Accountability, Responsibility, and Hotel Ethics

William Cubbage IV, Expert Witness - Hotels & Hospitality
December 22, 2022

article image

The travel industry and, more specifically, the hospitality/hotel industry is growing and shows no sign of slowing down.  As of 2019, the hotel trade had a total revenue of $206 billion, outperforming the wider economy for the last 5 years in the US.  The hotel business is consistently building year over year with 669,460 additional rooms added to the market in 2018 alone.  The Pandemic in 2020 caused several issues with many different industries; however, the travel industry took one of the first and hardest hits due to the restrictions in travel.  As the world is recovering from the effects of the 2020 Pandemic, the hotel industry is starting to revitalize itself as well.  As the industry is coming back to life it is a perfect time to review the accountabilities, responsibilities, and general ethics that hotels should implement and follow to ensure successful hotel operations and guest relations.

Traveling and staying at a hotel is a very common occurrence with Americans, as most Americans stay at a hotel at least one time a year.  If you have stayed at hotels frequently or infrequently, the base expectations are usually the same from stay to stay and hotel to hotel.  The minimum guests expect a hotel to offer is a clean room, with a bed, bathroom, and temperature control.  Most guests in the common era expect far more as hotels vie for guests favor and business-like TV, internet, updated room and common area features, laundry facilities, pool, fitness center, restaurant, and many other amenities.  These physical attributes of hotels vary greatly depending on the level of service or “tier” of the hotel.

Each hotel chain (Marriott, Hilton, IHG, etc.) operates in a tier system for their properties and each offers their unique services geared to specific cliental.  Each hotel chain has different nomenclature for its specific tiers, but they can generally be broken down into 5 separate tiers.  These tiers, starting with the highest level of service, are: Resort, Luxury Service, Full Service, Focused Service, and Partial or Select Service properties.

Resort hotels cater to guests in resort or vacation destinations, and these hotels typically have a 24/7 dedicated staff to meet all guests needs at any moment in time and typically offer more features in their property such as beach front, attached to theme parks, etc.  Luxury Service properties cater specifically to upper class and professional business cliental.  These properties typically also have a 24/7 staff available for anything the guest desires during their stay and offer amenities not found at full-service properties like black car services, spas, and upscale accommodations.  These properties are typically located in your large urban markets.  Full-Service properties generally have a pool, fitness center, business center, full-service restaurant, and bell/concierge services.  Staff is typically available only during peak hours in these properties, and they only meet basic requests of the guest.  There may be a concierge but only available during certain hours.  These properties are common in midsize to large market areas as they can cater to many different types of guests from transients to business.  Focused Service properties are usually smaller than a Full-Service property and have all the attributes of a Full-Service property just in a scaled down version.  Focused Service properties are well suited in midsize to small size markets as they can act as a step up from a Partial or Select Service property for those guests looking for something more.  Typically, there is not concierge service or staff available during off peak hours.   Partial or Select Service is the smallest of the tiers and usually only offers a room and very little amenities.  They may have a complimentary breakfast included with the rate; however, it is typically very limited.  These are the least staffed properties with usually one or two employees on property at a time, catering to mostly transient guests.   These tiers can then be broken down further to Casino, Budget or Value, Boutique, and many more types; however, the overarching accountability, responsibility and hotel ethics that bind all the tiers together are the same.

Every guest expects different physical attributes or amenities at the property that they choose to stay, however, most take for granted that the property they are staying at has their best interests at heart with regards to being safe, secure, and ethical.  These three features are paramount for successful hotel operations and guest relations.  Each hotel may operate slightly different than another, with different hierarchy and management structures, and they may be located closer or further apart geographically, but every hotel employee from the General Manager to the hourly staff member should have guest’s safety, security, and general well-being at the forefront of every decision that is made.   From the moment of check in until that guest departs and even after departure, the guest should have a confident feeling of safety and security provided by any hotel.

When a guest arrives at a property, the front desk agent is expected to welcome them to the property and explain the amenities of the property, as well as confirm the details of their reservation and complete the check in process.  However, this is only the surface level of the front desk agent’s job responsibilities to the guest with regards to their safety and security.  The first level of security for the guest that the front desk agent has, is to verify the credentials, typically a government issued photo ID, presented by the guest to ensure the person they have in front of them is the guest on the reservation.  If the name does not match, then the front desk agent should not proceed with the check in process.  The front desk agent should always err on the side of caution when checking in a guest.  If the person in front of the agent is not the person the reservation is for, they should inform the person in front of them that the person the room is registered to has to be present to check in, or that person should contact the registered guest so the agent can speak with them directly.  If the person attempting to check in agrees to call the registered guest, the front desk agent should require that they are the ones speaking to the registered guest and not allow for the person attempting to check in to act as an intermediator or messenger.  This is important as the agent then can confirm details such as confirmation number, address, number of nights, etc. until the agent is satisfied that they are speaking with the registered guest and that they are allowing the person in front of the agent to check in to their reservation.  This is also helpful in a scenario where the registered guest may be in distress and that person may be able to pass along information necessary to provide the distressed person with assistance to the desk agent.

Human trafficking is an unfortunate, however, a very real issue with the hotel industry.  In the state of Iowa, all hotel employees are required to complete a human trafficking course mandated by the state for the hotels to receive any state of Iowa business or affiliated business.  These trainings allow all members of the hotel to spot or recognize the potential signs of human trafficking and as hoteliers are mandatory reporters of any behavior that may indicate someone is being trafficked.  Human Trafficking training is required by most brands of hotels; however, it is not legally required in most states.  It is a best practice to train, if not all the hotel staff, at least the guest facing team members (front desk, bell staff, restaurant staff, housekeepers) to recognize the signs of human trafficking.

It is also imperative that, when asked if a guest can get a room next to, or close to, another guest, both parties have been consulted and approve.  The reason for this comes from an incident involving sportscaster Erin Andrews and a Marriott hotel she stayed at every weekend for her job.  She was being stalked by a man and he followed her to where she was staying.  He checked in and asked the front desk to be next door to Miss Andrews.  They obliged and did not tell him her room number but informed him she was right next door.  He removed and flipped the peep hole in her guest room door and installed a camera when she was away, and then he filmed her in her room.

Once a guest is checked in, the front desk and the rest of the hotel's duty to the guest’s safety, security, and well-being is far from over.  Front Desk Agents typically deal with all the guests coming in and out of the hotel as well as answer any incoming phone calls.  Larger properties have a division dedicated to the phones; however, they are still apart of the same operations team.  Before, during, and after a guest’s stay, no information regarding that guest should be divulged to anyone other than the guest and any party authorized by the guest.  If a guest calls prior to or after their arrival and wants to adjust or ask questions regarding their stay, they should have available the confirmation number that was sent to them at the time of booking and provide it to the agent answering the phone.  This ensures there is not a domestic or other issue going on that someone is actively searching hotels in the area for this guest.  Typically, in these instances, the person calling would ask questions such as: “Do you have (guest name) staying with you; do you have any reservations for (guest name); or hey, could you tell me if my friend (guest name) is staying at your property?” These are common ways people try to garner information from desk agents, so being very vigilant is highly important to a guest’s safety and security.  If the person calling does not have the confirmation number or cannot confirm enough details about the reservation to satisfy the agent that they are speaking to the guest, the agent should reply that they do not have records for such a person and would need the confirmation number to be able to assist them further with looking up the reservation they are referencing.

If the guest has checked in and someone approaches the desk or calls asking for the guest’s room number or if the guest is staying at the property, the agent should inform the inquiring person that they cannot give out room numbers or divulge names of guests. This violates the safety and security of the guest and the inquiring person would have to contact the guest directly for that information.  An agent can always call up to the room and ask the guest if the person inquiring about them is someone the agent has permission to transfer via phone or give their room number to if they are at the desk.  The only instance when the agent should ever transfer any phone calls to the guest’s room without checking with the guest is if the person on the phone confirms the guests name and room number.  Without both of those pieces of information, the agent should never transfer a call to the guest without directly asking the guest first.

Scammers have started to get creative with how they try to pry information from the desk agent or the guest, so phone security is very important not only for the desk agents but for other departments in the hotel such as Sales, Events, and even the restaurant.  If a person calls from out of the hotel and asks to be transferred to the restaurant, and the person calling tells the unsuspecting restaurant employee that they are with IT and are seeing an issue with the restaurant point of sale system, the restaurant employee should take the same action a front desk agent would when answering the phone to ensure not to give out any guest information.  In this scenario the scammer may say they “need verification of the last few check numbers, room numbers, and guest names inputted; this will help verify the system is communicating and working properly.”  If the restaurant employee falls for this deception, the scammer has guest room numbers and names, at which point the scammer can call the front desk again and ask to be transferred to the room numbers with the names they got from the restaurant employee.  Once the guest answers the call, there is no telling what the scammer could potentially ask them by impersonating a hotel employee.

Restaurant employees also play a large role in ensuring guest safety and security in their day-to-day operations as any check from the restaurant can be charged directly to the guest’s bill.  To allow this charge to take place the employee must ensure that they are getting a written receipt with the guest writing down their room number and last name.  Restaurant employees and staff in general should not ask for a guest's last name and room number loudly or say this information out loud.  If the name or room number does not match, the charge should not be posted to the room bill.  After the guest has settled their bill and departed the restaurant, the staff should keep receipts in a secure location because someone could easily get a guest's last name or room number from a receipt left out. 

Housekeeping and Engineering play a vital role in not only making sure a stay is free of any issues and the room is up to cleanliness standards, but they play a large role in the safety and security of the guests as they are typically the two departments that spend most of their time in the guest rooms.  Housekeepers are on the floors all day and may encounter a scenario where a guest asks them to use their key to open their door as the guest may have misplaced their key or left it in the room.  The housekeepers cannot open any guest room doors for a guest as they have no way to verify if that guest really booked and belongs in that room; even with a key packet and the room number written on it, the housekeepers should be instructed to inform the guest they will have to go down to the desk and present a photo ID to be given new keys to their room.  As inconvenient as it may be for the guest no one should allow any guest into any room without verifying that it is their room.  If a guest loses a keycard the desk agent should ask to see a photo ID and make a new key, not a duplicate key, for the guest.  This new key, once used on the door lock, would override the previously made keys and render them useless in case someone was to find them and try doors until they gained entry.  During the check in process, the front desk should write down and never speak the guest’s room number as the guest has potentially confirmed their name aloud at the time of check in

Housekeepers are to ensure each room is clean, has no defects, and most importantly has no life safety issues when they clean the rooms daily, and report any issue to management or the engineering team.  Defects in a room could be as simple as the coffee maker is not working, a light is out, or the TV will not turn on.  Life safety issues are severe issues that prevent the hotel from renting the room such as the guest room door wont latch or lock, there is glass broken in the room, or even exposed wires that present an electrocution hazard.  Anything that could put the guest’s health, safety, and security at risk is a non-negotiable issue.  That means the room does not get rented until that life safety issue is fixed completely, no “Band-Aids” or patches, but fixed so that the issue is no longer present; there are no exceptions.  There are things that can be negotiated with a guest in unusual times such as being sold out, where the hotel can offer a guest a discount due to the internet, TV, or HVAC not working in their room.  These are minor inconveniences that a guest willing to deal with could potentially make do without for a night or so.  Life safety issues are non-negotiable and, therefore, a hotel should not and would never try to compromise on such an issue with a guest.

Full-Service, Focused Service, and Select or Partial Service properties typically do not have much in the way of a management structure on the weekends or after business hours on the weekdays.  Typically, one or two desk agents and the restaurant employees, if the property has a restaurant, are the only ones left in the building during these times.  When the management structure is off property, it is recommended that one or both of the following happens with the property: 1) There is either a senior front desk agent (supervisor, lead) or MOD (Manager on Duty) present to deal with any issue or concerns that may arise during 2nd shift, typically 3pm-11pm or, if this is not feasible for a property due to staffing or budgetary issues, 2) A manager is “on-call” 24/7 for any issues that may arise.  This can be controversial as most people do not prefer to be bothered about work when they are at home.  Hotel business is people business and people can sometimes be unpredictable, therefore, it is imperative that hourly staff members have a lifeline of sorts to call for help in a situation they feel is overwhelming. 

Every Full, Focused, and Select or Partial Service hotel is open 24 hours per day, therefore, there is usually one or two people, based on the property size, that work the overnight or Night Audit shift (11pm-7am).  This shift is the most challenging as the staff members are very much alone and isolated from the rest of the staff.  To help mitigate any issues and ensure guest safety and security, the Night Auditor should be equipped with the ability to restrict access to the building by way of locking doors and only allowing guests with room keys access to the building.  If a guest is not checked in or is looking to book during this time, an intercom system at the front door is typical for the Night Auditor to safely communicate with a potential guest.  A panic button or silent alarm should also be available to the Night Auditor in case they are being threatened or worse.  A Night Auditor should always be at the front desk with a cordless phone available to them if they need to step away from the desk at any point to assist a guest.  This is for the Night Auditor's safety to call for help if need be or answer the phone for a guest in need.  A Night Auditor should also make it a priority at the beginning of their shift to perform a “property walk” to ensure all doors are shut and locked, there are no issues happening on the floors, and to shut any guest room doors left open.  The Night Auditor should also have the same benefits afforded to the previous shift of a manger on call to reach out to in any instances they cannot handle or if they require assistance.

The last and arguably biggest factor to the success of a hotel for guest’s security, safety, well-being, and overall hotel ethics lies solely on the shoulders of the management team.  It is the duty of the management team to teach these values to their staff, to empower the staff to make good, and ethical in decisions.  Management does this by being ethical and making good decisions themselves in front of staff and behind closed doors.  Setting up their staff for success with all the tools and knowledge they will need to traverse their day-to-day is key to excellent hotel operations and guest relations.  Creating standard operating procedures, following them, training the staff, and holding them accountable to those standards and procedures are all imperative to successful hotel operations and ethics.  Having a lifeline for the staff to reach out to in an uncertain situation or crisis is also paramount to guest safety, security, and well-being.  This may be a burden to bear for some management staff, so rotating the manger on call is imperative, but the trust the staff will have in management will go a long way to ensuring the property has outstanding accountability, responsibility, and hotel ethics for years to come.

“Take care of associates and they'll take care of your customers.” 

                                                                                — JW Marriott


Article by William Cubbage IV, Expert Witness - Hotels & Hospitality


Photo by Quark Studio from Pexels.

user image
Will Cubbage
Expert Witness
Hotels and Hospitality
View Listing