SafePlace: On the Road for Business Travelers
By Randy Southerland
Access Control & Security Systems

November 1, 2002

he Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, Del., has seen more than its share of high-profile guests, so it wasn't unusual when former Vice President Al Gore swept through its elegant halls one September evening surrounded by watchful security guards.

Like so many visits by the famous and powerful before him, this one came off without a hitch, and hotel staff could breathe a sigh of relief. Since Sept. 11, hotels like the du Pont have grown increasingly concerned with the perception and reality of the safety for their guests — particularly corporate, business and association travelers that can make up 60-70 percent of their annual revenues.

With Wilmington serving as a frequent battleground for corporate mergers, bankruptcies and patents, the Hotel du Pont is often called on to provide a safe and secure staging area. No wonder the 217-room hotel agreed to put its practices, policies and equipment to the test in a safety assessment conducted by cross-town neighbor SafePlace Corp., which has developed a safety accreditation program geared to the lodging industry. While other well-known companies — such as AAA and the Mobil Travel Guide — rate hotels based on comfort and quality, SafePlace provides a broad range of testing that highlights health and safety issues.

Those who win its certification — a sort of seal of approval for lodging safety — may gain an advantage in the tough fight for travel industry dollars still lagging after an unprofitable 2001.

“Historically, DuPont (Corp.) has been very aggressive in ensuring that we have a safe work place,” says Deborah W. Hopkins, director of DuPont Hospitality, which includes not only the hotel, but the DuPont Country Club and the DuPont Playhouse Theatre.

The accreditation — which provides hotels with a mark they can use in advertising — ensures that the facility conforms to national fire, safety and health standards. In addition, to meet accreditation standards, they must also practice good access control policies, such as using electronic locks rather than keys and installing advanced closed circuit monitoring equipment that can alert security officials when something happens.

With hotels both large and small competing for fewer travelers, the SafePlace accreditation can mean the difference between success and failure of the property, according to John Fannin, the fire protection and industrial expert who founded the company.

“Some of the corporate travel managers are stepping forward and mandating SafePlace accreditation by a certain date,” Fannin says. “Most are giving their hotels 18 months to comply before they'll no longer place their employees there. That has gotten the attention of the hotels that service those businesses.”

Du Pont's Hopkins observed that her property is starting to get questions about safety and security from some meeting planners. The individual pleasure traveler on the other hand, probably isn't going to make a hotel decision based solely on an accreditation.

“For meeting planners I think more and more they are looking for safe and secure environments,” says Hopkins, whose own property was accredited in April — the first for SafePlace. “For that portion of our business it will help improve sales.”

Corporate executives, on the other hand, have always been security-conscious.

Earlier this year, Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO Carly Florina traveled to Wilmington to testify in a lawsuit brought by dissident shareholder Walter Hewlett. During her stay, the Hotel du Pont used both off-duty police officers and plainclothes security guards to provide protection. With tempers running high because of the merger between HP and rival Compaq, an off-duty police sergeant even accompanied Florina to court.

With so much at risk, business and corporate executives can't afford to have their plans disrupted by poor security. To remain competitive in attracting these kinds of guests and their meetings, facilities like the Hotel du Pont have to provide an increased level of service.

To reassure its guests, the hotel provides CCTV monitoring of its public spaces, secure data and telephone lines and around-the-clock security checks. Hotel rooms are even sound-proofed to ensure that discussions of sensitive business issues don't reach the wrong ears.

With security already in place, the Hotel du Pont wasn't overly concerned when SafePlace inspectors came calling.

The process of accreditation begins with a three-part application. At its heart is a six-page application form that each hotel must complete. It begins with a characterization of the property, such as its location, size, number of rooms and facilities. It asks whether it's connected to a convention facility, parking area, and whether there's on-site gaming.

Managers are asked to provide general information about security, health and safety issues. Do they have a fire detection alarm system that is connected to a central station? Are staff trained and tested in policies and procedures?

“We ask them about facility maintenance programs and background checks, employee drug testing and staff emergency management training,” explains Fannin.

Then an auditor — who is an engineer — arrives with his own 57-page document in hand that serves as the formal guide on the audit process. “Our people will go out to a facility to verify the information that was provided by the facility in their application,” says William Wayman, Northeast regional director for San Diego-based TVA Fire and Life Safety Inc. “We will have a tour of the facility with a representative — typically from the risk management or security division — and take a look at the physical aspects of the property — the fire protection systems, security systems and functional equipment. We make sure things have been maintained properly.”

The auditor verifies that everything is as presented in the initial application. He will verify codes are met and equipment such as locks and CCTV are protecting the guests.

Some of the checks are as simple as making sure hotel staff members don't publicly announce a guest's room number while handing them a key.

SafePlace encourages facilities to use technology to its best advantage in terms of access control. Video surveillance is more than just a guard sitting in a chair staring at six or seven monitors for an eight-hour shift. It must also include video alarm monitoring and detection.

“That includes digital recording of events, and especially in public areas where the hotel has a liability for slip-and-fall accidents and where there could be theft,” Wayman says.

For hotels that pass the test, the SafePlace seal can provide a measure of assurance to its guests. “The requirements of the code are applied nationally,” Fannin says. “Today, as a member of the traveling public, you don't know what standards are in effect where you stay. We hope to establish a baseline that the public knows is being satisfied nation-wide if they see this seal.”

Sept. 11 may have given safety an unprecedented emphasis, but Fannin says he began developing the SafePlace concept more than a year ago.

While lodging has provided SafePlace with an entry into the accreditation market, Fannin says that the company is working to extend the same format to other venues, such as the chemical industry and academic institutions. At this point, the service provided by SafePlace to hotels is unique in its focus on fire and safety standards.

“We can use this model in just about any area where the safety of people is the main focus,” he says.

Randy Southerland is an Atlanta-based writer and regular contributor to Access Control & Security Systems

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