Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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When Hotels Attack ...
July 2, 2015 --The smartest thing I've ever heard about travel is from Fran Lebowitz, the novelist and sardonic observer of modern life. "I am not the type who wants to go back to the land," she once explained. "I am the type who wants to go back to the hotel."

Most business travelers share Lebowitz's affection for lodgings, especially compared to airlines, which we hate because they hate us. Besides, what's not to likes? Hotels offer a range of choices and a spread of prices. Hotels adapt to our needs and desires. And they frequently rethink how they interact with us.

But the days when business travelers can consider hotels a home away from home appear to be over. Whether it's terrorists hitting us where we temporarily live or the by-products of our digital age, hotels aren't the safe, secure and welcoming sanctuaries they once seemed to be.

Hard hits on soft targets

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 forced airlines to "harden" security by re-enforcing cockpit doors and create new (if ineffectual) police agencies. The result: Fewer chances for bad guys to hit us in the air.

Terrorists still want to attack aircraft, of course, but they have shifted focus to less-protected "soft targets" such as shopping malls, schools and, yes, hotels. The most horrific recent example? Dozens of travelers murdered last week at a luxurious beachfront resort in Tunisia.

The Tunisian slaughter was given comparatively short shrift in the U.S. news media due to last week's Supreme Court decisions on Obamacare and gay marriage, but the attack did not go unnoticed by business travelers or the hotel industry. Hoteliers insist that "hardening" lodging operations are more complicated than securing aircraft and they point to attacks on an already heavily fortified Marriott hotel compound in Pakistan to bolster their contention.

"We're in the hospitality business after all," the general manager of a five-star hotel in Paris told me recently. "If we post armed guards in the lobby and force guests through X-ray detectors at the front door, they'll stay somewhere else."

Maybe, but hoteliers ignore terrorism at their own risk and at the risk of our lives.

Snoopy-landlord syndrome

The Waldorf Astoria hotel on New York's Park Avenue is big, famous and absurdly overrated, but it's also been home to U.S. diplomats for decades. The reason? The Waldorf Towers, a hotel within the hotel, has a private entrance and it is relatively close to the United Nations.

But now that a Chinese insurer has paid $2 billion for the Waldorf, the United States government is moving out. The fear? The State Department believes the Chinese government may snoop on our diplomats. And it all comes on the heels of revelations that Israel may have bugged hotels where the Iran nuclear talks are held.

What does all this international spy-versus-spy skullduggery have to do with us lowly business travelers? Corporations worry about hacking, too, especially when t op executives and key knowledge workers hit the road. When they visit hotels in key international cities known to be crossroads of digital technology, more and more business travelers with whom I speak say they have been instructed to maintain the 21st century equivalent of radio silence.

"We lock down our people when they travel in places where we know intellectual property rights are not strongly protected," the travel manager of a Fortune 500 firm recently told me via email. "We can't vet every hotel room every day. It's not like a spy movie. We can't sweep for bugs before our people check in. So our only option is to tell them to go dark on communications."

WiFi Willies

The baddies hiding in the hotel walls aren't just governments and corporate spies. Traditional hackers you know, the one after your personal identity and credit card number have made hotels their second home. The WiFi systems employed by many lodging chains often aren't secure and are rarely protected against the most dedicated data thieves. "Hotels just don't take guest cyber security seriously," a security expect recently told my colleague Robert McGarvey.

If it creeps you out to think hotel WiFi systems are easily hacked, at least there's an equally simple solution. Don't use a hotel's WiFi. Rely on a mobile hotspot you create with your smartphone or use an encrypted virtual private network (VPN).

The worst of times

When an Indonesian military aircraft smashed into a hotel and residential buildings in Medan, Sumatra on Tuesday it was one more reminder that hotels aren't immune from the tragedies of real life.

All you need to do is check the net for an unfortunate history of hotel fires and other calamities. Suicides are sadly common, so much so that hotel trade magazines feel compelled to offer tips to frustrated managers. Hotels are prime sites for meth labs, as the Drug Enforcement Administration says it discovered more than 1,300 in hotel rooms in 2013. And plain old, garden variety hotel crime also seems to be rising.

Taxing times

And put this in the adding insult to injury file: lodging taxes are skyrocketing. With little advance notice, every hotel in Georgia this week began collecting a new $5-per-stay levy. More than a dozen communities in the New York's Westchester County will soon begin charging an additional 3 percent fee. Bed taxes are also rising in parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Mississippi.

This drip, drip, drip of bad news, bad vibes and bad times make us less comfortable at our favorite hotel. It's hard to get a good night's sleep when we imagine a criminal behind every door, a spook in the wall, and a drug factory a few floors down.

"It's getting so bad I look under the bed for monsters whenever I check into a hotel now," my frequent-flying friend Antonia Sorenson texted me the other day.

I think she was joking. But I'm not sure anymore.


This column is Copyright 2015 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.