Hotel and Motel Management Just when you thought the life of a hotel manager could not get any more complicated, the peeping tom issue returns with a vengeance. And the whole country is watching.
We all sympathize with Erin Andrews, the ESPN broadcaster who was the victim of a peeping tom. The related question for our industry is, how did the perpetrator, one Michael David Barrett, get access, and how can similar circumstances be avoided? While the facts are not altogether clear, the answer appears to be that the front-desk clerk confirmed in a phone call that Andrews was staying at the hotel, and the clerk accommodated the caller's request for an adjacent room. The rest for Barrett was easy. Having secured proximity, he jerry-rigged a peephole in a door that separated the two rooms. Then, using nothing more sophisticated than his cell phone, he videotaped the unsuspecting reporter in what should have been the privacy of her room.
What is the law's take on this situation? A guest has privacy rights while at your inn. These include the right to exclusive occupancy of the room, subject to the innkeeper's right to enter for emergencies and otherwise as may be reasonably necessary, such as for cleaning or necessary repairs. Additionally, while the law is not universal as to the extent of a guest's right to privacy, the best practice is to treat the number of the room assigned to any patron as confidential. If a guest wants someone to know her whereabouts, anticipate that the guest will so inform those people. If a caller has to ask whether a particular person is staying at your facility, conclude that the caller is not on the guest's list of people who should know. Don't tell.
Suppose Barrett was clever and knew that a hotel would not likely answer the question whether Andrews was staying there. Instead he may have feigned knowledge that she was there and simply asked the clerk to connect the call. This modus operandi is hard to foil. Once the operator starts to ring the room, bingo-the caller knows the target is there. And the hotel is unaware it has inadvertently disclosed valuable information.
How to protect against this situation? Refusing to connect calls is not an option-that would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. From a legal standpoint, the hotel can protect itself from liability by developing procedures for answering calls that request whether a certain person is registered. Those procedures must clearly state that such callers should be refused information. All relevant hotel personnel should be trained and retrained concerning the policy. If this is done, the hotel is in a position to prove, in situations such as Andrews', that the critical call was not just a blanket request for information but rather one in which the caller appeared to already know that the target was a guest.
Another matter needing heightened management in the post-Erin Andrews matter are requests for nearby rooms. A policy may be necessary requiring both parties-the one seeking proximity and the one to whom proximity is sought-to express interest in such a room assignment. This creates an extra burden for the reservations department, yes. But once the procedures are designed and implemented, the added undertaking should be minimal.
Barrett's modification of the peephole also raises legal issues. The basic rule is that the hotel must exercise reasonable care to protect its guests from the intrusion of snooping eyes-and cameras. This duty applies to both eye-holes purposefully installed in hotel doors to enable the guest to see out, as well as the unintended variety added surreptitiously by would-be voyeurs. If telltale signs of either tampering or the presence of an unexpected eye-sized hole exist, the hotel is expected to find them and do what's necessary to fix it. Innkeepers are well advised to add this to the ever-growing list of items housekeeping should check while in the room cleaning. I anticipate on the market soon will be devices to limit meddling such as a flap to enable the guest to close the hole except when in use.
A related issue, not implicated in the Andrews situation, is access to keys. The guest alone should control who is given a key or otherwise provided entry to a room. If the guest authorizes the front desk to issue a key to someone (get it in writing), the hotel has the necessary consent and can give the key to the designated person with impunity. Short of such consent, anyone seeking access should be denied. This is true even though the person claims to be a spouse or other close relative. Keep in mind that the reason some guests come to a hotel is to escape an abusive spouse, avoid some other violent situation or divert a stalker.
These precautions should take the peep out of the peeping toms.