Friday, December 9, 2011

Watching Erin Andrews

There are certain issues that I keep a very close eye on in the accommodation industry and for some unknown reason I'm attracted to the plight of ESPN reporter Erin Andrews (pictured above).

In 2008, while staying at a hotel, Andrews was spied upon and secretly filmed nude though the guest room's peephole by a serial stalker. After images were widely distributed around the internet, the offender was charged, pleaded guilty and is currently cooling his heels in a federal prison. The litigation is still dragging on with the recent announcement that Andrews is now seeking US$10 million from the West End Marriott Hotel and the convicted peeping-tom for negligence, emotional distress and invasion of privacy.

I see that Andrews has been criticised in the media for overplaying the victim-card and using her bizarre misfortune to cash-in and enhance her public profile. 

It is alleged that Andrew's stalker approached the hotel desk where Andrews was staying and requested that he check-in to a room adjacent to her. The hotel obliged without question and by doing so allowed the the stalker to confirm that his victim was staying at the hotel and identify the room she was staying in. 

With knowledge of the guest room Andrews was staying in, the creepy stalker, altered the door's peephole and took video footage.

From a seemingly simple unguarded act, the hotel has unwittingly exposed (in this case literally!) their guest. They have also attracted a storm of bad publicity and face the risk of extreme financial penalty from legal retribution. 

This ongoing story should remind accommodation providers that they are under obligation to provide a duty of care and the protection of guests' 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. 

In our motel we've been privy to all sorts of information from guests staying with us that would fill many gossip columns. We also get to know a guests personal details such as eating and drinking habits and even if they are having an extramarital affair. Most of the information that we are privy to is 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 when 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 a member of the public asks if a particular guest is staying with us then this can put us 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 wishes to speak to a named guest then the call is usually transferred without question. 

When the Anrews story first broke, The American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) took an interesting position. President and CEO, Joe McInerney 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 also waded-in and stated 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.”

The personal responsibility rhetoric sorta sounds good, however in this case we feel that the AHLA and Cornell could have been ducking for cover and running interference. 

The role of an accommodation provider is to provide guests a place of peaceful enjoyment with a duty of care that covers a vast array of responsibilities including protecting guests' privacy. It will be interesting to see how the American legal system will determine what the hotel's responsibility should have been in the Andrews case. 

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. It may also be an opportune time to fit a security flap to those pesky guest room door peepholes?

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