Marriott

Marriott, Erin Andrews and the risks of franchising

By Tina Irgang

The illicit videotapes of TV sportscaster Erin Andrews and the resulting $55 million award have kept the Marriott International hotel chain in the news this week. Marriott quickly pointed out that it wasn’t part of the lawsuit, but does it still bear responsibility for security lapses at one of its franchises?

During a stay at the Nashville Marriott at Vanderbilt University, a stalker booked a room next to Andrews and rigged her room’s peephole with a camera, recording her while she was undressed and posting the resulting video online. The jury in the resulting trial decreed that the stalker, Michael David Barrett, would be responsible for 51 percent of the settlement, with the owners and operators of the hotel responsible for the rest.

The good news for Marriott International is that, while it was initially named in the lawsuit, it was dropped from the proceedings in January after a Tennessee judge found the company was not at fault for security at an independently owned and operated Marriott franchisee, as reported in The Washington Post.

Here’s the bad news for Marriott: In the public mind, it has continued to be implicated. There was an outcry on social media when a defense attorney in the case suggested Andrews’ career had received a boost as a result of the nude video. A national women’s advocacy group weighed in, saying Marriott was blaming the victim for the crime, according to CBS News.

Further outrage ensued when a Nashville restaurant employee tweeted that Neal Peskind, who had appeared as a witness in the case, was screening the Andrews video at his table and making inappropriate comments. Peskind issued a statement saying friends at the table had started watching the video, and that he had asked them to stop, according to Salon.

In a statement, Marriott clarified that Peskind is not an employee of Marriott, but rather of West End Hotel Partners, which owns the hotel in the case, and on whose behalf he had appeared in court.

But the damage to Marriott’s brand was already done. On Twitter, a search for “#marriott” yields results such as these:

  • “#Marriott exec scumbag Neal Peskind should be fired. @Marriott should be ashamed of their employee. He proved Erin Andrews case.”
  • “SHAME ON YOU #MARRIOTT saying that @ErinAndrews BENEFITTED from her stalker is like saying Rape is OK if it results in a baby.”
  • “In a HUGE blow for stalkers & those who support them, Jury awards #ErinAndrews $55 mil from #Marriott in lawsuit.”

Is Marriott responsible for franchisee hotel’s security?

Marriott issued an official statement on its website saying that there had been “much confusion in the media” about its involvement. The company goes on to say: “Marriott International is sympathetic to the ordeal that Erin Andrews went through because of Michael David Barrett’s criminal conduct. We continue to be sensitive to the serious nature of this matter and remain committed to the safety and comfort of our guests.”

However, comments on a Change.org petition to boycott Marriott hotels show that some are not convinced by Marriott’s stance. As one commenter puts it: “It doesn’t matter whether or not the hotel was owned by a franchisee or Marriott International — it carries the Marriott brand name. In the eyes of consumers, Marriott and all of the properties are the brand.”

So does Marriott hold some responsibility after all, and what lessons does the case hold for other franchisors?

“All the major hotel chains have procedures about how best to run hotels that fall under their umbrella. But not all owners and managers follow those protocols as closely as they should,” notes The Los Angeles Times. For example, hotel workers are not supposed to honor requests to stay next to another guest, as the hotel did in this case.

“This incident is appalling on so many levels and brings into focus the many systems of checks and balances that must be in place to ensure the future emotional and physical safety of all guests, all the time,” says Robert W. Weinhold Jr., CEO of Fallston Group, LLC, which helps companies respond to crises. “If I were counseling the ownership group, there would be an aggressive, and overly communicated, quality control strategy, coupled with a stakeholder relations strategy that focuses on restoring the reputational equity that was quickly withdrawn as a result of a criminal decision.”

So while Marriott denies being responsible for the breach of security protocols, it makes sense for the hotel chain — and others — to review their policies and implement additional staff training to prevent a recurrence, according to industry publication Travel Pulse.

Marriott doesn’t seem to see it that way. In an interview with The National Law Journal, Marriott’s general counsel, Edward Ryan, maintained that security procedures at individual hotels are not the company’s responsibility: “That’s at a local level, as opposed to a national level. If you’re operating a hotel, you’re probably really close to the situation and probably know the best way to handle it.” Ryan also implied that the company’s current approach to vetting franchisors is sufficient.

However, the franchisees in this case clearly fell short of common-sense expectations, argues a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter: “Whether it’s Spokane, D.C., Tampa, Chicago or Nashville, a consumer has a certain expectation when they see the name ‘Marriott.’ Of course it’s not possible for every franchise to always match the precise expectations of the national brand, but one of the basic expectations of a hotel is to make people feel safe when they are sleeping there.”

It’s clear that the lawsuit has inflicted significant damage on the public perception of the Marriott brand. The hotel chain’s current strategy seems unlikely to do much to mitigate it.

Tina Irgang is the production editor for SmartCEO. Contact her at tina@smartceo.com.