Planning is crucial when securing VIP guests

Luxury properties are the natural choice for high-profile travelers, but becoming the preferred hotel among VIPs requires more than five-star service: It requires the ability to ensure the security and the privacy of such guests.

A top security consultant, Chris McGoey of Los Angeles-based McGoey Security Consulting, said each visit from a celebrity, star athlete, CEO or politician “changes the nature of your business temporarily, and so you have to develop a clearly defined and articulated security plan to address all the variables.”

While it should be obvious, not each VIP stay is the same, so while having security protocols in place is essential, a one-size-fits-all plan for handling such guests will not be adequate.

“Not all VIPS are the same," McGoey said. "A CEO isn’t as visible as a Hollywood celebrity; an actor might want the fanfare of a crowd or the paparazzi as they come in or out of the hotel, whereas a politician might not. Some might want private elevators, others don’t mind sharing.”

The trick, therefore, to a successful VIP stay or event lies in understanding the needs and expectations of the guest and his or her security team.

Yvette Thomas-Henry, manager at The Four Seasons, Washington, D.C., said most VIPs travel with private security—or in the case of politicians or foreign heads of state, the Secret Service. Communication between the hotel’s head of security (or a similar point person) and theses teams both before and during the stay is crucial.

Finding out their expectations ahead of time and “understanding what is important or of concern to the guest, communicating to our team, and coordinating to make sure no one, on either side is left vulnerable” is essential, Thomas-Henry said. “It all has to be hammered out before guest even shows up.”

Kolene Elliot, regional film and entertainment sales manager for the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto, said that ideally, the private security or law enforcement detail will visit days or weeks before the actual guest stay in order to complete a walk-through of the site and to discuss security needs as well as potential threats and concerns. “What doors do they want to use and when? What contingency or emergency plans do they require? Do they want security on the guest floor? Do they want to block off the entire floor? There is a cost for some of these things, but we will accommodate them,” Elliot said.

“Your success from a security standpoint depends on how well defined and articulated is your security plan is, and how well you’ve prepared for every possible variable; as opposed to operating from the seat of your pants. You can’t just react,” said McGoey, who added that depending on the risk, layers of security are important. Think in terms of video, perimeter security, alarm systems, monitoring access to public areas, monitoring vertical movement through elevators, personal security, and having both uniformed and plainclothes officer presence.

The job of securing a VIP has been made harder in recent years with the advent of social media. Via Twitter and the like, thousands of people can know instantly when a high-profile guest crosses your threshold. McGoey said hotels must recognize this. “Tweeting changes the game,” he said. “You can’t control it, you just have to be aware that’s a factor and anticipate that more people will know (the movements of a VIP guest).”

VIPs rarely travel under their own names, but it is best to limit even the number of hotel employees who know about a VIPs stay. “Look at your staff, and say, ‘What do I need? Who needs to know?’ The more people you tell, the more likely it is to be leaked out,”  McGoey said.

Hotels are in bit of bind when it comes to security, and it is difficult to balance the image of hospitality with managing the real risks to high-profile clients. “By its nature, the hospitality industry wants to please everyone and to appear hospitable,” McGoey said. “Managers want to keep VIPs safe, but they don’t want their hotel to look like a prison, either. And if a VIP wants to deviate from the plan, staff finds it difficult to tell them ‘no,’ so that is a challenge.”

Thomas-Harris believes that from experience, properties like hers have managed to navigate such tricky waters. “It’s so commonplace for us here [to host VIPs]," she said. "Part of our business is making sure every day that we’ve made an environment that is safe and one in which the guest can have a good time. If we do that, we know they will come again. If we earn their trust, we will keep their business.”