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The Burgled Guest: Steps Hotels Should Make

Maryann Prestia, Vice President & Hospitality Program Manager, Distinguished Programs

Whether traveling for business or pleasure, people around the world rely on the hospitality of hotels to provide a safe and welcoming environment; a home away from home. Vacationing families rush to check in to their rooms, working to settle in with their families and identify nearby dining destinations appropriate for the entire family.

Business travelers spend their time either dashing off to the in-hotel conference or frantically calling for a cab to make a meeting with a potential client located 30 minutes away.

Situations like these constitute the daily routine for most hotels and their staff. For travelers, the last thing on their minds is keeping track of their possessions and ensuring everything they've brought with them is safe and secure. So, what happens when a shifty thief makes these hotel guests a target? Who is liable? And what steps are hotel owners, operators and franchises taking to ensure their guests and their possessions are safe?

Who Is Being Burgled?

Detailed statistics around hotel theft are murky, as hotels understandably don't want to make public criminal activity such as burglary or theft on the premises. However, it is safe to say that as hotel owners and their staff have become more proactive with their approach to security, the frequency of claims they deal with involving guests and hotel theft has steadily decreased.

Smaller hotels may not have a single claim resulting from theft over the course of many years, while larger hotels with high occupancy rates may experience these claims with greater frequency. Anecdotal evidence from hotel operators and claims professionals puts the average number of these types of claims at approximately five to 10 per year for typical hotels.

When an insurance claim is made involving hotel guest property, the outcome will vary from state to state, as innkeepers liability limits can vary. In most instances, insurance will cover the costs of these claims, however most policies are limited to innkeepers state law limits which in general are about $1,000 per claim.

Types of Theft

Claims of hotel theft can manifest in many forms, including burglarizing rooms, unattended baggage stolen from distracted guests and, although far less common than a generation or two ago, pick-pocketing. Of these three examples, baggage is the area where hotel theft most frequently occurs. This type of theft can happen in essentially every area of the hotel.

A distracted guest may set their bags down while dealing with other matters. This can include dealing with a cab or Uber driver, conversing with the staff at the hotel entrance or even while waiting in line or at the check-in desk itself. Families grabbing a quick bite in the hotel restaurant sometimes also will leave a suitcase or mobile device just out of view while situating themselves. The constant foot traffic of hotel entrances, lobbies and restaurants or coffee shops are prime locations for an attentive and fast-moving thief just looking for an opportunity.

It only takes a matter of seconds for a guest to go from having a wonderful experience at a hotel to dealing with the trauma of losing valuable or sentimental possessions. In spite of the fact that these unfortunate circumstances often result from a guest not taking appropriate precautions to safeguard their personal property, these same guests will associate a hotel with a theft experience as being the fault of hotel management. That impression will likely keep them from returning for another stay, as well as relating the story – and the perceived reputation of the hotel's lax security - to others.

A More Secure Experience

Although hotel theft involving baggage is the most common type of claim, hoteliers are taking proactive steps to steadily reduce these incidents.

Most hotels give guests the opportunity to check and store bags in a dedicated, secured space. These rooms typically offer limited access to a small number of hotel staff, and are completely off limits to guests. Countless hotel guests have become familiar over the years with the now common process for storing baggage either before or after checkout: Guests hand over their baggage to hotel staff and, in turn, the guest will receive a ticket or other verification so hotel employees can verify the baggage is returned to the appropriate guest later. This common-sense solution has played a huge role in reducing the frequency of hotel theft claims.

Many hotels also offer the practicality of in-room personal safes for guests, in addition to a general hotel safe, typically in the management office or other secured space, where important and valuable possessions can be more securely stored. Encouraging guests to take advantage of these additional security options is an important step in reducing claims, especially in instances where valuables might otherwise be left in empty hotel rooms.

Safety Begins with Staff

Of all the ways hotels can prevent theft and create a safer environment for their guests, employee training is the most efficient and effective. A well-trained hotel employee is the preeminent safeguard against hotel theft.

The first step to staffing your hotel with quality employees is implementing thorough background checks at the very beginning of the hiring process. Additionally, hotel managers tasked with hiring need to take the interview process seriously. This means asking in-depth, thoughtful questions and taking the time to determine whether or not the employee will be an asset to hotel security or possibly a detriment to it, in addition to whatever specific duties and responsibilities are associated with the position.

As is common in the hospitality industry, employee turnover for hotels can be significant. The realities of frequent staffing changes are further motivation for hoteliers to emphasize regular, ongoing training. Although it may seem repetitive, training related to hotel policies, security procedures and awareness throughout a calendar year can make a big difference in preventing crimes at your hotel.

A well-trained employee who sees suspicious activity or witnesses an incident of hotel theft will know how to act under the circumstances. Instead of second-guessing what might have happened and how to respond, this person will quickly react and feel empowered to take the proper next steps to address the situation, better protecting both hotel guest and the hotel.

Outside Security Resources

In addition to offering regular hotel training for new and current employees including their security personel, hoteliers would be wise to consider consulting additional security professionals who know what to look for in terms of criminal activity. These security experts are well-versed on the subject and can assist in implementing certain training modules available through outside sources. This might include inviting security firms to present at regular employee training or running mock security scenarios to help educate staff. These consultants can help to greatly improve hotel security and empower staff to react appropriately across a range of hotel safety and security situations.

Security training can also take the form of webinars, online classes, video instruction and professional development conferences. These additional expenses for hotels offer a dividend in the long run by going above and beyond to create a safe environment for guests and their families.

Hotels with their own protocols should also consider working with local law enforcement who know the area and history of criminal activity. Collaboration with local law enforcement can be as simple as inviting representatives of the local police department to the tour the hotel property and point out security concerns. Local authorities can also be called on to update hotel management on any local criminal activity so staff can increase their vigilance, further deterring thieves from targeting guests.

The Benefits of a Big Brother Approach

No employee or security guard is perfect, however. So, in addition to hiring and training employees as well as working with local law enforcement, physical security measures should be put in place to reduce risk.

Hotel cameras cover critical areas of the hotel. In particular, elevators, lobbies, hallways and valet areas with constant foot traffic should be points of primary surveillance. Not only will this record criminal activity in these areas, but these cameras may act as a deterrent to would-be thieves. Moreover, signs should be placed around the hotel letting guests and potential thieves know they are under video surveillance in the hotel's public spaces.

Entrances, exits and other hotel access points – including delivery docks – should also be highly surveilled by both camera and hotel staff, making it difficult to enter the hotel unseen. Management should also encourage employees to be aware of who is going in and out of the building.

Digital Security Matters Too

Beyond securing the physical space of a hotel and the personal property of guests, digital and cybersecurity are additional, important areas where hoteliers should be focusing their attention. With key systems for hotel rooms becoming more advanced and guest data and financial information being recorded digitally, it's imperative hotels stay current on related issues and tools available to them.

Digital security is the next horizon for hoteliers to better manage, and the challenges are complex.

Hackers are always at least one step ahead of the latest cybersecurity or digital technology. Complicating matters is the fact that cyber breaches through a point-of-sale system often happen months before hotel management becomes aware. Further, keeping up with the proper cybersecurity measures and the latest in security technology can prove a difficult and expensive task for hotels. As such, utilizing high-end training resources and consulting with cybersecurity experts will become increasingly important as hotels continue to adapt to the rapidly evolving digital age.

The Guest Experience Presumes Security

Hotels value creating an exceptional customer experience. From a risk management perspective, focusing on these positive customer experiences helps reduce the frequency of claims as well as any reputational damage that could arise should hotel theft occur. And should such a security concern arise, having the right insurance can go a long way in protecting their bottom line.

Whether as a result of improved employee training, increased physical security measures, collaboration with outside firms or the proactive approach of hotel security and staff, hotel theft will continue to decline in frequency in the U.S. Each step hotels have taken to reduce on-property theft has played a crucial part in the reduction of theft claims. At the root of this decline is simply that now more than ever, hotels genuinely care about the safety and well-being of their guests and recognize that such safety issues are part of the essential guest experience.

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