With the summer season in full swing, it seems reasonable to ask if the level of security at Lebanon’s hotels is sufficient to continue attracting tourists during these uncertain times.
A difficult and expensive undertaking
Hotels and resorts are exceedingly difficult places to secure. Whereas security at airports, government buildings, embassies, residences and commercial office buildings is concerned with controlling unauthorized access, hotels must welcome in hundreds of strangers that are known neither to the staff nor to their fellow guests on a daily basis. After all, that is why they call it the hospitality industry.
While government buildings or an embassy may have a range of mechanisms for requesting and receiving additional funding, hotels must fund their security out of revenue from bookings. Airports long ago started passing security costs on to travelers through fees built into the price of each airline ticket.
Even a modest physical security program consisting of five guards per shift is likely to cost the hotel well over a thousand dollars per day when factoring in labor, equipment, maintenance and training fees. Larger hotels and resorts that have multiple buildings, entrances and parking lots can incur security costs of several thousand dollars per day for basic guard services whose effectiveness is debatable, at best.
What is security?
While the presence of visible security such as guards, fences, bollards and cameras may serve as a basic deterrent to opportunistic criminals and trespassers, these security programs are more often merely a façade that professional criminals or terrorists can easily circumvent or overcome when necessary.
After all, security is not just the presence of guards, cameras and metal detectors. Rather, security is the outcome, the result of a comprehensive and coherent strategy, with policy and procedures executed consistently by numerous staff trained to observe guest profiles, comments and behaviors. True security is a state of being and one that is not easy to achieve and maintain.
Too often hotel operators believe they can buy security by simply hiring a local security company to provide some basic services. In Lebanon, as anywhere, there are always security companies very eager to sell more guards, more cameras and more metal detectors. This placebo effect often helps hotel general managers feel good about spending on security when they receive feedback from guests who say they feel safe at their hotel. Why assess security based on feelings when it can easily be measured in terms of incidents and regular penetration tests?
True security requires a holistic approach
Lebanese hotel operators often focus their efforts, and far too much of their security budget, on security guard programs that are either ineffective or overly focused on one type of threat at the expense of many others. In a way, we are asking the wrong question to begin with. Instead of asking if a hotel is secure, we should be asking if Lebanon’s hotels are prepared. Are they prepared for a wide range of potential threats to guest safety or are they merely trying to detect weapons or contraband in guests’ luggage? More specifically, is the security team as well as the rest of the staff capable of identifying the threats and risks in the first place? Does the housekeeping staff know what to look out for? Does the reception desk know how to draw out key pieces of information in a consistent and courteous manner? Do they have the training, resources and capability to take preemptive action where applicable or react to emergencies when they arise? Clearly these are wider reaching questions but they get to the heart of what making a hotel secure is all about. Ultimately, security requires almost all of the hotel’s staff to play a vital role while maintaining a hospitable environment for the guests. The good news is that the training and awareness programs that will produce this layer of security cost dramatically less than around the clock guard services.
In order to manage security risks effectively, hotels must regularly conduct their own threat and vulnerability assessments that account for their unique location, the building type, their guests’ profiles and a host of other variables. Security managers need to track incident trends internally and with their competitors to learn how their vulnerabilities or gaps can be closed. This usually means proactively running drills and system tests to see if the security platform can identify and react to a wide range of evolving threats. Lessons are always learned, policy or procedures may change and more staff training may be required. Only then can a hotel accurately prioritize the use of limited resources in ways that achieve the most benefits, namely protecting hotel guests and staff.
The costs of making a hotel secure need not exceed most hotels’ existing budgets. In my experience, if a hotel has a security budget, it is usually over spending on guards, cameras and machines to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Hotels that take a realistic and holistic approach to security usually find that the type and frequency of threats they face can be addressed through other means, usually staff training, and at least a portion of the money spent on guards can be repurposed to better effect.
Not a unique problem
External factors such as political instability, corruption, organized and opportunitstic crime are not unique to Lebanon. In fact, hotels in many popular tourist destinations including South Africa, Brazil and Mexico face the very same challenges. One difference seems to be that most of those countries acknowledged years ago that in order to attract tourists, their hotel security programs needed to improve. Mexico is constantly battling the perception among American and Canadian tourists that it is unsafe to vacation in the country. Over 20 years ago, the Mexican government began taking strides to ensure that popular tourist locations were made as safe as is reasonably possible and today the country enjoys a vibrant tourism industry despite many of the aforementioned challenges.
[pullquote]Here in Lebanon the hotels receive no direct government assistance[/pullquote]
Closer to home, Tunisia, like Lebanon, is a small Mediterranean country that relies significantly on tourism to support its economy. Although the country was hit by a great catastrophy at the end of last month, it is worth noting that the Tunisian government has long understood that security for European tourists is paramount. That is why the government there offers programs that reimburse some of their hotels up to thousands of dollars per month for approved security expenditures and investments. The authorities in Tunis also support many of the larger hotels and resorts by providing government security forces upon request.
Here in Lebanon, in stark contrast, the hotels receive no direct government assistance. In fact, hotels in Lebanon are often required to pay additional fees merely to integrate their security, fire and emergency alarms to the government response lines. Although the fee amounts to only a few hundred dollars, the fact that the hotels have to pay the government to perform this basic service is perhaps emblematic of misguided priorities.
The government’s role
The Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Interior have a responsibility to do their utmost in order to protect citizens and visitors coming to the country. Obviously, security at the national, city and neighborhood level is infinitely complex and absolute security is unattainable. Breakdowns and mistakes will invariably occur in Lebanon as they do everywhere. Still, if the government, under the mandate of public safety, can regulate the cleanliness of restaurant kitchens and require drivers and passengers to wear seatbelts in automobiles, surely they can establish a framework that strives to ensure better safety, security and preparedness at the country’s hotels.
With that in mind, I offer a four point plan that when implemented would not only support the government’s insistence that it is safe to travel to Lebanon but it would also likely save lives and money in the long run. The relevant ministries should:
1- Take the lead in developing a safety and security standard for Lebanon’s hotels. Alternatively, they could adopt one or more of the existing international standards. There is a case for either approach but in the interest of public safety, the government should take more initiative.
2- Require all four and five star hotels and resorts to certify that they are compliant with the new standards. This could be achieved by starting with the five star hotels and providing them with a two year deadline to achieve compliance. Four star hotels may have three years to certify.
3- Provide financial support to hotel operators by matching the costs to achieve certification dollar-for-dollar up to a published maximum level.
4- Create an easy to use web-based portal that allows all hotels and resorts to report security incidents to a central authority. The secure site should be used to push information to the network of member hotels about emerging threats and trends to be aware of.
Taking these steps will help hotel operators to focus on taking a holistic approach to security and foster an environment where security is a common cause among Lebanon’s hotels.