Politicians’ pleas for calm aside, it’s likely that the recent deadly terrorist attacks on restaurants and entertainment venues in Paris and on a Western hotel in the Republic of Mali will give pause to travelers and shoppers during the Thanksgiving holiday.
The most recent attack, the storming of the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali by Islamic militants that reportedly killed 22 people and came less than two weeks after the attacks in Paris, has put a chill on international travel. David Berg, CEO of the Minnetonka, Minnesota-based Carson Hospitality Group, which owns the hotel, put out a statement on Friday that the firm’s priority is to cooperate with local authorities and take care of guests and employees involved and their families.
Tensions continued over the weekend. In Brussels, Belgium’s capital, security levels are at the highest point ever and many public facilities, including shopping centers and movie theaters, remain closed, while Americans are being advised to stay indoors due to credible terrorist threats. The terrorist group ISIS specifically singled out Atlanta among other potential targets of planned violence, according to the hacker group Anonymous, which said it has been monitoring the terror group’s communications. In response, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed opened a Joint Operations Center for law enforcement coordination with security at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and public transportation and events.
“In this holiday season and at all times, I encourage our residents and visitors to enjoy our city and not let fear guide you. Public safety remains my number one priority, and I am confident in our law enforcement agencies’ ability to keep us safe,” Reed said in a statement on Sunday.
There have been no credible threats to hotels or malls in the U.S., according to FBI statements. However, owners and employees at these facilities have been training for these types of threats for a number of years already, according to security experts. Hospitality security experts say counter-surveillance, terrorist behavior analysis, higher visibility of security measures and stronger, more collaborative relationships with local community leaders and emergency response agencies have taken a higher place in the agendas of hotel security departments.
This week promises to again be one of the busiest of the year for malls and shopping centers. The National Retail Federation, which surveys and tracks consumer data for the retail industry, recently said an estimated 135.8 million people are expected to participate in the traditional Black Friday sales that now start almost as soon as the plates are cleared from the Thanksgiving dinner. The federation doesn’t break down which of those sales will involve people driving to a store and which will take place online, but it’s clear that retailers are now trying to entice shoppers to shop from home instead, with many top companies offering the same deals online as they do in their bricks-and-mortar stores.
For the shoppers who still plan their annual camp-outs at store entrances, there may be some trepidation due to the recent violence in public places. However, Joe Larocca, a vice president of loss prevention at Los Angeles-based RetaiLPartners, says every year store security professionals get better at handling the crush of crowds during Black Friday events, when stores stay open almost 24/7 and people pack parking lots.
“I think retailers and the shopping center industry have taken recent threats extremely seriously; the safety of consumers is their greatest priority and concern,” Larocca says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing more armed law enforcement personnel walking the malls during this holiday season. We never thought it was possible to see security with weapons walking near us while we shop, but we never expected it was possible to need it at the airport decades ago, either. I think you’ll see more of this, and even package inspection and metal detectors at shopping centers.”
Jesse Tron, a spokesman for the ICSC, says that security is now one of the main issues discussed daily by mall owners. “After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, it was evident that we live in a different world,” Tron says. “Since that time the retail industry has been escalating all kinds of different strategies to ensure security is a top priority, as they know how important it is for consumers.”
One of the primary tasks is for owners to not only work hand in hand with local government and law enforcement officials on communications and security training, but also for the management personnel at different centers to talk to each other as well, he says. During special shopping times, such those involving new product releases or Black Friday sales, mall owners beef up local uniformed and plainclothes officers, Tron notes. The local law enforcement agencies feed owners information and in return police are given complete access to building plans, walkthroughs and ability to stage mock events to learn the layout and security requirements of each center. Table-top exercises are held in conjunction with full evacuation drills so employees know what to do in case of a real incident.
ICSC has been known as the go-to security knowledge hub for the industry, after it created a terrorist-awareness training program with George Washington University in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The program is now based at the Stephenson National Center for Security Research and Training at Louisiana State University’s Fire and Emergency Training Institute, where each year the partnership hosts a security conference. The attendees, mostly made up of retail security teams, discuss terror events and how to react to them, Tron says.
“Most recently we have had education on ‘active shooter’ events to train retail employees and SWAT teams to get intimate knowledge of a large center or mall,” he says. “We’ve had about 30,000 people go through the institute since it opened and it’s available to everyone in the industry. While mall security [guards] may not be the ones that will neutralize the situation, they will be the first responders, so we want to make sure everyone is trained right.”