Skift Take

Danger and risk come in a multitude of ways around the world. Hilton’s turn to the intelligence community for a revamped safety protocol is a smart one.

One might say the guiding principle in keeping Hilton’s more than 6,600 hotels safe goes back to Robert Mueller — yes, that Robert Mueller, the former Federal Bureau of Investigation director.

John Giacalone is Hilton’s vice president of safety and security, crisis management, fraud, and investigations. His job entails everything from deploying response teams to assist hotels during hurricane season to preparing staff for potential threats that could arise from major events and terrorist attacks.

But it was the 25 years he spent at the FBI, many of which involved working under Mueller, prior to joining Hilton in 2016 that helped usher in a new approach to how the hotel company manages risks and helps franchisees out in the face of danger. 

“Everybody has a watershed moment in their lifetime,” Giacalone said in an interview with Skift. “Mine was 9/11.”

Twenty years later, and through the worst of a global pandemic, Giacalone’s leadership and emphasis on extensive preparation allows his colleagues in senior management to sleep a bit easier when hotels and travel destinations remain on hyper-alert around the clock.

Giacalone worked for the FBI in a number of roles during his more than two-decade tenure. He was the special agent in charge of the counterterrorism division of the New York field office and eventually led a team of 6,000 people while serving as the executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch in Washington, D.C. The aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and working under Mueller instilled a new approach to crises that now informs Giacalone’s work at Hilton. 

“The next 15 years of my career was spent sort of reorganizing the organization to be proactive versus reactive. So, when I came to Hilton, I wanted to make sure I brought a lot of those same skills,” Giacalone said. “I didn’t want to be responding and reacting to things over and over again. I wanted to do as much front-end preparation as we could to make sure that we were prepared to deal with whatever the event was, whether it was a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.”

Reacting to events is obviously a vital part of Hilton’s safety and security team, but prediction and prevention are also key. Forecasting means really knowing and understanding the risks that each property has, Giacalone said. 

Crime and terrorism risks play a part, but so does the understanding of environmental risks. That part of Giacalone’s job begins before shovels even break ground on a new Hilton-branded hotel. Part of understanding environmental risks includes informing developers of the ensuing costs that would go with keeping a project protected from flooding and other environmental issues.

“We present costs to the owners, and then we have to leave it up to the owner on whether or not they want to move forward with those types of investments,” he said. “But we try and look at as many things as we can to stay in front of the issues.”

Government Ties

Hilton’s array of safety measures requires having access to strong intelligence, which Giacalone has by maintaining high levels of security clearance with the U.S. government. He’s not the only one at Hilton with a government background. Members of the company’s Global Intelligence Team hail from the FBI as well as other U.S. agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency, Drug Enforcement Agency, and the National Security Agency.

Hilton also utilizes the Visual Command Center, a dynamic map detailing all of Hilton’s properties and the accompanying risks du jour: wildfires in the western part of the U.S., earthquakes, violent crime, and terrorism threats just to name a few. The command center launched in 2018 following lessons learned from the year prior’s hurricane season. It now acts as a one-stop portal for all sorts of safety information like evacuation zones and nearby law enforcement.

The Visual Command Center can also feel a little like a tool utilized by the production team at the Weather Channel. Team members track hurricanes as early as two weeks out as they form off the coast of Africa and barrel towards the U.S. and Caribbean. 

When Hilton’s safety and security team narrowed down on where Hurricane Ida would make landfall on the Gulf Coast this summer, the company deployed a response team a few hours inland in Mississippi to wait out the storm to make landfall and quickly get to work assisting properties in need.

The Visual Command Center also informs Hilton of any risk happening within a five-mile radius of one of the company’s branded properties, including health scares.

“We were getting information on an inordinate number of pneumonia cases in Wuhan several weeks before the Chinese actually admitted they had a problem,” Giacalone said of the city in China where coronavirus was first detected.

A New Day for Safety

Moving Hilton’s safety and security protocols beyond a reactive state into more of one of prediction and prevention involved ushering in a new era of trainings and procedures at the property level as well as corporate. While some natural disasters like earthquakes are impossible to predict months out, hotel owners can generally have an idea of when to expect things like wildfires and hurricanes. 

Hilton makes sure hotel owners and operators are prepared for a certain storm season a month ahead of time. Hurricane season, which typically runs from May through late October in the U.S., entails making sure owners stock properties with things like canned food, buckets, and enough storage space for outdoor furniture that can become a hazard during high winds. 

Owners can alert Hilton’s Visual Command Center of an ongoing crisis at their property through an app on their smartphone. Hilton then relays that information to its team to better prepare for what resources to provide that specific property. 

“It’s not just natural disaster incidents, but if you have a shooting, if you have a terrorist issue nearby — wherever it is — you can alert us during the crisis, and we can use this to actually help collect information,” Giacalone said. 

Major events and the crime and terrorism threats that can accompany them also keep the safety and security team busy. Hilton monitors everything from protests to music festivals like Lollapalooza in Chicago and Dragon Con in Atlanta. Dignitaries staying at a hotel also get extra attention. 

All staff members get extra training and preparation ahead of one of these major events. Local embassies get involved when a terrorism risk level is on the rise, and Giacalone will even go to a property himself to walk staffers through proper preventative steps during some of these heightened times.

“We’ve spent a lot of time with all of our properties on suspicious awareness, making sure that they can identify certain behaviors. We have an active attack plan that we put together,” he added. “We made it mandatory that properties train that plan twice a year.”

But it wasn’t just individual properties that needed a tweak. Giacalone noted Hilton’s safety and security team acted regionally with Americas and Asia Pacific divisions as well as one for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Connecting those teams and boosting their ability to collect and distribute intelligence across the entire Hilton network is crucial to maintaining safety at such a massive enterprise.

“Finding and building that support staff was really important, especially when you look at the model,” he added. “The model relies on information, and it relies on being able to use that information to determine your risk.”

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Tags: coronavirus, coronavirus recovery, event security, hilton, safety

Photo credit: Hilton's array of security features and teams give hotel owners a better understanding of when they are in an area of heightened risk, from terrorist attacks to hurricanes. Tdorante10 / Wikimedia

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