2008 was the year hotel security took center stage. On November 26 between 9 and 11 p.m., reported members of the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba stormed three hotels in Mumbai—the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel, the Oberoi, and the Trident, Nariman Point—armed with machine guns, rifles, and grenades. In three days, more than 170 people were killed. This wasn’t the only attack directed at high-end hotels: in January 2008, six people were killed at the Serena Hotel in Kabul, allegedly by Taliban fighters; and in September, a car bomb at the entrance to the Marriott in Islamabad claimed 52 lives. But Mumbai’s events were deeply shocking, and not simply for their scale. A certain degree of travel-at-your-own-risk is implicit in a destination like Kabul and, to a growing extent, Pakistan. But Mumbai?And the Taj Mahal?It’s a landmark, one of the most venerated—and thus, the received wisdom would have it, secure—hotels in India.
As the world’s political and cultural terrain alters, rapidly and sometimes alarmingly, the hotel industry is being confronted with new paradigms of risk. “The kind of attack we saw in Mumbai has all the earmarks of what a terrorist wants: it’s cheap, it’s easy, and it’s sensational,” says Bruce McIndoe, president of iJET Intelligent Risk Systems, an Annapolis-based global-intelligence and risk-management consultancy that counts a handful of luxury hotel companies among its clients. McIndoe warns that we are likely to see more attempts at such attacks, at least regionally in South and Central Asia. Moreover, he says, “This incident will force the whole hotel industry to change its practices.”
The vulnerability of hotels lies in the very welcome they extend to guests through their rooms and public spaces. Steven Brill, founder of Clear, which provides passenger-prescreening technology for airports, notes that Mumbai’s events upped the ante on what had been one of the industry’s main challenges since 9/11: “Luxury hotels have two primary mandates, which exist at total cross-purposes: they want to put guests at ease, but they also need to implement safety and security measures that may make them uneasy.” Simon Cooper, president and COO of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, observes that “while it can be reassuring to see obvious signs of security precautions, it is a delicate balancing act to not make [guests] overly anxious about threat levels.”
So how exactly are the top hotels addressing safety without turning themselves into fortresses?“We don’t discuss these details, so as not to compromise them,” says Jim Fitzgibbon, president of worldwide hotel operations at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts—a policy echoed by Cooper and other heads of major hotel companies and private hotels. But with both leisure travelers and corporate-travel bookers demanding answers in exchange for their business, safety protocols are under enormous scrutiny. And conversations with risk-assessment experts, hospitality insurers, and security firms reveal that self-auditing, and soul-searching, are at high levels throughout the industry—even at properties in major Western cities and other regions heretofore not seen as high-risk. Most hotels are focused on enhancing security in several key areas.