International hotels seek mix between hospitality, security

— -- The terrorist attacks in Mumbai once again have revealed the delicate balance that large international hotels face, acting as a public gathering place for a sophisticated business clientele without sacrificing security.

Security experts say the standard safety measures in place at most upscale hotels in international business centers could not have entirely prevented last week's invasion of the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower and Oberoi Hotel. But the attacks in Mumbai are triggering new discussions about the proper level of security that should be in place at hotels frequented by business travelers, which often attract large crowds with few limits on access.

"The industry has specific, unique challenges," says Todd Brown, executive director of Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), a federal advisory panel that works with the State Department for global security and safety issues. "They're inviting people in and they want to be hospitable, but some are also operating in an environment that is real threatening, especially with terrorism."

The Association of Corporate Travel Executives on Monday issued a list of security practices that it'll urge hotels to implement, including: providing blueprints or other detailed hotel information to police and fire officials; installing secondary communications, such as a PA system, to inform guests about fires or emergencies; training staffs more efficiently in evacuating guests; and a surveillance system (such as closed-circuit cameras) to monitor access points.

"Not every hotel will have (all the measures) right away," says Susan Gurley, executive director of ACTE. "But by demanding now, it'll be the beginning of new standards."

Some of the procedures outlined by ACTE are already being adopted by many upscale hotels, says Jim Stover, a security consultant who specializes in hotels for security risk management firm Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. While training for supervisors and managers has been adequate, the level of awareness among line employees could be "hit or miss," he says.

International chains, such as Marriott and Hyatt, are no strangers to terrorism activities targeting Americans and other Westerners. In September, a truck bomb exploded at the entrance to the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, while a car bomb went off outside a JW Marriott in South Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2003. In 2005, al-Qaeda executed a series of coordinated bomb attacks on three hotels — the Grand Hyatt, Radisson and Days Inn — in Amman, Jordan.

In 2006, OSAC issued a list of security measures that hotels in vulnerable cities should consider to safeguard their properties. Some may be surprising to Americans unaccustomed to traveling in turbulent areas, such as strategically placed concrete planters, tire killers, vehicle inspections, bag searches, metal detectors, 24-hour security officers and explosives-detecting dogs.

These measures are already in place at some hotels in the Middle East. And major hotel chains are increasingly considering them at other international locations, even if they're not ready to introduce them broadly, Brown says. "They want to hear what's available," he says.

Most hotels in the USA aren't ready or willing for such strict measures, security consultant Ralph Witherspoon says. "Hopefully, we'll never be."

Citing security concerns, hotel chains including Hilton, Starwood, Marriott and InterContinental declined to reveal specifics of their practices at either foreign or domestic properties. In a statement, Starwood says it globally overhauled its security procedures several years ago. "We have made a significant investment to upgrade our emergency and crisis procedures in light of world events."

Hilton says it's taking "the appropriate steps necessary, including established emergency and security procedures."

Business traveler Bob Sachs, a software consultant from Lynchburg, Va., who travels internationally, says the Mumbai attacks have "raised my awareness that I would feel more safe if access to the building was more difficult," such as keeping cars at some distance from the building, checking identification of people entering the building and using bomb-sniffing dogs.

Another traveler, Art Cobb, a pilot from Pensacola, Fla., isn't so sure such measures would work in the USA. "We are sick of all the security measures as it is, so to have more imposed would be over the top," he says.

Even if the strictest measures are untenable for U.S. travelers, OSAC and other security experts say there are more mild security practices that can be adopted such as separate staff entrances, vetted staff, anti-shatter film on lobby windows and adequate lighting.