After Vegas, should hotels have metal detectors?

SAN DIEGO — There was a time when checked luggage wasn’t scanned at airports, you could bring a Swiss army knife on board an airplane, and your friends and family could accompany you to your departure gate.

Then the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred, and security at airports forever changed. Will the Las Vegas Strip massacre that originated from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay resort now be the seminal event that will forever toughen security in U.S. hotels?

Across the country, and especially in tourist destinations, it is an obvious question, but hoteliers so far are reluctant to suddenly embrace metal detectors and baggage screening in the wake of the deadly shooting.

Locally, hotel operators say that, if anything, the incident is a wake-up call to staff to be even more vigilant and aware of suspicious behavior and to not be shy about reporting it. That is already a typical part of training protocol, they point out.

That the Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock, was able to bring to his hotel suite dozens of firearms over a period of days should be a red flag, said San Diego hotel operator Bob Rauch, although he acknowledges that awareness of that can be more challenging in a huge resort property.

“If any employee were to see a customer alone with multiple suitcases going up the elevator multiple times, they need to speak up,” said Rauch, who owns and operates multiple smaller and mid-size hotels in the county. “It’s a big red flag and management should engage the guest, ask what their plans are and report it to authorities if necessary.”

While the safety of guests is paramount for hotels, so, too, is the premium guests place on privacy and convenience.

“I don’t think we want to start using metal detectors,” Rauch said. “It’s not so much the expense. It’s a big inconvenience to the 99.99 percent of hotel guests who are there to enjoy themselves or do business, so to put them through what they’ve already been put through at the airport, it’s not so guest friendly.”

Rauch, however, says he will step up his training of staff and add “active shooter” to the training for handling emergencies.

Debra Sanderlin, general manager of the 102-room Bristol Hotel in downtown San Diego, agrees that regular training of staff — with a focus on the mantra, “If you see something, say something” — is a hotel’s first line of defense in keeping guests safe.

In the case of Paddock, part of his meticulous planning leading up to the shooting was to leave a “Do not disturb” sign on his door for several days.

That kind of behavior, though, can arouse suspicions, and hotel operators do have the right to check in on their guests, said Rauch and Sanderlin.

“We generally have a policy if it goes on for more than a couple of days, we want to double check on the guest because people can get into medical situations,” Sanderlin said. “We would rather risk having a guest be a little upset than not being aware they need help. It can be as simple as a quick check in the room.”

Part of the challenge faced by hotels, large and small, is they’re considered a “soft target,” military parlance for being vulnerable to attack. To effectively place them under lock and key would run counter to the welcoming environment that is the hallmark of hotels, say lodging experts.

Globally, it is not uncommon to see stepped-up hotel security in countries where hotels have been targeted. Following the 2008 terrorist bombing of two hotels in Mumbai, some major hotel chains throughout the country implemented much more intense screening systems such as handheld trace detectors and X-ray scanners to check for explosives and contraband.

In the near term, it’s doubtful U.S. hotels will move in that direction, said Jan Freitag, senior vice president of STR, which tracks hotel data.

“This is the first event of this size where a U.S. hotel was involved,” Freitag said. “I think there will be a lot more done at the back end of hotels, like investing more training in staff who have guest interaction, such as bellhops, the front desk, housekeeping.

“Of course, it’s still too early to know what will change but scanning (luggage), I don’t think we’re there yet. A more visible security presence and training of staff is the first step.”