Stranger things: what happens when a celebrity dies in your hotel?
While hotel staff are not privy to what goes on behind their guest’s closed doors, there are rare occasions when, unfortunately, such workers are first on the scene of an accidental death or, even, act of foul play.
In recent years, the death of pop singing icon, Whitney Houston at The Beverley Hilton hotel in Beverley Hills, California, stunned the world, including the hotel staffers who had waited on her or were aware of her stay on property. Most recently, this past May, Soundgarden singer and frontman, Chris Cornell reportedly committed suicide by hanging himself at the MGM Grand hotel and casino in Detroit, Michigan, which again, left aftershocks among friends, family, fans and hotel workers on site.
Tragic events such as these beg the question: How do hotels prepare staff for such high-profile, sensitive incidents and help them to resume a state of normalcy in the workplace after such an event?
“Your objective as management in such situations is to protect the guest room in terms of treating it as though it was a crime scene,” says Suzanne Bagnera, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration.
Previously in my career, as a hotel general manager, “We had a three-door knock policy before entering a guest room. Once, we found a person who didn’t look alive, and we walked out in the same footprints and used the house phone to get support, as opposed to using the phone in that guest’s room,” says Dr. Bagnera.
Confidentiality issues abound as well, especially when hotel guests are celebrities.
“The culture of hotels is guest privacy, regardless of who they are. If it is a new employee, there may be a reminder (from management), but the employees I know understand the importance of guest privacy,” says Michael Oshins, Ed.D., MPS, associate professor of the practice for Boston University School of Hospitality Administration.
“There is probably an agreement most of the time during training, that states when media comes around, employees are not to talk to them. There is usually one person who is identified, whose job it is to speak to media,” says Dr. Bagnera.
“Once, we had an attempted suicide at a hotel I worked at and couldn’t get in to the guest’s room as the person was trapped behind the door. The Human Resources manager at the time gave me a family pass to go to Six Flags Great Adventure and presented it to me at an employee lunch, saying I handled the crisis well,” says Dr. Bagnera.
When such a tragedy strikes, employee morale may suffer depending on the circumstances.
“A human resource department may bring in a professional for grieving counseling, but a death would be much more traumatic if it was a teammate,” says Oshins.
There are also occasions when illegal drug use may be suspected of a guest. Before taking action, “I worked with my staff to look at what types of items were found in the trash that could be cause for concern and give us reason to examine the room more closely. Management would then take a closer look, and call a police liaison who may go undercover in the room next door or across the hall to watch traffic flow,” says Dr. Bagnera.
While most hotels have a Do Not Disturb policy that guests can take advantage of (typically through hotel room door signage, which bars housekeeping from entering to perform their services), there are internal standard operating procedures regarding extended use of the Do Not Disturb policy.
“Staffers will likely call the guest to ensure that the guest is fine, and let him or her know that it’s time to schedule cleaning or replenish supplies. You don’t want it to go multiple days without making contact,” says Dr. Bagnera.