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“When something like this happens it shakes up the entire system."

Jess McHugh
October 12, 2017

In the past five years alone, dozens of spaces that were once considered safe have been transformed into sites of massacres; benign public locations have become mass graves. Movie theaters, concert halls, offices, college classrooms, cafés, subway cars, airports, and Christmas markets have been added to an ever growing list that includes even an elementary school.

Since the attack on an outdoor music festival in Las Vegas that killed more than 50 people and left hundreds wounded, experts have been rethinking the security around the latest staging area of a mass shooting: hotels.

An inviting hotel makes travelers feel like they have a home away from home, a safe place to relax and explore a new destination. With this latest attempt, travelers grew fearful not only that hotels were less safe than previously thought, but that an overhaul of their security systems would substantially alter the joys of a hotel stay.

“When something like this happens it shakes up the entire system,” Michael McCall, a professor of hospitality business for Michigan State University, told Travel + Leisure. 

After the attack, several Las Vegas-area hotels began scanning guests’ bags using handheld wands as a short-term solution. Where additional security and screening might work as a good first response, these methods often fall by the wayside in large hotels that can’t afford expensive screening systems or don’t want to make their guests feel as if they’re back in a TSA line.

Hotel industry experts instead have increasingly turned toward more unusual strategies of protecting guests, including training staff to recognize suspicious behavior and even using algorithms to spot patterns of bizarre behavior that a human might miss. Above all, whether it means a small change to staff training or a big change to operations, the Las Vegas shooting has signaled a turning point in the way hotels will need to think about safety.

Restricted access and more advanced techniques are nothing new in some parts of the world, and international hotels have long implemented much stricter security measures. King David Hotel in Jerusalem for instance has windows that can withstand rocket fire, technology to scans for bombs, and a ventilation system built to fight against poison gas attacks.

After the Las Vegas attacks, in which Stephen Paddock fired on the crowd from his 32nd floor hotel room using an arsenal containing nearly two dozen weapons, onlookers were quick to question how the gunman was able to transport and store such a large number of powerful weapons without anyone noticing. Housekeeping staff are not trained to inspect guests’ belongings — and in fact are discouraged from disturbing suitcases — and some Las Vegas hoteliers pointed out that in a city with a variety of conventions and performances, a guest with a large amount of luggage would not have necessarily thrown up a red flag.

Civilians and experts alike soon floated the idea of TSA-style baggage screening, but in a hotel the size of Mandalay Bay, with more than 3,000 rooms, the cost and time investment would be enormous.

“There’s always this tendency to expand the screening area. That’s fine, but at some point the screening area has to stop, and there’s going to be a public area at some point. Really the question is: when does that stop?” said Jeffrey Price, an expert in aviation security at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

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A simpler solution might be the addition of more security forces in hotels, or greater cooperation between hotels and law enforcement, Price suggested. The mere presence of additional security can often serve as a deterrent to crime, and while it might not have been successful in preventing the attack in Las Vegas, a greater security presence could have made it possible to respond to the shooter more rapidly.

A heavier security presence could also benefit outdoor venues. Where concert security might not have the capacity to screen every nearby building, a venue could coordinate with local police to identify potential targets or even possible snipers' nests, Price said.

In addition to ramping up security, hotels could also rely more heavily on the staff they already have, by training them to recognize certain types of behavior that might suggest planned violence. Connecticut implemented a law earlier this year that requires all hotel employees to receive training on how to spot signs of human trafficking, and training is issued in several high-end hotels in Mexico as well.

While no data was immediately available on how effective that scheme has been, anecdotal evidence supports the idea. In an incident earlier this year, evidence provided by a hotel maid led to the conviction of a man who was engaging in sex trafficking and assault.

In the case of a potential shooter or terrorist, hotel workers might be on the lookout for someone who books multiple rooms on the same floor (as in a human trafficking case), requests a very specific type of room, brings an unusual amount of luggage, or leaves the "do not disturb" sign on their door for more then 24 hours.

With the hubbub of a busy hotel that might see hundreds if not thousands of guests a day, the average housekeeper or desk attendant might be unable to notice all of those things, however. Unlike airports where workers can be trained to notice specific signs, the baseline of normal behavior in a hotel is much different.

“People do all sorts of weird things in hotel rooms, so it’s not as easy to identify a baseline that you can then identify deviations from,” Price said.

That’s where computer modeling might come in. Expert of hospitality law at the Universty of Houston in Texas, Steven Barth, suggested “predictive analytics,” a type of data analysis that notices all of the different slightly odd behaviors that a hotel worker might shrug off and flags when a guest is exhibiting a series of strange behaviors.

These new systems would work in tandem with a more integrated overall approach to safety. So long as assault weapons remain prevalent and readily available, people will need to reevaluate both how they understand hotel security and how they assess their personal security in any given scenario.

“We are going to have to start designing and building hotels with safety and security in mind — not just fire safety,” he said.

Price echoed the example of fire safety, noting that most of what can be done to protect oneself from an active shooter happens long before any threat occurs. As long-term solutions are being implemented, members of the public can take small steps to regain some of their power.

“Identify your exits, identify your paths to get there, know where there’s areas of cover and concealment if you have to run there, and be able to know a little bit about first aid if you get hit,” he said. 

“I know that’s not what people want to hear. They want to hear that there’s a solution that the government is going to come up with that makes someone 100 percent safe. Unfortunately, life is a risk sport.”

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