It was a case that didn’t just generate buzz in the hotel industry. Sports reporter Erin Andrews’ recent lawsuit made headlines all over the country, and reflected the ever-increasing concern with maintaining privacy. While staying at the Nashville Marriott at Vanderbilt University in 2008, Andrews was videotaped in her guestroom by Michael David Barrett, who was in the room next door. When Barrett posted the footage online, the FBI arrested him and charged him with interstate stalking. Barrett was convicted and spent two years in prison for his crime.
Andrews later sued West End Hotel Partners, the hotel's owner, Windsor Capital Group, the operator, Barrett and Marriott International for negligence and invasion of privacy. (The court in Tennessee determined that Marriott International had no liability and dismissed the company from the case.) After a two-week trial in March, the jury awarded Andrews $55 million in damages.
Marriott released a statement about the case on the same day that the verdict came in, emphasizing that the Nashville Marriott at Vanderbilt University is a franchised hotel, and that Marriott neither owns nor operates the property. “Marriott International is sympathetic to the ordeal that Erin Andrews went through because of Michael David Barrett’s criminal conduct. We continue to be sensitive to the serious nature of this matter and remain committed to the safety and comfort of our guests,” the statement read.
“The results of the case are going to put heightened scrutiny on hotel operators in terms of what they are doing to protect guest privacy,” said David Samuels, chair of the hospitality department at the law firm Michelman & Robinson. “There’s been a lot of progress in that area in the last 10-15 years, but this circumstance highlighted potential areas where more progress is necessary.”
Under oath, Barrett claimed that he got Andrews’ room number by using a phone at the hotel restaurant’s hostess stand, calling the hotel operator and asking to be connected to Andrews’ room. When the call was connected, the room number appeared on the phone’s LCD display. When he went up to the floor, he saw that the room adjacent to Andrews’ was being turned by housekeeping and requested the room at the front desk. “It put a spotlight on a potential weakness,” Samuels said, noting that hotels need to be sure that only employees can use phones that reveal guest names and room numbers. “Hotels have to train employees to be very careful about those screens and not letting non-employees use phones. Non-employees have to use house phones in the lobby without display screen.”
This version of events, however, was challenged by Andrews’ attorneys. “They claim he asked at front desk, got the number and asked for the next-door room,” Samuels said. As such, the way Barrett was able to get the room next to Andrews’ at the hotel remains under dispute—but however it happened, Samuels said, the ultimate lesson is that hotels need proper precautions to protect guest privacy.
Understandably, this may prove stressful to front-of-house staff, who are expected to be as helpful as possible when asked for information. “In trying to help someone, mistakes can be made,” said Melissa Moore, GM of the Best Western Plus Waterbury (Vt.) Stowe. The agents at Moore’s hotel have, in fact, been instructed to neither confirm nor deny if a guest is even in the hotel, and if someone asks for a room near another guest’s by name, the named guest must contact the front desk to verify that the placement is acceptable. If a front-desk agent knows that a celebrity is staying at the hotel, she added, the team must be especially aware of any requests to get near that room and flag any perceived efforts to do so.
Moving forward, Samuels said, the hotel industry will face a greater range of challenges as new technology emerges to threaten privacy. For example, some hotels are offering automatic check-in through apps and virtual keys on smartphones. This technology, while useful in many ways, eliminates the human-to-human interface that can provide an extra layer of safety. “That has the potential to create issues,” Samuels said. “Over the next five to 10 years, it will be interesting to see if new problems arise with the use of those systems.” As Moore noted, hotel companies are already proactively taking advantage of the situation to raise awareness among staff and create training programs. “It gives us an opportunity to revisit areas where we may have weaknesses and grow from there,” she said. “As much as none of us want to be faced with an issue like this, it’s an opportunity.”
Ultimately, Samuels said, hotels will have to find a balance between meeting the desires of their customers and providing a safe environment. “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet,” he said. “It comes down to training, awareness and a lot of diligence.