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WorldAware's Bob Howell talks:
Bob Howell—director and senior advisor of critical operations, global assistance and response for global risk management company WorldAware—believes terrorist attacks on hotels will increase and become more sophisticated. Howell—whose company works with travel managers, travel risk managers, chief security officers, HR and legal—spoke with BTN lodging editor Donna M. Airoldi about what corporate travel managers can do to mitigate the risk.
BTN: Why are hotel terrorist attacks becoming more dangerous?
Howell: Over the past couple years, Al-Shabab—which is one of the more prolific terrorist organizations in Africa, based out of Mogadishu, Somalia—has perfected their hotel attack modus operandi. They breach the hotel's perimeter security with an explosive device—it could be an [improvised explosive devise] or a suicide bomber—then follow with an assault team to cause as much death and destruction as possible. [The group has used this tactic multiple times in Mogadishu and in Nairobi in January 2019.] We fully expect to see the M.O. expand across the region and be adopted by other insurgent groups around the world.
BTN: So it's a matter of time before other terrorist organizations follow the path Al-Shabab has laid out. To me, the more success they have, the more likely it is they will be repeated.
Howell: Correct. It's very high profile and gets a lot of media attention. It also tends to be very successful in causing quite a bit of death and destruction. It's going to be appealing to other insurgent terrorist organizations around the world. And getting that kind of media attention of what is going on also impacts how much funding and support they get as an organization.
BTN: How soon do you expect to see this type of attack escalate?
Howell: We've seen hotel attacks increase over the past couple of decades. You can't predict them because it's a terrorist event. They're not going to give us a warning.
BTN: What can travel managers and corporate travelers do to mitigate their risk?
Howell: They need to be looking at [their] hotel stays. If they've got prolonged projects or prolonged stays, we recommend that for low- to medium-risk countries, they have a hotel desktop assessment done. Clients can't afford to have a physical security assessment done for every hotel they go to, and that is understandable. But if you can do a desktop hotel assessment with available open source information and maybe even with a phone call to ask a few questions, that gives some kind of comfort factor on what the security posture is of that hotel. At WorldAware, we have Country Security Assessment Ratings for countries and cities. The ratings go from one to five. One is safest and five is the highest-risk environment. We recommend that clients do a desktop hotel assessment for ratings of one to three. If four or five, we send in a local security professional to conduct a site survey and validate the security posture of that hotel.
There's something about hotel assessments we have to make clear: Clients may think if they've done a hotel desktop or physical assessment, that hotel is safe. All a hotel assessment does for you is tell you that at that day, this is what the situation is. It could change tomorrow. [It] tells you what the general security posture is for that particular hotel to give you a comfort factor. A hotel assessment [also] will tell you what hotels you will not use because their security posture is not even close to meeting the standard.
BTN: What do these assessments entail?
Howell: It's a physical validation: What is the setback distance, access control, fire suppression. [For] onsite security, is it 24-hour presence? What are the capabilities and response time of local emergency services? Then there is some background on the hotel with respect to previous incidents and activities and how long the management staff and security staff have been assigned to that hotel. There are quite a few things that go into the physical security assessment of a hotel.
BTN: Do you recommend travelers stay away from Western hotels in certain locations?
Howell: That is country specific. If in a well-developed nation—Germany, France—Western hotels are pretty safe. Generally, they have good security, as well. But if you are in Nigeria or Egypt, that is another concern. We need to take a look at what your hotel selection process is. If you have long-term projects—consulting clients going in and out on a weekly basis to support a client—then we need to rotate hotels and not stay in the same hotel all the time. That makes you a high-profile target. One of the biggest things we are pushing our clients on now is reviewing situational awareness with their travelers. In today's world, it's important that we become familiar with what is normal around our hotel, what's normal around our job site, around any convenient services we are using so we can recognize when something doesn't look normal and remove ourselves from a potential situation.
We need to vary our departure and arrival times. We need to vary our routes to and from [locations]. All these things serve to make you a harder target. Any sophisticated criminal or terrorist attack will involve surveillance first so they know where the best place is to take you down or commit the activity. If we keep them guessing, keep them off kilter, by changing our routes, changing arrival/departure times, they'll look for an easier target. We are really pushing clients now even more today than before to train their people and impress upon them the importance of good situational awareness. It's better if something doesn't look normal and you remove yourself and something doesn't happen than to not remove yourself and something does happen.
BTN: Do you feel companies are becoming more aware of this? How ready are they?
Howell: That goes the full gamut, too. We're seeing an increase in awareness of the issues. Clients are looking to implement additional risk mitigation strategies to help limit their exposure. Definitely. There's renewed concern in the industry about protecting people. Of course, companies are worried about brand reputation, but it's really focused around protecting their people. In the past, it was wrapped around travel risk management. Today, it's people risk management—not just your travelers, but what about your local employees, as well?
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