Terrorist incidents in hotels are thankfully rare – but there are ways to help protect yourself should the worst happen, writes Derek Picot

As the year started, our TV screens were filled with news of a terrorist attack on the Dusit D2 hotel in Nairobi. By coincidence, I had been thinking of the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Mumbai’s Oberoi Trident and Taj Mahal Palace hotels in November 2008.

The death toll in India over the three days of the attack was 174, with 300 wounded. In Nairobi, 21 were killed. These depressing figures should not distract us from the fact that it is very rare to be caught in such an outrage; nevertheless, hotels are a favoured target because they tend to have international visitors and are open to the general public.

Hoteliers the world over continually question what their responsibilities are to guests and business travellers in the event of an attack. The dilemma lies in balancing how much security should be introduced to a property against having an adverse effect on the guest experience.

Anticipating threats

Generally, international legislation and insurance companies direct hoteliers to make provisions that protect guests from all circumstances that could be “foreseen”. In this respect, hotels that are located in areas of frequent attack or civil unrest must take steps to protect their customers. Similarly, if national governments give specific warnings of impending attacks, action must be taken to enhance travellers’ safety. This may include security screening at the front door, the prohibition of non-residents entering the premises and increased security training for staff.

The general modus operandi for hotel attacks is brazen and violent. Attacks are usually highly visible and via the hotel’s main entrances. The real objective is to kill as many people as possible. The first target is usually the lobby, followed by the restaurants. To add to confusion, during the initial stages of an attack the hotel fire alarm may be set off, which has the disastrous effect of sending more guests who are unaware of the assault to the lobby.

If the attackers are not engaged by the security forces at this point, the next stage is likely to be an invasion of the guest floors. It follows that a well-barricaded room may be bypassed by a terrorist looking for easier bedrooms to break into. However, bullets go through wood and plaster walls very easily, so this will by no means offer complete protection. Lying on the floor or in the bath (if there is one) until it is clear that the attack is over is the safest idea.

Judging from the various news reports about the hotel attacks, there were some similarities between them that the business traveller might take good note of. If you regularly visit places that have been attacked, then I am sure you will take professional advice from a security company. Speaking for myself, I tend not to hang around in lobbies if I can avoid it, and I always plan an exit from wherever I am in a hotel – whether my own room, or a restaurant.

Steps to safety

I also try, where possible, to choose a room on a low floor. It’s quicker to escape down to the ground floor and there is always the option of jumping from the window. If trapped in a room, then the advice is to assess what movable furniture could be used for a barricade; fill the bath with water – useful in case of a fire or a siege if the water gets turned off; switch your phone to silent; and turn off any media you have playing, making sure to use your mobile to alert the outside world to where you are.

The UK government issues regular travel advice for countries that are in the spotlight, and the National Counter Terrorism Security Office also gives specific guidance on how to act in a terrorist attack. All of the agencies agree that to get away as quickly as possible and to work in groups where you can is the best approach. In any situation, my advice is to head for the quietest areas, such as storage rooms in the basement, or somewhere close to the rear service areas, such as the goods-receiving platform. That might be the best route to the outside.

I trust and hope we all keep travelling. Refusing to be intimidated is the best way to counter these acts of cowardice.