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Hotel Security: Rooms Get Safes to Cut Thefts

September 06, 1987|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

How safe is your hotel room from theft?

It's not an easy question to answer. On one hand, hotels don't freely provide security information, and most police departments don't keep individual theft statistics for hotels in their cities.

But certain facts are known. Interviews with executives at major hotel chains (all of whom declined to be identified, either by name or chain) revealed that in-room theft is on the rise, and that most of it is being done by people who have legitimate access to guest rooms--employees.

One U.S. Commerce Department survey indicates that employee theft is clearly on the rise, growing at the alarming rate of 15% a year.

As a result, more and more hotels are installing safes in guest rooms. More than 100,000 safes are now in U.S. hotel rooms. Two-thirds of them are mechanical but a growing number are electronic, and cost up to $650 each.

Opportunity, Motive

"Theft is based on opportunity and motive," says David Pollard, vice president of ServiSystems, a leading manufacturer of hotel room safes.

"In many hotels the opportunity and the motives are there, even more so than in other industries. Many employees are at entry-level salaries, and as a result there can be an economic motive to supplement their incomes. The lodging industry needs to be sensitive to those issues."

Sensitive, indeed.

"It's a tough and touchy subject in the hotel business," says Paul Limbert, general manager of the Park Hyatt in Washington, D.C. "A lot of people think that putting a safe in guest rooms diminishes the service you offer guests. I disagree.

"I think it isn't nice to make the guest walk through the lobby and stick things into a public safe. We have safe deposit boxes, of course, but we think it's better for guests to put things away safely in the privacy of their own rooms."

The Ritz Carlton in Montreal has installed 240 safes in guest rooms. "They've been a great success," says a spokesman. "In the year we've had them, we haven't had a single theft."

The 600-room Drake Hotel in New York has installed a safe in each of its 52 suites, and expects to invest another $200,000 in safes within the next six months.

"Soon," says general manager Jacques Hamburger, "we will have them in every one of our rooms. We're putting them in more for convenience than anything else. But we also think the room safes are the wave of the future. They eliminate long lines of guests waiting to get into the safe deposit boxes, and there's no key to lose."

Among all Westin hotels, 20% offer room safes, including the Plaza in New York and the Century Plaza in Los Angeles.

In Singapore the Holiday Inn Park View has installed special "credit card" safes in each of the hotel's 320 rooms. The system is activated by each guest's own credit card. A microchip reads and memorizes the card as it is inserted into the safe. That becomes the code for opening it.

Each time the guest wants to get into the safe, the same credit card must be inserted. (If a guest doesn't have a credit card, the hotel will emboss one for the safe.)

Although the system is activated by using a credit card, the Holiday Inn offers it as a free service to guests.

When the Stanhope Hotel in New York was recently renovated, safes were installed in each of 117 rooms. The 12-by-11-inch units were placed inside guest closets.

"The guests still use the safe-deposit boxes downstairs," reports the hotel's general manager, Stefan Simkovics, "but they love the room safes. They use them for things people don't normally put in a safe deposit box: passports, airplane tickets and cameras."

There's no charge for use of the Stanhope safes. But it can be argued that a number of hotels have become greedy. In order to amortize the purchase and installation costs of the safes, many hotels charge guests $2 to $4 a day to use them.

"Charging for this privilege is wrong," says the Park Hyatt's Limbert. "When you put a safe in a room, you're saying to the guest that you don't entirely trust the lock on the door, or your own staff.

"But then, to make them pay $3 or $4 a day for the extra 'security' which you should already be providing is almost criminal. It is illogical to charge for the safes. Why should we ask a guest to pay extra money for something we should already provide?"

Still, despite the statistics, not every hotel is a safe supporter.

"Hotel safes are an unnecessary nuisance," says Jurg Tuscher, general manager of the Mandarin in Hong Kong. "We pride ourselves on our safe deposit boxes. And we have some secure areas large enough to hold fur coats. Space isn't a problem."

Forced to Open Safe?

Ironically, one reason why the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok doesn't have room safes is because general manager Kurt Wachtveitl wants to protect guests. How's that?

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