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Hotel security: An important selling point

26 January 2006

Managing security in hotels is a delicate balancing act. On one hand, guests want to know that their rooms and possessions are secure and that processes are in place to ensure that any undesirables who wander in off the street are dealt with. On the other hand, they don't want to see blatant signs of oppressive security measures wherever they go. They want to feel they're in a welcoming place with an air of luxury, not a prison.

Security in hotels, as at many public establishments, has also come under scrutiny after heightened terrorist threats across the UK. Viewed as potential targets, hotels are seeking to exercise increased vigilance, including reviewing their existing security systems. Being able to show that high-level security measures are in place is, for some renowned London hotels, now viewed as an important selling point.

Peace of mind
At the Dorchester, for example, where some of the world's most advanced security systems are set up, head of IT Luke Mellors says the hotel has reaped great benefits from being one of the most secure hotels in London. "It gives us tremendous competitive advantage, and our guests peace of mind," he says.

The Dorchester's surveillance systems are based on technology used to protect military locations and nuclear reactors, and were implemented by Southampton-based security company CSS Security.

CSS was initially established as a locksmiths in the early 1970s by the father of the current managing director, Roberto Fiorentina, who has seen successive waves of new technology ensure that approaches to hotel security are constantly evolving.

"From simple lock-and-key mechanisms, we saw electronics transform access controls," he says. "Then, as computers became widespread, IT people started designing systems. Today, some security systems are based on state-of-the-art technology and software."

One area of hotel security where the latest technology has had a real impact is CCTV, according to Mohammed Ramzan, managing director of Iyonder, a high-speed wireless internet network (Wi-Fi) supplier. Iyonder has worked with numerous hotel chains, including Radisson and Holiday Inn Express, to install Wi-Fi networks that in some cases are being used to support CCTV.

Once a Wi-Fi network is in place, perhaps to give guests internet access, CCTV functionality can be added with no additional infrastructure costs, although hoteliers will have to pay for the cameras and a server to run the system.

One advantage of running CCTV off a wireless network is that properties can position their cameras in locations that have traditionally been hard to reach for hard-wired systems. As long as the network antennas are set up to transmit to a chosen far-flung location, such as the back of a car park, a camera can be installed.

Ramzan says that outdoor digital cameras tend to be big and bold and cased in a special housing, while those used inside can be as inconspicuous as required and can even be hidden in clocks or behind wall panels.

The plug-and-play nature of Wi-Fi-enabled digital cameras means they can be moved around easily, to take up a temporary post, as long as there is an electricity plug point nearby to power the camera. This versatility may come in useful if you want to provide extra surveillance services for a conference or social event.

Small digital microphones can also be attached to cameras to enable voices and other noise to be recorded as well. The cameras can be set up to take digital images as often as twice a second, each image being stored on the server with a date and time tag, or they can be adjusted to react to movement or sound.

Easier searches
In the event of an incident, digital images are also far easier to search through than traditional CCTV recordings. Consider how easy it is to find a specific scene on a DVD compared with a VHS video, and you have a valid comparison. Ramzan notes that, since the squeeze on police resources caused by the London bombings last July, some forces have said that they no longer have to time to sift through endless hours of video footage.

Because the system is based on IP - the basic internet technology - the images can even be viewed remotely. A hotel manager away from his property need only find a PC with a web browser and he can securely access the system to make sure all is as it should be.

The wonder of new technology is not necessarily in the technology itself but in the various applications companies find for that technology.

The PREM Group, for example, which manages a range of hotel chains including the Premier Apartments and Days Inn brands, is developing a system that uses Wi-Fi to track the use of in-room safes, according to Seán Graham, general manager of PREM Group security systems.

The idea came about after the company secured the UK and Ireland distribution rights for the Safemark in-room safe programme, a US-based venture. The business model for this entails leasing standard electronically coded in-room safes to hotels, which charge guests a daily rate for their use.

PREM Group is also offering a warranty of as much as £5,000 for any goods stolen from the safes. Graham says that the company is targeting three-star hotels, properties that traditionally don't include safes in their rooms.

Currently, the scheme is based on an honesty system, whereby guests are asked whether they have used the safe or not, and their bill is charged accordingly. This approach obviously depends on the integrity of the guest as, short of examining each room before checkout, there's no way of knowing whether the safe has been used.

The new Wi-Fi version, now being trialled, sees a transmitter on the safe interfacing with the network and recording every time the safe door is opened. The system then automatically updates the guest's bill. "The service aims to make the use of hotel safes a revenue-generating exercise," says Graham.

But the best way to ensure that a safe remains untampered with is to make certain no unauthorised person can get into the hotel room in the first place, and some exciting technologies have emerged aimed at making room access security as robust as possible.

Biometric systems
A number of lock systems now on the market are based on biometrics - the science and technology of measuring and statistically analysing human body characteristics such as fingerprints, eye retinas and irises, and facial patterns.

US-based security firm ODI Security, for example, has developed a small, discreet fingerprint scanner system that does away with the problem of lost or stolen room keys. According to managing director Rich Slevin, guests checking in need only swipe their finger across a scanner at reception several times to register their details. Specialised software converts the scanned information into digital form and this data is stored on a database.

A record of the fingerprint is kept only momentarily before being transformed into data that describes patterns and matchpoints on that fingerprint. This is used to create a unique algorithm, which is sent to a module on the room door via a network connection. When they reach the door, guests simply roll their finger over a small pad on the module and enter.

Slevin says the system has never rejected a valid fingerprint, and can be adapted to secure in-room safes and even TV sets, to prevent children getting access to unsuitable movies and other programming.

The chances of two people having the same fingerprint are about eight million to one. However, Rob Healey, UK marketing manager for system solutions at electronics giant Panasonic, says fingerprints can be damaged if people cut their fingers or work with chemicals or on a building site, for instance. More reliable, he says, are iris recognition systems - because no two people have the same iris patterns, not even identical twins.

Iris scanning Panasonic has come up with such a system. Originally developed to offer secure access to banks, laboratories and airports, it has been installed in a number of Japanese hotels. It works in a similar way to ODI's finger-scanning system, but guests are required to look into a small camera at reception. This captures images of an individual's iris - a process that, according to Healey, takes five to 10 seconds. This information is sent to a flat wall-mounted unit, the size of an A4 piece of paper, on which guests look into another small camera - without the need to remove any contact lenses or spectacles.

These technologies have yet to gain widespread acceptance in the UK hospitality sector, perhaps because hoteliers think guests will balk at staring into a camera device for too long. But one cutting-edge access technology that is established in a number of UK hotels is an infrared access device produced by security software firm Guestkey. Installed in the Ritz in Paris and London's Grosvenor House and Berkley, the system uses a conventional pocket-sized plastic laser-coded key. When this is inserted in a lock, infra-red optics decipher the code in the individual key and enable entry.

Guestkey managing director Tony Marsden says about four billion different code combinations are possible with the system, making code-breaking unfeasible. As security information is stored in the lock, regular guests can keep their key but have different rooms assigned to them with each visit.

Advanced access control system Managing director Tony Marsden says Guestkey's infrared optic lock can be configured to pick up unusual behaviour, such as if a wrong key is used or a door is forced or left open for too long. It can even pick up movement in the room when the door is double-locked.

If it is connected to a network, this information can be fed to a control centre. Guestkey worked with CSS Security to install such a system into London's Dorchester hotel and integrate it with technology developed by US security company Maxxess, whose systems have been used to oversee whole cities and to protect nuclear reactors.

With these systems in place, anything unusual registered by the lock causes an image from the nearest CCTV camera and a detailed floor plan of that area to appear on a guard's monitor. The guard can then decide what kind of response is required.

Marsden says: "For room access control, this is the most advanced [system] in the world."

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