By Joe Brancatelli
January 27, 2010 -- Three Baghdad hotels were bombed in rapid-fire order Monday, and at least 36 people died. That press reports from the scene still can't accurately name the hotels or give a final tally for the dead is chilling enough, of course, but Monday's violence should also serve as a wake-up call for business travelers: Nothing we know or believe about hotel safety is valid anymore.
Talking heads like me are supposed to dispense sage advice in times of peril. We're supposed to coolly survey the literal and figurative wreckage, summon up decades of experience, and tap into expert sources to give you five or 15 or 50 ways to make sure it doesn't happen to you.
But never has the conventional wisdom made less sense or seemed more unwise. Every good notion about how to travel in a dangerous (or even just an unfamiliar) place is refuted by a new attack or a contradictory bit of advice. It's my job to bring order to this chaos, but believe me when I tell you that the chaos has consumed any notion of order.
Rather than make believe I have answers and sage advice, let's take a hard look at some of the old truths, examine how they've been debunked, and try to figure out if there is anything useful we can learn for the future.
The Stick-to-Big-Brands Strategy
One oft-repeated truth in the past has been to suggest that business travelers are better off lodging at big, international hotels. The assumption has been that the big chains with worldwide networks have the best security, best understand the reasons why that security is necessary, and work most diligently to shield and secure at-risk international guests.
The problem with that assumption now is that the terrorists know it too. Many attacks in recent years (at a Marriott in Islamabad and on the Taj Mahal Palace and Oberoi hotels in Mumbai in 2008) have targeted big and well-known business-travel spots specifically because they were large and run by chains with international profiles. They are inviting "soft" targets because they aren't as difficult to attack as airlines but will generate almost as much worldwide press. After all, bombing a no-name hotel isn't quite as spectacular (or newsworthy) as successfully attacking a local outpost of a globally known and respected lodging icon.
But advising business travelers to stay at smaller, less conspicuous, less globally identifiable places entails its own risk. Security is lax or nonexistent, foreigners are more likely to stand out, and international business travelers are the easiest to identify. Besides, these places offer fewer on-the-ground services, thus increasing the likelihood that business travelers must wander into unsafe and dangerous neighborhoods for meals and transportation.
The Locals-Know-Best Strategy
Experienced business travelers have always been justifiably skeptical of advice from their corporate travel departments or third-party security firms who peddle "intelligence." Smart travelers have more often relied on their local networks of contacts or in situ employees of their firms or clients. Their reasoning is simple: Locals know the terrain best and usually have more nuanced and tactical details of on-the-grounds problems.
The obvious flaw in that rationale: Locals don't always know best. That was proven again by Monday's attacks in Baghdad. Media reports stating the bombed hotels were the Sheraton, Meridien, and Oberoi were based on what the locals call currently the properties. But none of those hotels have been part of those global franchises for years. (In the case of the supposed Sheraton Ishtar, not coincidentally Baghdad's tallest building, Sheraton revoked its franchise after the property was seized by Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War in 1991.) Yet either out of ignorance or sloppiness, locals continue to call the hotels by their old brand names, which misleads visiting business travelers to overrate and misperceive the level of safety and quality of security the properties currently provide.
The Safe-Behind-the-Hotel-Walls Strategy
Another failure of the conventional wisdom about traveling in a time of terrorism is telling business people to choose hotels based on the range of their facilities. In the past, for example, it did make sense to advise business travelers to take their meals and libations in in-house restaurants and bars. Not anymore. Recent attacks in places as diverse as laid-back Bali and frenetic Mumbai have focused on food, beverage, and nightlife outlets frequented by an international clientele.
A more practical approach today is to suggest business travelers adopt a more paranoid and hermitic lifestyle: Book rooms in a hotel that offers accommodations on special-access floors (usually called concierge, club, or executive levels). The restricted access provides a small additional layer of security. Then avoid a hotel's public spaces and shopping and dining outlets whenever possible. Boring as it sounds, take your meals from room service or dine in the facilities offered on the special-access floors.
One other thought: Terrorists most often (but not always) attack a hotel's facade because it is easiest to access even if the property is within a walled compound. So you might improve your security by asking for rooms in the back of a hotel building.
The Beware-of-Terrorist Strategy
Talking-head experts understandably spill lots of ink and electrons advising travelers to protect themselves against potential terrorist violence and warlike attacks from political or paramilitary groups. That focus is understandable, of course, but largely misguided. As frightening and dangerous as terrorism is, more international business travelers fall victim to garden-variety street crimes.
The experts often forget to remind on-the-road businesspeople to take basic anticrime precautions: Travel with as little cash as possible; keep a low profile; avoid hailing taxis on the street; and dress inconspicuously with little or no bling. And remember Rule No. 1 of hotels: Never hang the "make up my room" tag on the doorknob. It's an obvious tip-off that the room is empty and ripe for rifling.
The problem with all of these words? They're only conditionally reliable and will, inevitably, be contradicted by the next (and inevitable) attack on a hotel or resort. And we won't even have seen it coming.
The Fine Print …
One bit of advice that still holds up in these troubled times: You can never have enough information. Traditional U.S. print and broadcast media have by and large withdrawn from covering world news in any comprehensive ways. One decent (and free) replacement for at least a cursory view of everything from the state of street crime to antistate insurgencies is the daily Hotspots newsletter from the ASI Group. It's a depressing laundry list of everything that's going wrong with the world on a destination-by-destination basis.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.