THE ONLY WAY TO PRESERVE OUR SAFETY IS PREVENTION.
The awareness of how crucial the work of our security teams is in our hotels, is the type of intelligence that comes with experience over time, but mainly over challenging events.
At times we are so busy delivering the greatest experience, the cleanest room, the most amazing product, the best food, that we forget the most critical and most basic component of service: ensuring everyone in the building is and feels safe, secure and protected, at all times.
First hand experiences of unfortunate events shape you to become someone that values the safety of your team, your guests (and of course yourself) more than anything else.
I say first hand experience of unfortunate events, because when those frightening situations happen elsewhere, to someone else, we understand the full severity; but somehow it is in our human nature to realize the true impact of an incident, only when it involves us directly, in our environment, and we are personally affected.
When something happens to you and your team, that’s when you really step up and do whatever you can to ensure it won’t happen again. I’ve personally faced quite a few serious occurrences, some of them quite shocking actually, which I will never forget. Maybe I am unlucky, but I prefer to look at it as I have had the opportunity to personally go through those situations, and should they happen again, I am prepared to handle them and protect myself and others.
And as uncomfortable as it is to admit, the truth is those things can happen when you work in a hotel, so better to be ready for it.
In preparation for my most recent hotel opening, I have made a strong point within my leadership, to ensure our team members - especially the ones who had not worked in a hotel before - were aware of what could happen and how to deal with it. Hopefully I did not scare them off, but nowadays in our business we have to deal with terror attacks, bomb threats, active shooters, theft, natural disasters, extreme people’s behaviors, human trafficking and prostitution, and now with virus pandemics. So we need to talk about it. And we need to take a moment to recognize how brave our Loss Prevention teams are to be on the front line and defend us and protect us day after day. The best thing we can do for them is promote and help preserve that safety in any way we can.
Loss prevention, as the word itself says, is meant to prevent several types of issues: loss of lives, theft of inventory and goods, property damage, privacy invasion etcetera.
As mentioned, I have experienced quite some of these, and I would like to share some stories and resolutions that might help someone else, and as usual, I hope for your input as well.
It was a day like any other. A guest checked in his one night reservation and communicated he would pay cash. The next day when he was supposed to check-out he requested to extend his stay by an additional night, and this time, he would provide his loyalty program membership number, so he could pay with reward points. Nothing strange emerged until day after day he kept coming back to the front desk asking to extend, using points and cash, and that’s when we started thinking something was a bit suspicious. At this point the guest was at the property for over 2 weeks, he had provided a credit card which however he did not want us to use - and there are a limited number of members that have enough points to stay that long - so we decided it was time to alert our leadership and investigate the unusual situation. Coincidentally, the company that managed our loyalty program contacted us as well that week, to let us know they had a case of identity theft. Apparently one of their members had claimed a huge amount of points disappeared from his account, so we did one plus one. The person who was using his membership was of course at our property, and was our mysterious points paying guest.
Situations of this kind are unfortunately not unusual, I have witnessed multiple fraudulent events when it comes to payments: credit card fraud or insufficient funds, walk outs, attempts to avoid payment by blaming other circumstances… you name it.
But there are ways to recognize the signs and prevent this kind of issue. Is the guest a walk in? Do they not want to provide a credit card? Do they insist on paying cash? Do they extend day by day? Don’t automatically assume it’s fraud if you notice all this, but don’t ignore those clues and suspicious behaviors, if it feels wrong, there’s a chance it is.
One morning, the night staff was ending their shift with the wake-up calls, and one guest did not answer. They called him a second time, and when he still didn’t answer they simply left a voicemail to inform him they called him as requested. Obviously the right procedure is to go to the room and check on the guest, but this was completely mismanaged. The day went by and I was not aware of the mistake yet, until that evening when the guest’s wife called the hotel and asked if we could check his room, because she was not able to get a hold of him, and his colleagues told her he did not show up to an important work meeting. I handled the situation personally and went to his room with our security officer. When the elevator doors opened to his floor, the powerful smell of death that had already flooded the hall, was something I will never forget. We broke the deadbolt to get in the room, but we knew what we were going to find: a deceased guest.
At that point after investigating, the missed wake-up call story emerged, and at that moment my first thought was “Could we have saved his life?”.
Not in this case, no, because he had unfortunately passed away the night before due to natural causes. But it is possible. If he had been struggling that morning instead of the night before, and if we had gone up to check on him right away, we could have saved his life. From that moment, I realized that handling a procedure correctly can make the difference between life and death.
Different time, different property. Another guest arriving, another perfectly normal check-in interaction. This customer was actually quite nice and because she stayed for several nights, she would come to the lobby and chat with our staff often. They liked her and enjoyed talking to her, and yet, something was not right. When a staff member reported that she was coming back with different people every night and that there had been some noise complaints, we asked Housekeeping if they had noticed anything strange in the room, which is when we learned she had refused service for several days so nobody had been in her room. There is a very specific reason why hotels have this policy: certainly the guest has the right to refuse people from entering their room, but we have the right to enter and perform a check, if a few days have gone by and we have any suspicion.
So I did. And when I entered I found the room completely trashed: drugs of any kind, garbage and used prophylactics everywhere, damage to multiple hotel items, signs of illegal activities and of severe misconduct. As we escalated the situation and investigated further, we also discovered she had initially used a stolen credit card, and later her panderer covered her expenses. We had no choice but calling the authorities, which searched her room and escorted her out in handcuffs the same day. As if the experience was not disgraceful enough, the following week myself and a colleague were called in court to testify against her.
It can certainly be the case that someone just doesn't want to be bothered in their room, but if a person stays at a hotel and they are in the room all day, if they don’t want the room to be cleaned at any point, if they are visibly uncomfortable with staff members entering the room to perform their job, in the hotel world this is considered suspicious behavior. When in doubt, it is crucial to follow the procedure and perform a wellness check, for the guest’s sake and for our own. Yes, it is the guest’s own room, but whatever illegal or unaccepted activity is going on in it, it is still happening under our roof, and we have the right and the responsibility to do whatever we can to prevent it or to stop it.
The last situation I will talk about has to do with an employee who was like everyone else when I first met him, he liked his job and had nice ways with the guests. But out of nowhere things changed, all of a sudden he stopped coming to work. After he had not showed up for his shift two nights in a row, and he couldn’t be reached, the night manager alerted me, and the third night, when he was finally able to talk to him, he said he sounded very distressed, very confused, but most concerning of all he was talking about suicide. Immediately myself and the Director of HR took the situation in our own hands, we realized his family was not in the condition of helping him, so we convinced him to come and talk to us. The long and multiple conversations we had with him over the next few days, made us feel better about where he stood. He started coming to work again, he looked relaxed and back to his usual mood, and things seemed back to normal, until they weren’t again. His behavior and presentation changed, we noticed and heard instances with guests where he was described to be moody and unprofessional, and then the staff started coming to me worried for their own safety and using the word "aggressive". For me that was the last drop.
I am aware people with mental illness who have suicidal thoughts, should be considered dangerous for themselves, but the part I did not know is that they could be a threat to others. It's a very tough situation to be in because you want to be helpful and compassionate, but at what point do you need to step aside, let competent authorities handle it, and worry about protecting the others?
I definitely wanted to give him a chance to get back on his feet, but I had to realize he was not making good use of that chance, and at that point the case was out of my hands. So we had to talk to him about suspension from work and involvement of associations who could offer professional help, to which he did not react well. It came down to a heated conversation on his part in front of multiple staff members which he ended with: “Next time you see me you better call security”. At that point HR was quick to suspend him based on threatening behavior.
To add to it, when we finally removed him from the property, I had to go through a long and exhausting meeting with him and the Union representative who was defending his case. Their defense was based on the fact that what he said was not intended as a threat and therefore we did not have ground to terminate his employment. The good news was that we had multiple witnesses who felt threatened, and let’s face it, if you chose to say certain words in the workplace in the 21st century you are going to have to deal with the consequences whether that was your intention or not. So we closed the case. That was the good news, the bad news was that I still had to live with the aftermath, and to go to work the following weeks with the constant worry that he would come back and do something to myself or to my staff. It was a scary moment, but it was worth the fear and the pain the moment my staff thanked me for taking the situation seriously and for making them feel like they could count on me to protect them.
It doesn’t end here, as many of us during my career I’ve had to cut off intoxicated guests from the hotel bar; I’ve had to refuse minors trying to check-in with fake IDs; I’ve had to wait for the cops while they came and took a guest who claimed she had been taken to someone’s room against her will; I’ve had to deal with a confused guest who was under the influence and wondering naked around the hallways, or with another one who decided to pull the fire alarm for absolutely no reason; I had to calm down to my employees after a guest was having a heart attack in the lobby in front of their eyes; I’ve received several complaints from guests accusing my staff of theft; and finally I’ve worked through hurricane Sandy in New York, being stranded at the hotel for a week without being able to go home, and handled a flood of people in our lobby who couldn’t go home either.
If we all experience the risk in our jobs, we must know that prevention is the only way to try and preserve that safety. So what can we do to be prepared?
We need a designated authority figure that will lead the way in case of an emergency; we need a security team who will put the right procedures in place, but also that will frequently audit those same procedures to ensure they work; we need proper equipment, such as panic buttons, working cameras, clear signal for radios and other communication tools. We need unannounced simulations to test risk management; we need recorded or written announcements, and clear communication and instructions which are essential during an incident.
We need to train our managers on fire procedures, certify them for CPR so we can all assist with medical issues. Emergencies happen quickly and suddenly, and time responsiveness can be key, so we need to teach them and ourselves to stay calm, clear and react fast.
We need to tell our staff what to expect and teach them how to handle it: teach them not to directly open the door for a guest who claims they lost their key, teach them not to check-in a guest if their name is not on the reservation, teach them not to forward a call to a room unless you have permission from the guest, teach them how to recognize unusual things in the rooms and suspicious activities and what to do when they notice them.
Finally and most importantly we need everyone to have a role and know it well. When we all know exactly what to do, there is no confusion about who is supposed to do what, no assumption that someone else will do it, and with this approach we will be able to save lives as a united team.
The hotel is our home, we must put our dedication into protecting it and everyone in it.