New technology is making the job of looking after hotel security much easier. Cameras with face-recognition software and intelligent card readers are among the innovations now available to hoteliers. Ross Bentley reports.
Hotels are, perhaps, more vulnerable to security breaches than many other establishments: multiple access points, free-flowing traffic and large numbers of staff all contribute to this vulnerability. But today there is a wealth of technologies available to help hoteliers minimise problems such as thieves targeting rooms and luggage or staff making away with stock or expensive room items.
Primary among these is CCTV, a technology that has made significant advances in recent years, according to Jon Hill, sales director at Mirasys UK, a surveillance company that installed cameras in the London Marriott Hotel Grosvenor Square earlier this year.
He says advanced systems now offer "intelligent analytical functionality", so they can recognise certain shapes, or movement or the lack of it.
"Today's CCTV systems can be configured to send out alerts to managers if a car is parked for more than a designated length of time outside a hotel or if a suitcase remains unattended in a corridor," he says.
The use of digital technology in CCTV means systems can now also be integrated with IT systems to send alerts to PCs or activate other applications such as access controls, according to Roberto Fiorentino, managing director at CSS Total Security, which recently installed a security system at London's Dorchester hotel.
He says: "During an initial assessment we might identify a likely intruder path and the camera could then be programmed to monitor this path. If this is breached, the system could activate an alarm and, if required, the locks."
Fiorentino says wireless internet technology now makes it possible to set up cameras quickly in hard-to-reach locations like side alleys and car parks, while Hill points to advances in camera sensors that give clearer pictures and better colour rendition. "They're a vast improvement on the fuzzy Crimewatch images you used to see," he says.
Improvements in the quality of CCTV images have even made it possible to develop systems that can automatically identify known criminals or troublemakers operating in the area.
Liverpool security firm Human Recognition Systems offers such a system, which allows users to upload images of people a hotel might want to deter. By comparing points such as distance between eyes, shape of the cheekbones and other distinguishable features, it can send alerts to users' PCs or mobile devices if someone resembling the image is spotted.
The first business to use its technology was the 60-bedroom boutique Vincent hotel in Southport, Merseyside.
Guest room access systems have also made significant leaps forward in terms of the functionality they offer, according to Darren Carter, group security manager at Radisson Edwardian Hotels and vice-chairman of the Institute of Hotel Security Management.
He says the latest trend is the emergence of networked electronic accessing systems, from companies such as Assa Abloy, which allow managers to monitor all the doors in the hotel, as well as room safes, from a single terminal.
This functionality is particularly helpful for maintenance purposes or when investigating reports of an illegal entry, as each lock provides a full audit trail, detailing the unique number of the electronic key that has tried the lock - whether entry was successful or not.
"Some security investigations may involve interrogating 60 or so locks on one floor to work out where a potential burglar has been. Being able to do this remotely can save a huge amount of time and effort," says Carter.
For managers trying to keep track of large numbers of staff working in a hotel, Fiorentino says card readers and magnetic ID cards offer an effective safety measure. He says card readers can be placed on all staff-only access points and can be programmed to give access only between certain times.
"Therefore, if an ID card is stolen and entry is attempted outside of the programmed hours, the alarm will be raised," he says.
Carter says such systems can be integrated with payroll databases - not for time and attendance purposes, but so access cards can be automatically activated on the day of an employee's induction or terminated when a staff member leaves the hotel. This, he says, gets round the problem of staff returning with their old access card or a discarded card being used to break in.
When it comes to new technologies that could have a use in the hotel security sector, Carter feels RFID (radio frequency identification) tags could play a role in the future. Typically used to ensure thieves don't steal expensive items such as clothes or razorblades from shops, RFID tags are small chips that transmit radio waves which are picked up by a reader, usually located at an exit.
"RFID tags could be attached to luggage or room items, such as flat-screen TVs, to make sure they aren't stolen," says Carter. "They could also be used to track large amounts of luggage at a conference event."
When investigating the world of security technology it very soon becomes clear that there are endless solutions on the market. The big question for operators is just where do you invest and how much? Carter says the answer will be different for each property and depend on its particular situation.
He suggests hotel managers first carry out a risk analysis and ask themselves a range of relevant questions, such as: What is my location? What is my mix of guests? What size is my hotel and how is it laid out? Have other crimes been reported in the area?
"Its all about balancing cost against risk," adds Carter.
ONLINE SECURITY FOR GUESTS USING WI-FI
As well as ensuring the physical security of a hotel is maintained, hoteliers also have an obligation to make sure the data of guests using a wireless network on the property is adequately protected, according to Graeme Powell, European managing director at hotel broadband provider iBAHN.
But, he says, in most hotels offering wireless connectivity security is lax, meaning the corporate information on business travellers' laptops as well as personal information, such as bank details and contact lists, could be vulnerable to hackers.
"If someone wanted to steal data from the majority of laptops in the majority of hotels, they could," says Powell.
A recent study in the USA by the Center for Hospitality Research backs up this statement. Having examined 147 US hotels, the authors found "a mixed picture" with regard to the security of guests' connections to the hotels' network.
Powell believes one remedy lies with offering users the option to encrypt their data using a code standard called WPA (Wi-Fi protected access). He says that when users first access the internet on a hotel's network they should be offered the chance to secure their data traffic. Usually this takes less than a minute to set up a user name and password.
But he adds: "Despite the risks, many users don't opt to do this because they think it will take too long, while hoteliers are reluctant to force guests to do it or to put up signs warning them of the risk if they don't.
"Managers need to work out how far they go towards protecting guests without inhibiting or scaring them."