Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Motel Privacy

In the accommodation game, guest privacy is paramount. When staying at a motel or hotel, guests share information for the exclusive use of the accommodation provider on the understanding that this will not be divulged to others.

We have been privy to all sorts of information from guests staying with us that will disclose anything from pending local business closures to the tardy performance of a local chain store manager. We also get to know a guests personal details such as eating and drinking habits or even if they are having an extramarital affair. Some of the information that we are privy to is more mundane such as telephone numbers, address and credit card details however no information about guests, no matter how trivial  should ever be divulged to others.

The only exception is if information is sought by the police. In that instance we will assist all we can as we expect the police to assist us if called upon. 

We are aware that if someone asks us if a particular guest is staying then this can put us as an accommodation provider in a difficult position. By rights an accommodation provider should not divulge up-front that a particular guest may be staying with them, however in the interests of providing customer service a pragmatic approach is usually taken. If a caller wishes to know if someone is staying with us or what a guest's room number is, then those direct questions are diplomatically sidestepped. However, if someone rings and wishes to speak to a named guest then the call is usually transferred through without question.

There has been two very similar apparent slip ups by accommodation providers that have allegedly and unwittingly divulged guest information to others with serious consequences. We have been following the unfolding stories with interest.

The most high profile story concerns a well known ESPN reporter, Erin Andrews that was filmed nude inside her hotel room through the door’s peephole by a stalker. There has also been at least one other copycat incident. A family from Nebraska has claimed that their daughters were filmed from a hole drilled in an adjacent guestroom while staying in a hotel.

In both cases, the culprits approached a hotel and requested that they check-in to rooms that were adjacent to their victims that were identified by them. The hotels obliged without question. This allowed the culprits not only to confirm that their victims were staying at a hotel, but also which room they were staying in.

From a seemingly simple unguarded act, the hotels have exposed themselves to a storm of bad publicity and also face the risk of extreme financial penalty from legal retribution of the victims.

So the blame game is being played out in the American media. 

The American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) has taken an interesting position. President and CEO, Joe McInerney, in commenting about the Erin Andrews case said that the emphasis has been misdirected.

“The whole thing got out of proportion. The question shouldn’t be how did (the stalker) get the room next to (Andrews) but how did the pictures get taken. Being in the next room doesn’t matter. People are missing the point. If a guest notices that someone is harassing or following them, they should report it.”

Reneta McCarthy, lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration has also waded in and voiced an opinion on the Erin Andrews case by stating that it is up to the guest to share the responsibility with the hotel of ensuring their own protection.

“I think it’s strange that Andrews didn’t notice that her door had been messed with.”

Hmm ... the personal responsibility rhetoric sounds good, however in this case we feel that the AHLA and Cornell may be running interference.

As an accommodation provider, besides providing guests a place of peaceful enjoyment we also have a duty of care.

It will be interesting to see how the American legal system will determine what the hotels' responsibility should have been.

In the interim it may be a good opportunity for accommodation providers to reflect on their privacy policies and in particular consider how best to deal with adjacent room requests.

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