Hotels Weigh Staff Safety Issues After IMF Chief’s Case

By Martinne Geller | May 25, 2011

Hotels could arm employees with panic buttons but are unlikely to put security cameras in hotel rooms following the alleged sexual assault of a maid by former IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, industry executives said Tuesday.

Hotels usually have procedures to ensure the safety of housecleaning staff, who often enter guest rooms during the day for cleaning and in the evening for turndown services.

These include working in a “buddy system,” keeping doors open while cleaning and knocking on doors when entering rooms, said hotel executives at the Reuters Luxury and Fashion Summit in New York.

But last week’s headline-grabbing incident involving Strauss-Kahn has made them reconsider these measures.

“It’s a wake-up call, any time you get any incident like this,” said Strategic Hotels and Resorts Inc. Chief Executive Laurence Geller, noting that all hotels “rushed to look at their security” in late 2008, following attacks on hotels popular with foreigners in Mumbai. “You revise your protocols and procedures.”

Strauss-Kahn, an economist and one-time French presidential hopeful, is facing charges of sexual assault and attempting to rape a housecleaning employee at the Sofitel hotel in New York on May 14. He is being held in an apartment in Manhattan under armed guard after being freed on bail on Friday.

Legislation proposed on Monday by a New York assemblyman representing the New York City Borough of Queens, calls for hotels to provide staff with electronic panic buttons to alert security in an emergency.

Geller said such a move could make sense.

“Am I going to say whether or not there’ll be panic buttons with maids or whether there’ll be things like that? It’s not illogical,” he said.

Marriott International Inc is also revisiting its procedures to make sure they are “reasonably good,” said Arne Sorenson, the hotel company’s chief operating officer.

“This is still a fairly rare and exceptional event, thankfully, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore it,” said Sorenson, whose company also owns the upscale Ritz Carlton hotel brand.

FINDING A BALANCE

Both executives said it was necessary to find a balance between the needs of employees and guests.

“You have to find a way to both make sure our associates are safe and doing the right thing and you have to protect the privacy of our guests,” said Sorenson. “There’s a little bit of tension between those two things.”

For example, Sorenson said the company would not put video cameras in guest rooms.

Geller, who has worked in the hotel business for more than 40 years, said physical abuse by guests has always been a problem in hotels, due in part to the combination of alcohol and loneliness.

But security improved greatly over the years, he said, especially when hotels stopped hanging keys on racks behind the front desk.

“The key rack was the villain of all villains, strangely enough,” he said, since the racks provided clues as to which rooms were empty and which guests were staying in them.

He said electronic key cards, key-operated elevators, closed-circuit televisions in hallways and elevators have greatly improved security, as well as a custom of front desk employees never saying a guest’s room number out loud.

“When you go to the front desk, you get your key card with a written number on it and they’re never going to tell you the number,” he said. “You say ‘What room is it?’ And they’ll point because they don’t want anybody to hear what you’re doing.”

(Additional reporting by Joan Gralla; Editing by Gary Hill and Matthew Lewis)

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