The email on Wednesday from my friend, the managing director of the Taj Mahal Palace & Towers in Mumbai, India, was disturbing and scary:
"We're in a lock down mode here at Taj. (200) guests are in the restaurant with security. I'm locked down on the first floor. The police have control of the whole building and have narrowed five armed men to the sixth floor of the Taj Palace wing and closing in...."
Shortly thereafter the television showed frightful images of the sixth floor on fire, the very floor where I often stay when in Mumbai. Then no further email messages.
The hotel attacks in Mumbai are the latest in a string of incidents: Two separate explosions of Western-branded hotels in Islamabad, a bomb detonated at the Marriott in Jakarta. And now, the hotel attacks in Mumbai.
Security of hotels at issue
All call into question the security of hotels and why they are frequent targets.
The Taj hotel in Mumbai is one of the great elegant hotels of India. Built more than 100 years ago, it has been the home to royalty and visiting heads of state for decades. And it is considered one of the two premier luxury business hotels in Mumbai (the other being the Oberoi, which was also attacked). But on any given day, hotel occupancy is predominantly Western, both business and leisure travelers, and as such both hotels stand out as easy targets for terrorists.
Most security experts will tell you that a hotel is a prime "soft" terrorist target: multiple entrances and exits, easy vehicle access and dozens — and sometimes hundreds — of unattended bags in the lobby.
Like the Taj, most hotels are not designed or built as security fortresses, and many older hotels provide easy opportunities for terrorists to move in and out of the hotel virtually unchallenged.
So what can hotel guests do? You need to practice personal awareness every time you check into a hotel.
Before you even enter the building, look for cars parked near the front entrance. Most large urban hotels now prohibit this practice and many actually inspect incoming vehicles at an outside perimeter area, insisting upon opening car trunks and using under-chassis mirrors. If you see an unattended car parked at the front entrance, report it. The same for unattended luggage in the lobby.
In a number of hotels around the world — including some in India — hotel security officers have installed metal detectors to screen incoming guests. The problem — most are either not manned, or are not operating correctly. They only serve as a psychological deterrent against crime, but are essentially ineffective against dedicated terrorists.
Then the multiple entrance and exit problem. It's one thing to put security officers at the front entrance to the hotel, but if side entrances — including employee entrances — are not patrolled and controlled, the security is also essentially useless. Again, if you see entrances to hotels without security personnel, report them.
The bottom line is to be a proactive, aware traveler, and you increase the odds of your security and safety every time you stay at a hotel, wherever it is located.