Las Vegas shooting underscores hotel security shortfalls

On Sunday, a gunman opened fire on concertgoers from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas. Reports following the shooting stated the gunman was armed with at least 10 rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, which he used to kill at least 58 and injure more than 515 people.

How, then, is it possible for someone to smuggle 10 weapons into one of the most highly-trafficked casinos in the world? According to Richard Hudak, managing partner at security firm Resort Security International, it would have been a miracle if the hotel found them.

Two words: Big suitcases,” Hudak said. “In hospitality, we are sensitive to privacy. We aren’t going to open or even touch a suitcase… but will we in the future?”

Hudak, who is a former FBI agent and director of worldwide security for the Sheraton Corporation, said the Mandalay Bay hotel has a good security program consisting of both uniformed and plainclothes security officers. However, he also said the hotel includes housekeepers, bellmen, valets and maintenance workers in its security program. This is true for many hotels, and Hudak said many eyes and ears are necessary to keep a property safe. However, due to hotels' need to prioritize the guest experience it can be a challenge to both please guests and keep them safe.

Skipping the front desk may be fun, but it's also a security risk.

The Right to Privacy

The concept of hospitality is almost directly contrary to that of security. Hotel operators want their guests to feel welcome, accommodated, tended to and not judged or scrutinized. Security is, after all, implied, though it may be limited. For form of security most commonly employed in hotels is the electronic camera, but that is most often used as a preventative measure, to protect the hotel against vandalism or provide evidence in the event of an insurance claim.

Hudak said hotel guests’ desire for convenience is the enemy of security, but it is more valuable for hotels to cater to these guests’ needs because if inconvenienced they will simply book elsewhere. Modern technology has led to advances in security such as sophisticated camera equipment and monitoring tools, but Hudak is critical of technology that streamlines guest stays.

He’s speaking, of course, of mobile check-in apps that also allow guests to open guestroom doors using smartphones. While smartphones may allow their locations to be tracked (if the permission is enabled), that doesn’t make up for the ability to completely bypass all human interaction and allow guests to enter a property undetected. It’s ideal for the traveler, and a nightmare for security.

“We want to put eyes on anyone who comes in,” Hudak said. “I am against [mobile check in], as I imagine most security people are.”

If a hotel is able to train its housekeeping workers to remain aware of a guest's belongings in plain view, it's possible for them to perform reconnaissance on nearly every square foot of a hotel. This is all for nothing, however, if housekeeping isn’t allowed in guestrooms. Paul Wertheimer, principal at security company Crowd Management Strategies, said many hotels allow guests to forego housekeeping service during their stay, and some properties even incentivize it while caring for the environment. Some reports show the shooter checked in as early as Thursday of last week, but if they never let housekeeping into their room – or even simply kept their bags out of view or locked – then housekeeping is not likely to have found anything.

“Hotel staff doesn’t go through luggage, and they aren’t generally trained to look through things,” Wertheimer said. “I would raise questions if they are not trained, but it would be fortuitous to catch someone like that.”

No Screen Zone

Bjorn Hanson, a clinical professor with the New York University Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism, called security in hospitality a “conundrum” due to its complexities in tying it into the guest experience. Part of this is because hotels are “soft targets,” and unlike “hard targets” such as airports or government buildings they don’t screen guests for weapons or contraband before they enter.

“We have no screenings to enter lobbies or guestroom floors, or any other area for that matter,” Hanson said. “It would be such a transformational change to apply security in that way to hotels. Security is very good, but the question is does the industry or the public want intrusive security in hotels?”

Hudak questioned how often guests enter hotels with automatic weapons versus the cost of installing x-ray machines to inspect luggage, and brought up the fact that even the Transportation Services Agency even misses things despite being armed with these tools. In the end, x-ray machines and screening tactics are likely to have a detrimental affect on the guest experience, something the industry has grappled with for years.

For example, when Sheraton Purchased the Desert Inn in 1993, Hudak said he was contacted to take weapons from the onsite security guards to reduce liability and comfort guest fears.

“These were retired police officers, and they were angry!” Hudak said. “They said they refused to go into a parking lot – where all the danger is – with no weapons. We eventually put them in suites, had them wear ear plugs, took their weapons away and hired a [defense contractor] to patrol the parking lot.”

Wertheimer recommended smaller-level security measures for hotels, such as sensors that can tell when a window is broken to notify more than just maintenance. Security and possible the police should be informed of a broken window, as it could lead to violence or even suicide. As of this time, Wertheimer said he doesn't point any fingers at Mandalay Bay for failing to react to the shooting, rather he is concerned with the concert's failure to implement a good disaster plan.

“The stage went dark and people in the street were left to their own devices. Just as they were in Paris, and during many other attacks,”  he said. “There was no direction to the crowd for a mass evacuation. I’m not saying that if it had been done nobody would have died, but they may have saved a life. That’s the takeaway for hotels — you are always involved.”

Some overseas hotels have implemented luggage scanners, but that is unlikely to happen in the U.S.

You Get What You Pay For

Hudak’s example raises the greatest challenge that hotels face when it comes to security: cost. To employ security officers and then defense contractors was a hefty toll, but the Desert Inn was also a high-profile property located on the Las Vegas Strip, meaning it could afford it. However, it was still nowhere near approaching the level of modern airport security.

Wertheimer said that pay scales are a challenge across the board when it comes to security, and lower-paid workers are not likely to be as diligent in their safety precautions.

“This is the problem, the cost factor,” Wertheimer said. “I’ve been doing this since 1980, and it always comes down to cost. There is a duty to protect the public, and businesses have to decide if they are willing to pay the price to make an event as reasonably safe as it can be.”

Hudak referenced overseas Marriott properties that have responded to terrorism by installing security measures such as x-ray machines for screening, but expects both hotels and travelers to push back against installing such safety measures in the U.S. if the question ever came up. That’s why, Hudak said, the best option is effective training, though hotels may still have to spend to see results.

“I don’t see armed security appearing in hotels, or casinos for that matter,” Hudak said. “What can they do in a casino? It’s so loud and there are so many people. Active duty response teams are trained cops who deal with situations like this throughout their career, so employing them is the most reasonable answer. But operators need to underscore the relevance and importance of every hotel worker being a part of a security program.”