Hotel Online  Special Report

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 High Speed Internet Access in Hotels; 
A New Amenity Opens Up New Liabilities 

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By Diana S. Barber, Esq., March 2004

Wireless or wired high speed Internet access (“HSIA”) has become the new “must have” amenity for the business traveler in hotel public areas and guestrooms. Every segment of the hotel industry from Microtel to Four Seasons has recognized that business travelers want and expect access to Internet connections to handle work and personal matters while away from the home or office. Are your guests aware of the potential risks associated with using HSIA in their guestrooms or public areas?  Are you responsible for advising them of these dangers?  What do you do when customers complain about systems being down or not functioning properly?  How can you lessen your exposure when a hotel employee’s attempts to help a guest end up in disaster? These questions need to be thoroughly examined and answered prior to, or immediately after, installing a guestroom or public area wired or wireless Internet access system.

Currently, hospitality managers are not required by law to provide HSIA, whether wired or wireless, in hotel guestrooms or public areas.  Hospitality managers, however, must provide an environment that is safe and secure for the patrons and guests while on their hotel or motel property.  Once a hotel or motel provides a new service to its guests (such as providing HSIA) the law requires that they act prudently and use reasonable due care in providing and fulfilling the service.  Generally speaking, the standard of care required by hospitality operators requires that a manager apply the same diligence as any other reasonable hospitality manager in a similar situation.   Standards of care are constantly evolving, however, reasonable care generally requires the manager to correct potentially harmful situations that they know exist or that may be reasonably foreseen to exist.   For your guests’ protection and your protection as a manager or owner of a lodging property, your guests need to know about the inherent risks in using HSIA in their guestrooms and in the public areas where wired or wireless service may be available.

Once you begin providing HSIA services to your guests you are required to provide and perform the service in a safe and reasonable manner.  Here are a few suggestions that are aimed at protecting the legal liability of your hotel or motel:
 

1)  Make it clear to your guests that the hotel does not directly control the Internet provider company nor the system providing wired or wireless HSIA to the guestrooms or public areas.  Your literature or brochure describing this new amenity should expressly state that another company, independent from the property manager or owner, is providing the service and not the hotel or motel.  Of course, you need to find a very reliable source to provide the HSIA service to your guests; however, the guests need to be made aware that since you can’t control the service, there is no guarantee.
2)  It is critical that your Internet service provider or vendor goes through an extensive certification process whereby a complete security assessment is examined and security protocols are put in place prior to retaining them to install and provide the service.  Don’t use just any vendor to supply your Internet service.  Do your homework and make sure that appropriate security measures are in place such as adequate firewalls and other features that are becoming standard in the industry for the protection of your guests and your hotel.  You also want to make sure that the provider of the guestroom and public area HSIA system has security measures in place so that your own property management and hotel computer systems are not compromised in any way.
3)  The Internet provider should include an on-line tutorial during the initial connection to the Internet whereby the guest must read and agree to the terms and conditions of use.  The guest would be required to read through these paragraphs which will put the guest on notice of the inherent risks associated with using the Internet system provided. Providing notice of the risks is as simple as requiring them to electronically agree that they are aware of the significant security and privacy risks associated with accessing or transmitting information over the Internet, whether wired or wireless connections are used.  Also include a clear disclaimer whereby the property and the Internet service provider are both protected stating that they are not liable for any loss of data, file corruption, hacking or any damage to one’s computer while using the Internet service.  If the property allows the guest to print documents to a central printing resource in the hotel’s business center or at the front desk, the guest needs to know that security, as to the contents of the documents, is not guaranteed.  The agreement must require that the guest accept the terms of the arrangement before logging on to the Internet.  If an on-line disclaimer is not available, consider having your guests sign a written disclaimer prior to using the HSIA service.  This disclaimer should contain the same items as described above. Make sure you keep the signed waiver on file in the event there is a claim brought by the guest in the future.
4)  Your HSIA service needs to provide support for a VPN (Virtual Private Network) so that guests will be able to connect with their end-use home servers with confidence that security features are in place.
5)  Ritz-Carlton has developed a concept called "Technology Butler" whereby trained employees are available 24/7 to provide technological assistance to guests on various computer and Internet access needs.  Other hotels and motels have or will most likely follow this service trend since guests will have questions about wired and/or wireless services provided in the hotel or motel and how to access the Internet.  It is very important that a written procedure be created setting forth the rules for employees to follow when approached with a guest’s computer needs request.  Although not exhaustive of all procedures, such written procedures need to include, at a minimum:
  • Untrained employees should never attempt to help a guest with his or her computer needs. 
  • Those employees who are trained to assist guests with technological needs should never personally touch the computer keyboard without the consent of the guest.
  • The trained employee should keep the guest informed of every change to the computer settings or documents that will be made.  Constant communication with the guest is essential.
  • All employees assisting the guest with his/her computer needs must find out what the guest has already attempted to do up until the time that the trained employee begins to provide assistance.
  • If the employee does not know how to solve the problem, he/she needs to call for assistance.  No employee should attempt to do something on a guest’s computer that they wouldn’t do to their own computer. One simple error could be a very expensive one for your property.
  • When possible, remind guests that wireless systems are not secure.  Only non-critical email and basic Internet surfing should be accessed. 
  • Trained employees need to remind guests not to make any Internet purchases or do anything that could expose them to liability or potential identity theft, such as checking bank records or credit card statements, on wireless systems.  The guest needs to know that a nearby hacker, who the property cannot control, may intercept his or her password and steal personal information of the guest. 
  • Be prepared to answer questions about whether the Internet sites visited by guests will be recorded somewhere on the hotel’s computer system.
  • Keep a detailed written log of all guest computer service requests including the date and time of a request, the guest’s name, room number, specific request for assistance, action taken and the follow up with the guest.
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As more hotels and motels begin to provide, and continue to provide, HSIA systems for their guests, technology will advance and ultimately enable HSIA systems to be more secure.  Meanwhile, take these steps to place your property in a much better legal position in the event something goes wrong.


Diana S. Barber, Esq., former vice president/associate general counsel for The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company is the founder of LodgeLaw, A Division of Barber Law Associates, a law firm specializing in hospitality law.  She also teaches at Cecil B. Day Hospitality School at Georgia State University and is a member of Georgia Hospitality & Travel Association.  For more information, Ms. Barber can be reached at (770) 813-9363 or diana.barber@lodge-law.com.

 
 
Contact:
 Diana S. Barber, Esq. 
LodgeLaw, P.C. 
5925 Masters Club Drive 
Suwanee, GA  30024
(770) 813-9363 
diana.barber@lodge-law.com
www.lodge-law.com
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Also See: How to Safeguard Your Guests from Being the Next Identity Theft Victims / Diana S. Barber / February 2004
LodgeLaw, P.C., a Hospitality Specialty Law Firm, To Open in Northeast Atlanta; Firm President is former Ritz-Carlton Vice President and Associate General Counsel / June 2003


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