When Michael Jorgensen heard a loud noise on the morning of April 15, he figured it was due to nearby construction. The GM of The Westin Copley Place, located in downtown Boston, never could have fathomed what had occurred mere metres from the hotel’s lobby entrance, at the Boston Marathon finish line.

“Within minutes of hearing what we learned was the second explosion, guests ran into the hotel saying there had been a bombing,” Jorgensen says. “When I looked outside and saw fire, police and bomb squad officers, I knew we had a serious issue.” Less than an hour later, more than 100 Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, National Guard and other high-level security officials descended upon The Westin where they set up their joint task-force command centre. The city was locked down, people were understandably terrified.

“Being located so close to the finish line, we were 100-per-cent full, almost completely with people who were here for the marathon,” Jorgensen says. When a neighbouring hotel was shut down, The Westin accommodated its displaced guests, in addition to roughly 2,500 guests of its own. In the chaos and uncertainty that followed, Jorgensen and his staff rallied to calm guests, assuring them that great efforts were being made to ensure their safety and security. “The first thing we did was call all hands on deck,” Jorgensen says. “Our executive team pulled our staff together and assigned tasks or directed them to specific locations where they could be available to answer guests’ questions, even though we didn’t always know the answers.”

“The key is to over-communicate. Our mission was to always be visible.”

Having practised emergency drills regularly, The Westin staff was as prepared as it could be for such a disaster. Communication was critical in maintaining order during the upheaval. “We have 800 rooms, and when guests are up there with no information, panic starts to set in,” Jorgensen says. “The key is to over-communicate. Our mission was to always be visible. As information came in, we sent out a voicemail to all rooms with details about the lockdown and where police were at with the investigation,” he says. “It helped to provide a level of calm on a very sad and excruciatingly confusing day.” Management also set up an emergency concierge to help guests locate missing friends and family as well as a buffet where they served food all day, cooking every morsel in the hotel.

“The world has changed, and you’ve got to be heightened in your ability to provide guest security,” Jorgensen says. “It’s not always going to be a terrorist threat situation. It could be a flood or a power outage, but, whatever the case, you have to be prepared.” He notes it’s not unusual for clients booking conventions to request a meeting with the hotel’s executives to discuss the security measures in place. The Westin’s procedures involve everything from how it identifies vendors and guests, to handling luggage, overseeing elevator access and staging real-time evacuations throughout the year. “We received tremendous accolades from guests and law enforcement about how we handled the situation,” Jorgensen says. “For me, it was embarrassing. We weren’t at the finish line making tourniquets. We were just doing our jobs.”

A terrorist attack, such as the Boston Marathon bombings, is an example of an extreme circumstance that can thrust hotel staff into emergency mode. But, it’s paramount that staff understands the various safety and security policies and procedures for any number of situations that might arise, from a minor safety blip, to a high-security dilemma. “Safety and security is our first and foremost concern in a hotel, period,” says Tony Pollard, president of the Ottawa-based Hotel Association of Canada (HAC). “Often people ask how many security staff a hotel has, and the answer is that every staff person is trained. Everyone is on the lookout for anything unusual or suspicious.” Routine tasks, such as the way front-desk staff observe traffic in the lobby or how housekeeping staff only ever clean one room at a time, are all part of a hotel’s overall security system.

Integrating security into hotel culture is an effective way to raise staff awareness. “Having a security and IT team that is truly involved in everyday operations, and not disconnected from the hospitality environment, is important,” says Anne Larcade, president and CEO of Huntsville, Ont.-based Sequel Lifestyle Hotels and Resorts. Sequel strives to create a consistent, day-to-day atmosphere of privacy and security for employees by ensuring they have hands-on knowledge of equipment and that skilled, accountable administrators regularly examine plans, procedures and training. “We’ve zipped into the digital age, but it’s important to also maintain an emphasis on simple, old-school security,” she says, explaining that, for example, a guest phone call should be connected without giving the caller the room number of the guest in question.

Other security considerations, Larcade notes, are the increasing number of international guests and potential language barriers as well as catering to female business travellers, who often  express safety as a top concern. While having appropriately trained staff is a huge part of Sequel’s security measures, technology plays a big role in maintaining smooth operations. “Security encompasses much more than just the property-management system,” she says. “It applies to concierge applications, restaurant sales and catering, and having explicit policies with any business partners who receive, store and process confidential data.” In addition to having observant team members, the most important security devices for Sequel include cameras, virus-protection software, identification controls with third-party service partners and protection of cash and credit-card systems, as well as room-key log reporting.

At Montreal-based Groupe Germain Hospitalité, guest comfort and security relies on a balance of well-trained personnel and useful technological systems. “The most important element of our business is helping our guests feel at home at our properties,” says Paul de la Durantaye, GM of Hotel Le Germain Maple Leaf Square and Hotel Le Germain Toronto. “Making sure they are safe contributes to their comfort and overall sense of well-being while travelling. At Hotel Le Germain Maple Leaf Square, we leverage digital video, secured key-card access control for elevators as well as security guards, when appropriate, to ensure guest and staff safety.”

Groupe Germain guards itself against potential hackers by conducting regular system updates and closely monitoring network activities. It also has two distinct networks, one for public use and another for internal use, with no physical link to one another. The company prioritizes employee IT training to proactively eliminate any unintentional internal breaches. “Replacing older systems with new procedures and equipment is often the biggest challenge from an IT point of view,” says Charles Bureau, Groupe Germain’s director of IT. “We have found that involving our staff from the beginning, and communicating system benefits in the early stages, improves adoption and implementation success rates.”

Mobility has added a new dimension to digital security as staff now access information from a variety of devices and locations. The focus on employee training helps everyone understand how to treat information securely. “We need to ensure guest safety while offering a seamless and transparent guest experience in a relaxing environment,” de la Durantaye says. “The challenge lies in finding the balance between being hospitable while acting on potential dangers.” 

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