Feature

The Knights Inn Corpus Christi at Navigation Boulevard in Corpus Christi, Texas, has a lobby display in remembrance of Tejano singing star Selena Quintanilla, who was murdered at the property in 1995.

A Path of Crime

Hope for the best, plan for the worse, and have a crisis response plan in place, say experts

When Nancy Patel and her partners acquired a hotel in Corpus Christi, Texas, in summer 2014, they did not know it had an unofficial branding.

The Knights Inn just off Interstate 35 is known as “the Selena hotel.” It is where 23-year-old Tejano singing star Selena Quintanilla was murdered in 1995.

Convicted in the shooting death is Yolanda Saldivar, president of Selena’s official fan club. Saldivar was staying at the hotel when Selena paid her a visit and Saldivar shot her in the back as she fled the room.

Over the past 25 years, the property has been part of the pilgrimage of Selena fans and those curious about the singer’s life and death.

When a hotel becomes a crime scene, there is little an owner or manager can do to ward off publicity.

But a hotel can recover from a crisis and save its image if it has a plan in place to deal with the aftermath of a high-profile incident.

Hotel crime has escalated around the world, and the U.S. is no exception.

Some U.S. hotels have been indelibly marked by crime. No matter if the hotel redesigns or even closes, the site is known forever for the high-profile incident.

In a few cases, owners have embraced the notoriety and actually made it work for their business.

The Knights Inn in Corpus Christi has a courtyard and a path that leads to the lobby, where Selena ran to ask for help and collapsed on the floor. Although, she was pronounced dead at a hospital, the hotel is the de facto shrine to Selena’s last moments.

At the time of crime the hotel was a Days Inn, but Nancy rebranded the property and oversaw its $1 million renovation, transforming the hotel from its dated design.

Still, people visit the hotel almost daily to ask about Selena.

Nancy decided the best way to deal with the property’s history is to honor Selena, her music and her life. She erected a monument of sorts in the lobby. It features photos, a brief history and books about the singer.

Of a particular challenge is the room were Saldivar stayed. The property is an exterior-corridor motel so the room is easily accessible. Nancy said sometimes a guest checking in will request the room, but most times the booking is business as usual.

This photo of the door of room where Yolanda Saldivar stayed on the day she shot and killed Selena Quintanilla was taken by a grieving fan and posted on the internet. (Photo: Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48391089)

Though Nancy and her business partners were initially unaware of the property’s historic significance, they learned about it quickly and decided how to manage its unique reputation.

“The challenges are still there because it’s a private property,” Patel said.

Scandal Room

Patel is not the only owner operator to embrace the role her hotel has had in an historic crime. The Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., has transformed the room where G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt hunkered down and guided the 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters next door.

Today, room 214 is marketed as the Scandal Room. It features framed newspaper clippings from the Watergate era as well as 1970s décor and furniture, such as the desk and a vintage manual typewriter. Rates start at $800 a night.

The entire hotel embraces its notoriety. Keycards read “No need to break in” and pencils say “I stole this from the Watergate Hotel,” reports Travel and Leisure.

Watergate Hotel management declined an interview.

The Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., markets room 214 as the Scandal Room, where décor includes framed newspaper articles about the Watergate scandal and retro 1970s furniture. (Photo: Watergate Hotel)

While public attention spotlights accommodations such as the Corpus Christi Knights Inn and the Watergate Hotel, other property owners shudder to think what the public attention would do to their businesses if caught up in a crisis.

But few owners or managers actually have a plan to manage an unexpected crisis, especially one that forever brands the building in the annals of history.

It calls to mind the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, 2017, when a guest in a suite on the 32nd floor at MGM’s Mandalay Bay hotel aimed from the window and killed 58 people across the street at an outdoor concert.

MGM Resorts International has been dealing with the overwhelming flak from the horrific incident, including litigation and confusing reports from authorities and others quoted in news coverage.

Last year, MGM changed the numbers of Mandalay Bay floors 31 through 34 to floors 56 through 59. It installed technology in its elevators that now operate only when prompted by guest keycards. The keycard reader will take guests only to the floors where they have a room. The feature would do nothing to stop a gun-toting guest to get his or her room, but it does improve a sense of safety. MGM did not respond to a request for an interview.

Think of Employees

One group of people often forgotten about in crisis planning are hotel employees.

Last year, MGM distributed a memo to employees in which CEO James Murren apologized for not alerting them to the fact that the company had filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to have 2,500 plus claims related to the shooting addressed as one case in one courtroom.

Imesh Vaidya, CEO of Premier Hospitality in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been forced to deal with the aftermath of crime in his hotels. His business was able to recover, however, because he had a response plan in place.

Besides making moves to let customers and the community know the hotel is safe, employees should also feel confident and secure, Vaidya said.

“The obvious answer there is training, training and training and then more training. The staff has to feel empowered that they are able to do what is in the best interest of their safety as well as the guest.”

Plan for the Worse

It’s smart business to think of a probable high-profile crisis in terms of not if but when, say experts.

Jeff Moore is CEO of Muir Analytics and a threat analyst and terrorism expert. In a December 2018 blog on HospitalityLawyers.com, Moore writes that in today’s geo-political climate every hotel should expect some kind of criminal event.

From 2010 through 2016, criminals accounted for more than half of the hotel violence in the United States. Perpetrators ranged from abusive family members, criminals, terrorists, political activists and people with mental problems.

Because of the increase in hotel crime and the publicity that follows, hotel owners have a weak argument when they claim there was no way they could foresee trouble ahead and, therefore, should not be held liable for injury or death.

“Threats against hotels have grown and proliferated, and totality of circumstances is a real phenomenon,” Moore writes.

Research by Deloitte in 2018 shows 80 percent of crisis management teams in the U.S. were mobilized in all types of businesses over the past two years.

HR Management reported 85 percent of workplace violence is caused by those with a criminal intent, such as robbery, trespassing and terrorism. Three percent of workplace homicide is perpetrated by a customer, with employees in public-facing jobs as the most vulnerable.

Deloitte researchers discovered brands with crisis-management plans in place fared better in terms of employee and customer safety and business recovery than those without. A well-executed response plan is as important as an insurance policy.

Business Survey

PR News and Crisp recently surveyed more than 400 corporate public relations professionals to gauge how many businesses have crisis preparation plans. For those that have plans, they’re mostly geared toward mitigating negative financial impact.

Top concerns from C-suites execs were brand reputation, how the event impacted stakeholders and whether it changed public opinion about their company or product.

Sixty percent of those surveyed said their companies have a crisis-communication plan in place.

More than a third said the plan is continuously updated.

Source: “PR Crisis Preparedness Survey: Responding to Crises in the Digital Age,” by PR News and Crisp

A major concern of survey analysts is nearly 50 percent of communicators say they’d be notified of a significant after-hours issue the next day. Emma Monks, Crisp’s vice president of crisis intelligence, said that’s not wise. She notes, “If you’re reacting to a crisis the next day, you’re already behind.”

Daly Gray Inc. is a hospitality PR firm that specializes in crisis management. Chris Daly, president of the company, discussed the role his firm plays in the wake of a crime and how hotels can best prepare for the unknown.

Over the past 20 years, Daly has dealt with countless hotel scandals, crimes and troubles including fires, murders, suicides, sexual assaults and credit card or identity theft. He likes to think he’s seen it all, but knows there is always some new catastrophe waiting to happen.

“All crises invariably are going to sneak up and surprise you, that’s why they become crisis. Ideally, before anything has happened and probably before you even open your doors, a plan is in place,” Daly said.

Chris Daly, president of public relations firm Daly Gray Inc., has handled the aftermath of many crises at hotels.

The plan should name a spokesperson, the one who will represent the company when speaking to the public. The spokesperson should have a statement crafted before speaking publicly. The statement should state what has occurred and steps the business is taking in response.

Source: “PR Crisis Preparedness Survey: Responding to Crises in the Digital Age,” by PR News and Crisp

Social media and the rapid sharing and evolvement of the news can work for your business if you have quick-response plan. It’s best to decide on the message and modify the wording when dealing with certain groups and on different platforms. However, the core message should never change.

It’s hard to measure the loss a business might suffer because of a high-profile crime and the publicity surrounding it. The more comprehensive the crisis response plan, the quicker the hotel can get back to business.

 

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