5 tips to combat human trafficking in hotels

This is part two in a series on human trafficking in hospitality. Read part one here.

Putting an end to human trafficking in hospitality requires a conscious effort from on-property staff, and from check-in to check-out there are a laundry list of indicators hoteliers can look for and best practices they can implement to save victims and catch traffickers. Here are five steps hotels can take today to make a difference:

1. Create a Checklist

Consistency is the bedrock around strong preventative action, and developing a checklist for management and associates to follow is an effective first step toward achieving this desired consistency.

Michelle Guelbart, director of private sector engagement at ECPAT-USA, provided a checklist developed internally by her organization that includes steps such as developing a formal policy and a protocol for response, strategic use of security cameras and limiting hotel entrance access during late-night periods.

Some aspects of the checklist include monitoring sex ads on websites such as Craigslist or Backpage for the name of your hotel, as well as pictures of your guestrooms or guests. Creating opportunities to speak with guests at check-in during late-night periods is also and effective way to fight human trafficking, and front-desk associates are encouraged to note strange behavior such as a guest checking-in and then leaving the property to retrieve others waiting outside the building.

“Making sure guests go through the front desk at late hours is an effective tool because it forces face-to-face interaction and can lead to the identification of warning signs of human trafficking,” Guelbart said.

This may be difficult to carry out in a world that prizes mobile check-in and skipping the front desk altogether, but depending on the time of a given check-in it may be necessary. This also allows associates to verify the photo IDs of incoming guests and gauge their demeanor.

“The culture around guest privacy is a big part of hospitality, and if hotel employees engage with guests incorrectly they may fear legal action,” said Mar Brettman, executive director for the BEST Alliance.

This brings us to our next tip:

2. Train Frequently

Because human trafficking takes place every day of the year, training on this subject is not to be taken lightly. Brettman said that following training, hotels report a bump in the identification of human trafficking perpetrators, as well as increased action on the behalf of hotel staff.

Guelbart said the biggest issue is that many hotels don’t train for human trafficking prevention at all, an issue that was outlined in part one of this report. As a result, hotel employees that mean well could make poor decisions when confronted with the possibility of human trafficking occurring on property, or their actions may be at odds with company policy.

“Misidentification [of human trafficking] remains a big issue in hotels,” Guelbart said. “When someone calls 911 on a guest without the proper training or information, then that guest just had the cops called on them and they may not be a victim. This can put the hotel in a tough position.”

To assist with training, ECPAT-USA partnered with the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute to develop a training program for this exact purpose, which can be accessed here.

3. Form a Relationship with Law Enforcement

Law enforcement often goes through rigorous training to deal with human trafficking, and forming a relationship with local members can help provide access to training materials and techniques. Additionally, if a hotel is already in contact with law enforcement, they will be able to organize measures to reduce the impact of a misidentification or avoid disrupting guests should a human trafficking perpetrator be confronted. 

"Law enforcement can be cautioned to arrive without sirens, or in plain clothes, which is a better situation for both victims of human trafficking and hotel guests,” Guelbart said.

Guelbart also said that while many hotels are already in contact with law enforcement for risk-management purposes, few discuss human trafficking and how it can be included into existing security protocols. Additionally, bringing this subject up to law enforcement ahead of time will ensure that when a call is made, hotel employees will speak with someone who is also trained on the issue.

4. Watch for Warning Signs

The warning signs of human trafficking can be subtle, but they can be spotted if hotel employees know where to look. Brettman said that in one case, a hotel’s landscaper noted a guest continually peeking out of a guestroom’s curtains over a long period, and that was enough information to make a call to police.

“In that instance, the GM knocked on the door and manager was able to get [the victim] help,” Brettman said. “This only worked because hotel employees understood how the crime works and took notice.”

Here are some other warning signs hotel employees can take note of:

  • Consistent visits from different men to a single guestroom every hour
  • An excessive number of people in one guestroom
  • A guest using multiple cell phones, pagers and credit cards
  • Guests checking in with little or no luggage
  • Guests unable to verify what city they came from
  • Guests who are distrustful of security, and may be acting as if they are being watched
  • Guests not in possession of their own ID
  • Excessive noise or violent situations with the same guest or guestroom
  • "Friends" or "relatives" of a guest visiting their room who are unable to provide their name or other identifying information

5. Take Action

If you or your employees believe your hotel is harboring a victim of sex trafficking, Brettman said the worst course of action would be to do nothing.

“The hotel’s GM is often in the position where they have to use their best judgment, but it can be difficult,” she said.

Unfortunately, caution in these situations is sometimes warranted because no guest wants to be misidentified as a human trafficking perpetrator or victim, and this could lead to legal ramifications. However, if a hotel operator believes there is something amiss, Brettman urges them to err on the side of action.

“If a guest is in an emergency situation, or if there is a child involved, we recommend they call 911 immediately,” Brettman said. “If they are not sure, we recommend they collect information and call a non-emergency police line, or share information with a human trafficking hotline such as Polaris.”