How hotels can protect their guests from terrorist threats

A look of exasperation briefly flashed across Andrin Raj's face. For the past half an hour or so, the man had been explaining to a ballroom full of hospitality professionals and students about the dangers faced by the hospitality industry.

The International Association for Counter-terrorism and Security Professionals - Centre for Security Studies (IACSP) regional director (South-East Asia) kept a relatively composed demeanour as he presented his case at the inaugural Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) National Hospitality Conference.

But the tipping point came when the moderator asked Andrin if luxury international hotel chains were more susceptible to attacks compared to their budget-conscious counterparts.

"What is the difference between a three-star hotel and a five-star hotel?" countered Andrin at the conference organised by the Selangor chapter of MAH. "It's probably just the food, staff and service. You are still going to have people staying there."

The certified counter-terrorism expert went on to explain that certain segments of travellers - backpackers, for instance - opt for budget accommodation. He added that just because a property falls on the affordable spectrum doesn't mean that safety and security should be compromised.

"We're trying to make this into a tourist industry, right? That's why every hotel needs to have some sort of balanced (security) facility.

"Complacency has set into our mindset. No one seems to expect a major threat," he said.

There was a sense of urgency in Andrin's presentation that is not misplaced. In the past year, suicide bombers and terrorist groups have targeted areas that strike travel at its heart.

In the news headlines in recent years are attacks in a commercial area of Jakarta frequented by tourists as well as tragedies in Turkey, Pakistan, Burkina Faso, Paris, Brussels and the Ivory Coast.

In the Ivory Coast incident, gunmen had opened fire on picnickers and swimmers at three beach resort hotels. Harrowing accounts of the tragedy depicted how bodies were strewn across the bloodstained sand.

"Tourists will stop coming when there are terrorist activities," Andrin said.

To put things in perspective, after the Paris attacks on Nov 13 (Friday) last year, hotels' occupancy rates reportedly dropped 21 per cent the very next day and 23 per cent two days later.

Fast-forward to the present day, Andrin warned that terrorism is an all-too-real issue that hotels in Malaysia need to take into serious consideration.

"The threat level is high due to the fact that you are a soft target," he stressed, adding that terrorists perceive hotels, resorts and restaurants as purveyors of Western influences.

"Civilian sites may be more appealing targets than government or security agencies. Examples are places of worship, common tourist attractions, international hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, night clubs and sporting events," he shared.

Despite the risk, Andrin said, the hospitality industry remains lackadaisical.

"It's easy for anyone to drive into the car parks at hotels. All (the terrorist) has to do is park, walk out of the car and blow it up from a remote location," he said, adding that terror groups comprise individuals who are well versed in attack plans.

Food terrorism

The increasingly sophisticated nature of attacks by terrorists was also highlighted by Selangor Islamic Religious Department senior assistant director (Halal Management) Ahmad Solihin Maryakon.

In his presentation, Ahmad outlined the emerging threat of food terrorism, a concept that is relatively new in this country.

"It's the act of using food as tools for terrorist acts, instead of conventional weaponry," he explained.

The World Health Organisation defines food terrorism as an act or threat of deliberate contamination of food for human consumption using biological, chemical or physical agents or radio nuclear materials for the purpose of causing injury or death.

Biological hazards can be bacteria and viruses while chemical hazards include allergens and mushroom toxins. Meanwhile, physical hazards could come in the form of tiny sharp objects such as nails and glass shards mixed into the food.

"Why target food? It's a life essential," Ahmad said. Because it is prone to spoilage, it's easy for food to be manipulated by terrorists who can also cover their tracks at the same time.

According to him, food contamination is carried out during the food preparation process. Bearing that in mind, the kitchen staff of hotels need to be vigilant.

Ahmad further explained that hotels might be vulnerable to acts of food terrorism due to its function as a conference venue that hosts dignitaries and other VIPs.

As the concept of food terrorism is relatively new, Ahmad said, there is no concrete action plans yet to tackle the issue. However, hotels can do their part by raising employees' awareness on the subject. It's a sentiment echoed by Andrin.

"Hotels need to educate their staff to know the behavioural pattern of terrorists," he said.

Andrin illustrated this by pointing out how even restroom personnel at the Singapore Changi Airport are trained in basic profiling.

"Hotels are responsible for the safety of their guests. Invest in training your staff. And all your staff, including the front liners, need to be aware. The training is not only for security managers. Everyone needs to be knowledgeable in counter-terrorism methods," he said.

Andrin also said hospitality personnel need to learn to prioritise the types of threats and allocate protective resources in response.

"Be continually vigilant, with appropriate security and risk-mitigating measures. Hotels need to constantly update their emergency response and plans, too," he offered, adding that hoteliers should consider property insurance supplemented by terrorism insurance.

"Managing and mitigating the risk from terrorism in all its manifestations is now part of your overall business decision-making process," he concluded.