Do Not Disturb

michael IF A BOMB HAS


September 14, 2006 -- This month's issue of Condé Nast Traveler has a story entitled "Five Years After 9/11: Are We Any Safer?" The article, which really doesn't offer any conclusions, is devoted primarily to airline safety. So were most of the hand-wringing, thumb-sucking pieces that ran in newspapers and magazines and on television and Web sites in recent days.

Almost none of them focused on an equally important issue: Five years after 9/11, are you any safer in your hotel?

Personally, I believe in a simple maxim: "If the bomb's got your name on it, it will hit you." But that doesn't mean you shouldn't take the logical precautions: Double lock your door; put that little metal bar across the door; make sure the entry to the balcony or patio is locked; don't sleep on a floor higher than a fire ladder can reach; and so on. As an experienced business traveler, I assume you already know all that.

But I'm afraid to say that if someone wants to do harm to a hotel and its guests, it is pretty damned easy. There are just too many ways into a hotel and too many ways to attack the building. And hotels are vulnerable in the most basic and simple way: If you check in as a guest, then you pretty much have free run of the place. All a terrorist bent on mayhem has to do is check into a hotel and take it from there.

In my own experience, I can say that you are generally safe in your guestroom. But you're not nearly as safe in a hotel's public spaces. Why? Terrorists who use car bombs generally have fairly easy access to the lobby and food-and-beverage outlets. That's what happened three years ago when terrorists attacked the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta.

About a decade ago, a hotel with which I was involved was sabotaged by terrorists. They entered the hotel through the underground car park, placed explosives in the conduit for the telephone and safety/sprinkler alarms and exploded their device at 4 in the morning. We lost 29 guests. Not because of the explosion or the resulting fire, but because of smoke inhalation. Most died in their sleep. And the fire burned for three days.

In fact, fire is actually the most dangerous safety or security risk at a hotel. That's true even if the building has a sprinkler system and/or smoke detectors. Both fail fairly frequently, especially smoke detectors that rely on batteries.

How do you minimize your fire risks at a hotel? Start by reading the instructions on the back of the door and learn where the recommended escape route is. A friend of mine, a very frequent traveler, actually walks down the fire escape just to check if the door at the exit can be opened. Quite often, the door is locked, which is a violation of law in many jurisdictions.

Do not leave your room if you can smell or see smoke in the corridor or if your door is warm to the touch. Immediately wet a towel or towels thoroughly and lay them across the bottom of your door. Wet another towel and use it to cover your face and act as a mask while you breathe. If the outside air is clear, open or smash a window, but not until you have placed a towel across the bottom of the door.

Apropos of some of this, I was in Toronto at the Four Seasons Hotel a few weeks ago and was awakened in the middle of the night by fire alarms. The sirens were followed by an announcement from a gentleman with a delightful Indian accent that somehow sounded like Peter Sellers doing a dialect. (I wondered if we were being awakened by a call center in Bombay.) The gentleman announced that the fire department was on its way and we were to remain in our room. This was followed by another announcement, made over clanging bells and sirens, that the firefighters had arrived and were checking out the situation. A few moments later, the call came loud and clear that all was well. And then the gentlemen wished us a good night's sleep, which seemed like an irrelevant statement by that time.

If it makes you feel any better, larger hotels usually have their own security staff, too. They are most often retired policemen and you can spot them in the lobby thanks to their shiny blue suits and huge shoes with rubber soles. Frankly, their job is mainly to spot hookers, derelicts and the odd thief as well as ensure that the hotel staff isn't stealing the lobsters.

A couple of decades ago, when we were staffing a hotel in Hong Kong, I submitted to my cousin, a chief superintendent of police, a short list of candidates we were considering for the post of director of security. My cousin came back to me saying all the candidates had checked out--except for one. The offending fellow had direct Triad (the equivalent of the Hong Kong mafia) connections and my cousin said it would be a huge mistake to hire him.

Against my cousin's advice, the incoming general manager hired him as the hotel's security director. For the next 15 years, we never had so much as a dollar stolen. We never had a hooker problem. We never had any losses of any kind or lobsters finding their way out the back door.

We did have one murder, however. We only found out about it after the body, dressed in a bathrobe with a belt around the neck, was found dumped on the Hong Kong/China border. The police said they knew the man had been murdered at our hotel because of the quality of the robe. Apparently, it was a Triad-related murder that followed a meeting in one of our suites. The police speculated that the body was stuffed in a trunk and carried out by one of our bellmen. (I certainly hope the bellman got a good tip...)

Larger hotels also often have a direct liaison with the local police department, and, in cities like New York, direct communication with the terrorist squad. So hotels usually know when there are any threats. New York City, in fact, has an entire police division dedicated to hotels. Its main task: ensure the security of visiting VIPs.

Thankfully, it seems that those guys hiding in caves in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Al Anbar Province in Iraq haven't given much thought to hotels. I pray they don't because, like an office tower or embassy building, if they want to do nasty things to your hotel, you are no more secure than anywhere else.

As I said, if a bomb's got your name on it…

This column originally appeared at

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