Can your system handle high-profile guests?

Good news! U.S. President Barack Obama is coming to stay at your hotel, and much of the world will take note of his arrival. Now all you have to do is ensure you have the proper security measures in place to keep him safe — no small feat.

This scenario recently played out in Canada, as hotels beefed up their security for major events such as the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler and Ontario’s G8 and G20 Conferences, which attracted high-profile guests with extra security needs. And recent crises, like hotel sieges in Mumbai, have hospitality veterans questioning whether many hotels have the right systems in place.


“The 2008 Mumbai bombings were the catalyst for hotels to review their guest-security procedures,” says Nick Migliore, a principal at O’Reilly Security, a provider of executive protection (EP) services. The Toronto-based company has worked with a range of hotels in its security assignments, which include the Westin Grand in Vancouver for the Olympics, on behalf of a major corporate sponsor with dozens of VIP guests, and The Fairmont Royal York in Toronto for visits by Queen Elizabeth and Bill Clinton. “The technology to make the guest experience seamless is available, so the big trend is to improve security while also making it less intrusive,” says Migliore. “Many hotels, such as the Royal York and Hazelton in Toronto, are building control centres to integrate security with communications, video surveillance and access control.”


Another trend is the expansion of security measures, originally implemented for VIP guests, extended to all visitors. One example is installing card readers in elevators, so guests can’t get to their floors unless they have access cards. “They were originally used for premium floors only, but more and more hotels are implementing them for all floors,” says Kevin Murray, a N.Y.-based independent security consultant who works with many hotels on counter-espionage assignments at large corporate conferences.


The Sutton Place in Vancouver is a luxury hotel that attracts many celebrities and corporate leaders. “We also have a long-term accommodation tower, so we get a lot of guests from the film industry for longer stays,” says Peter Bruyere, director of Marketing, adding that the Sutton Place recently hosted the cast of Twilight, the hit film.


And it’s important to note that VIPs from varying walks of life have different safety and service needs. Surprisingly, corporate CEOs can sometimes be more demanding than Hollywood stars. “Celebrities are pretty good at keeping their movements inconspicuous, and they typically have an entourage to look after them,” says Bruyere. “But sometimes the corporate VIPs you don’t recognize by face can be more of a handful.”


The Sutton Place relies on two main technologies to protect its regular and VIP guests from criminal elements. “We have CCTV cameras in public areas, around the buildings and in guest corridors to monitor movements. All our elevators are equipped with key-card readers,” he says. The hotel community in the Vancouver area also has an intricate communications network in place to share video images and information about trouble makers at one hotel, so staff at other hotels can be warned, he adds.


The Sutton Place also recently implemented a mobile application that allows guests to make reservations on their smartphones. “They can get a key card delivered right to their handheld and then use their device to gain access to their guest rooms, so they can bypass the front desk entirely. We have a VIP protocol in place to ensure recipients are who they claim to be, which is very secure.”


Nevertheless, except for the extra authentication procedures for mobile bookings, the Sutton Place’s security technology or services are not specifically geared towards protecting VIPs, as those who need extra protection typically arrive with their own bodyguards and security staff. Bruyere says he’s wary about relying on technology too much, as well-trained and watchful hotel staff are the key to good security. “You can put as many cameras and card readers as you like in place, but if people aren’t monitoring these things, undesirables can always get access.”


The Brookstreet Hotel in Ottawa, which has hosted the Bilderberg Conference, the Queen of the Netherlands, as well as a roster of visiting NHL hockey teams each season, has a different set-up for security. “We have a substantial number of cameras throughout the hotel, but not on the guest floors themselves — that’s a bit creepy,” says Troy Hughes, Brookstreet’s director of Finance. “We protect all our guests’ privacy by securing the access ways to their floors instead. And, we offer check-in desks on premium floors so VIP guests can bypass the front desk.”


Much like the Sutton Place, video surveillance is the Brookstreet’s main source of security, and the hotel recently upgraded to high-definition (HD) video surveillance at entrances, exits and other critical security points. The move was prompted by issues with its analogue video cameras, which often don’t capture enough detail, explains Hughes.


“We’ve dealt with many incidents, but without the proper image quality, you can’t really understand what happened. Before, we used to be able to see someone’s face at check-in, but with HD, you can see their pimples,” he quips.


Hughes also says HD images were successfully used to identify the perpetrator in an incident where a BlackBerry and a leather jacket were stolen from an Ottawa Senators player in the crowded hotel bar.


The Brookstreet doesn’t use any extra technology for its VIP guests, and relies on old-fashioned muscle when more security is needed, he says. “We hire extra guards to beef up security during NHL presences, as there are more undesirables around.”


In the end, Hughes says discretion is key to providing a welcoming but safe hotel environment. “People may feel more unsafe if there are a lot of obvious cameras or guards around — they’ll assume the hotel is a dangerous place to warrant all that security.”


In terms of the latest technology, many hotels are starting to provide their VIP guests with key chains, fobs and bracelets equipped with GPS and RFID tags that emit wireless signals to let hotel staff know their whereabouts, says Leo Manos, manager of Special Projects at O’Reilly Security and ex-security director at the Royal York. “In Mexico and other hotspots, hotels tag VIPs so they know exactly where they are within their facilities. In Toronto, the Hazelton and Fairmont Royal York are also using this technology,” says Manos.


The tags are useful not just for VIP protection, but also for attending to service requests, he adds. “If VIPs want to order meals or drinks, instead of calling the front desk and spending time finding out where they are, the hotel can locate them on the grid and respond faster.”


Although many VIPs bring their own security staff, the tags are useful in helping those teams ensure their safety in an inconspicuous fashion. “If the VIP goes to the gym, it’s less intrusive to bring the tag along than to have bodyguards hanging around calling attention to them. Instead, the guards can position themselves in strategic locations near entrances and exits to ensure their protection, while also maintaining their privacy.”


These tagging devices are becoming fairly commonplace, and they offer many other operational advantages to hotels, even when you’re not thwarting an international conspiracy.




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