Are We Safe Yet?


From automatic close-and-lock systems to highly sophisticated electronic keycards, hotels have turned into digital fortresses. But are the measures enough? Seasoned specialists and hoteliers talk about security trends, challenges and the road ahead.

By Madhulika Dash

Circa 2012: The mood at Black Hat annual security conference at New York is pensive. Cody Brocious, a software developer, has just demonstrated a major snafu in the company’s programmable keycard locks. He showcased how the lock codes could be easily hacked to gain access to millions of rooms using easily accessible hardware and a little programming know-how. What threw the tech experts off the hook was his admission that many would have already figured this venerability – and put to test too!

What ensued was a complete reassessment – and readjustment – as the company went on an overdrive to set the door system right. Since then, door security has undergone a 180 degree shift with companies designing hard-to-breach systems that would provide more security. The recent addition to this constantly changing segment is the Onity Directkey system.

A step up from the key accessed floors that many hotels including Shangri-La and Novotel employ as an added security measure on the guest floors, Directkey system uses cloud-based key credentialing and Bluetooth technology to allow hotel guests to securely download their assigned key to their smartphone through the hotel’s loyalty app for easy access to their guest room and other access-controlled areas.

Currently available at almost 100 Hilton properties in USA after a 4-month successful trial, the technology is billed to make hotel stay safer. And in turn, safeguard the hotel’s reputation as well.

Agrees Cajetan Araujo, hotel manager, The St. Regis Mumbai, “Gone are the days when a hotel’s luxury offering could garner guests, today a guest safety, protection and overall well being during their stay is the crucial factor in determining a hotel’s reputation.”

Concurs Anand Bagalwadi, director, UTC Fire & Security, “Security definitely adds value to a brand. Today all quality hotels are expected to have high standards, policies and procedures in place. It is important to broaden the focus of risk and systematise processes to react adequately and limit the disruption of the company’s operations.” Creation of systematic processes was one of the key reasons for the UTC to create the UTC Fire & Security solutions, which works on a single integrated programme to manage intrusion and access control. The idea, adds Bagalwadi, “with UTC new Fire & Security solution was to find cost effective solution that can be tweaked to match the changing needs of a hotel, while designing an integrated security technology that can be non intrusive yet adaptable to situation.”

A good example of how security systems are changing to meet the requirements of the hotel is TYCO’s Fire Alarm System. One of the early birds with addressable speakers and individual device control, the system infuses the good old fire alarm with innovative notification tools that can be customised to not only enhance the security features in the hotel, but also act as a guide in emergency situations. This, says Peter Ryan, senior commercialisation manager for SIMPLEX products, Tyco Fire Protection Products, “is the first family of fire alarm system speakers where the user can individually select which appliances broadcast each audio message, giving unprecedented flexibility and control over emergency messaging and response. As part of the TrueAlert ES family of notification appliances, they also have revolutionary self-test capability that can help improve safety, reduce business cost and ensure systems stay in top working order.” The bonus, of course is the pleasing aesthetics that can blend with any design seamlessly.

Clearly, security in a hotel has moved beyond the standard CCTV cameras, code locked vaults in rooms and scanner (luggage and personals) at the entrance. But is having a fire alarm and a smartphone access key are the only changes that are making hotels safe?

Thankfully there is more to the story now. Today, hotel security threats go beyond the awkward pebbles in a soup and rowdy guests.

Elaborates Gaurav Magoo, F&B director, Novotel Imagica Khopoli, who rates compliance on the hotels part due to lack of any incident and no security audit cycles as “bigger concerns” to physical threats and loss to competition due to a security issue or snafu. “Nearly 1.26 million hotels worldwide are dealing with all sorts of safety and security issues and chain hotels require more physical audits in security to be compliant with group standards. The number of auditors has not increased proportionally to the huge number of hotels built in the last year. The gap is getting bigger.”
It is a cause of concern with Araujo as well, who though finds hotels not prepared for technology snafus like credit card fraud and fake documents. “Which have become bigger concern for hotels today,” he says.

Magoo feels that this is one side of the story, “The other threat of being tech savvy is APTs (Advanced Persistent Threats). Worldwide, APTS are considered the most dangerous type of cyber-attack as they simply bypass the defenses that are in place. This applies to the hotel network and the guest WI-FI.”

In fact, adds Araujo, “With everything shifting to the cloud, it is a threat not only to the guests but to the internal departments as well, who on software solutions.” An effective answer to this has been the Firewall software that not only blocks potential problem creating websites but also creates effective DoS, IP Spoofing and other network attacks.

The security issues, according to Rajendran Menon, GM, The Zuri Kumarakom, Kerala Resort & Spa, take on a double-edge menace when it comes to resorts that are built over a large estate and need constant monitoring of both external and internal factors.” There has been a pragmatic shift in the security arena of the hotels. The former presumption of security being a non-revenue generating area in the Indian hospitality sector has now changed radically as owners/stakeholders have become aware of the vital role that security plays in holding back the revenue. “It is our topmost priority at The St. Regis Mumbai, which invests heavily in internal training and technology upgradation, and audit every few months,” says Araujo.
For The Zuri Resort & Spa, however, it goes a little beyond that. Being a luxury resort, says Menon, “We need to constantly monitor the property for any sign of intrusion and also work on strengthening the one-on-one interaction of employees in the resort, along with regular maintenance of the various security measures in place.” One important step that Zuri has taken for not only its two resorts (Goa and Kerala), but also its flagship business hotel in Bengaluru, Menon reveals, is creating awareness among the guests on the security systems at their disposal, which can be used in emergency. “This not only ensures a good relationship with the guests but also breeds a sense of shared responsibility that works as an effective safety net.”
This, along with video surveillance and continuous monitoring by security personnel, thermal imaging cameras that see through smoke and the clever use of biometric fingerprint and retina identifications among sensitive areas in the hotel, which according to seasoned hoteliers at the service areas of the hotel – works well in security.

For Novotel Imagica Khopoli, the role of surveillance camera and a strict code of employees access codes ensures no untowardly incident in the property. What according to Magoo sets this Novotel aside from the others, is its location within an adventure park, “Free access to the hotel means good business. But that also leaves us more prone to potential threats and unwanted intruders.” To abate that, the hotel now uses new HD NVRs (Network Video Recorders) or DVRs (Digital Video Recorders). “For a hotel like ours this is the proverbial third eye that enables us to make advanced observations even if we aren’t present in a particular premise.”

A security procedure currently top priority for hotels is tapping entry points and factors of threats. In St. Regis for example, this is handled with three levels of security clearance, which begins as one enters the property. Right from where guests enter the hotel, automated electronic gates which can be controlled and operated from anywhere in the premises have now replaced physical manpower which was previously required to manually operate the gates. Explosive tracer devices (ETD) that are used to trace explosives as well as narcotics have done away with the need to employ sniffer dogs for the same purpose. The Under Vehicle Surveillance System (UVSS) with a software known as license plate recognizer (LPR) in which all the car numbers are registered/recorded electronically have replaced under belly mirrors. Heavy duty bollards with a tremendously high capacity of resistance power have done away with boom barriers and the Multizone DFMD in the periphery now facilitates identification of the exact location and density of metal being carried by a person.

Clearly, Indian hotels have come a long way from the standard metal detectors and luggage scanners, and is making every measure that in the days to come could foil a threat; but is it enough to get Indian hospitality the tag of “safe & secure”?

While experts both from the hotels and protection product companies agree that security measures are an ongoing project, which needs constant auditing and development and will change with time; but given the current scenario, says Menon, “we have covered quite a few miles in the past few years, of course there is always room for more.”

So while for Menon, an effective, highly trained security concierge is the next addition, “technology has made functioning more effective, but they can falter, hence a good mix of men and technology is imperative”, for Magoo and Araujo. The immediate need is to strengthen and upgrade the current system with software that are work and cost effective.

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