this system?' " Tarlow says. "I fear security professionals might not ask these questions of themselves enough."

Stirring the think tank Hotels can also benefit from a strong market-specific data network and support from local police. New York City and San Francisco, as two world-famous tourist hot spots, have hotel security boards that work to advocate tourist safety. Also, Orange County, Fla.'s tourism industry, which includes Disney World, Sea World and a large number of other hotels and resorts, is supported by a security group."We have biweekly meetings for the security council, which is mostly composed of the private industry and police agencies," Wood says. "A monthly hotel security council meeting serves as a forum for discussion of cases, upcoming events, previous crime data and arrests, and future trends."Here in Orange County, 135 tourist-related businesses - including hotels and theme parks - are on a crime fax-alert system," Wood continues. "We have one of the high-end, high-tech fax machines at our convention center through which we send out criminal and suspicious persons data."According to Wood, Orange County is looking into "reverse 911" technology that would alert geographic sections in the city of trouble through a telephoned, prerecorded message. The service can only be used in areas where enhanced 911 systems are available.In New York and San Francisco, both hotel security boards use a fax-alert system to foster safety among tourists. According to Chin, his city's safety and security committee, in existence since the 1970s, reaps rewards through education, prevention and communication."[The committee] educates security directors on an ongoing basis," he says. Speakers such as CCTV companies or credit card fraud specialists frequently give presentations at the meetings. "The committee comprises member hotels as well as city, state and federal law enforcement. Any major event in the city dictates how many people - the FBI, secret service, NYPD, state troopers - get involved."The effects are intangible, but they are real," he continues. "The results I see from this group are that crime prevention becomes an active process, in education and encouraging awareness. At the bottom line, because we work to support the tourism business in the city, all the hotels become safer."Across the country in San Francisco, a similar association led by Marriott's Clark offers an emergency fax hotline, and also works closely with local, state and federal law enforcement. The board includes 41 hotels among 72 total members, including police and other law enforcement agencies."We work very closely with the San Francisco police department, which has a few individuals dedicated to hotel security," he says. "They attend our meetings and give us arrest data and crime trends."With the increasing speed of information exchange, nationwide networking among hotel security and tourist groups could be just around the corner, says Clark.Whether nationwide or within a bustling city-information-sharing network, tourist groups, hotel associations and local law enforcement should work toward a common security goal, Wood emphasizes."Let me make this important blanket statement," asserts Wood. "If government, police, and private and public officials are not working together with their tourist industry, they are in deep trouble. The two entities must work mutually."If travel and tourism continue on their upward trend, hotel security professionals anticipate more intricate responsibilities ahead. Still, they say, technology - measured by advances just in the past five years - will rise to the task."We have made leaps and bounds in communications, from beeper systems to radio systems," says Chin.While advancing security integration will force the industry to stay in step with technology, Clark notes that the next generation of security professionals will use a more accessible and educated approach to protecting tourists."We have people working for us now with graduate degrees and working hard for a better overall environment," he says. Because hotels are a hospitality venue, mixing technical savvy and thoughtful people skills will be essential: "As much as technology is out there, success is really going to come down to having good people. Having face-to-face interactions between security and the hotel guests is an integral part of a positive perception of the facility."

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