DES MOINES, Iowa (CBS NEWS) — Cheri Marchionda, a mother of three, was sexually assaulted in her hotel room while traveling for work in 2014. According to court documents, her assailant got a key to her room from hotel staff without any security checks.
Marchionda thought she did everything right to protect herself in that hotel, including using the safety bolt, but there were some things that came as a surprise to her in the wake of the attack – things that may be a surprise to many. While staying at an Embassy Suites in Des Moines, Iowa, Marchionda said she felt safe in large part because she believed in the brand, Hilton.
“You walk in and you see the name and you’re trusting within the name. And through this process, I learned that it’s not. There’s owners, operators, franchisees,” Marchionda told CBS News’ Dana Jacobson. “I think that’s something that has to be more recognizable.”
In fact, many of these big brand hotels are franchises, meaning the owners and managers operate independently. Peter Villari, Marchionda’s attorney, said that even though the Embassy Suites where she stayed was branded a Hilton, the management company John Q. Hammons and owner Atrium Hospitality were ultimately responsible for giving Christopher LaPointe access to Marchionda’s room, where he sexually assaulted and raped her in the middle of the night.
“The court ultimately ruled that as the guest room key control, Embassy Suites and Hilton did not have ultimate responsibility,” Villari said. “I think within the industry we learned that it’s quite common. I’ve had other cases like this … things get made by different people even though there’s labels on them, you could be wearing a jacket by a name brand and it’s made in China or anywhere in the world by some other company. So it works similarly in the hotel industry.”
Women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred has represented several hotel assault victims, including Kayla Snipe who was raped in her hotel room in 2015. Snipe’s attacker was given a key to her room without an ID check at an Embassy Suites in South Carolina. The case settled out of court.
“Even the hotels that have the best names in terms of the brand may present a risk of harm to you,” Allred said. “Every precaution should be taken by someone checking into a hotel that no one else is authorized to be in that room to be given a key.”
Attorney and professor of hospitality law Stephen Barth said travelers should be proactive about their safety. He recommends avoiding saying your name out loud at the front desk, requesting a different room if the desk agent says your room number aloud and ensuring nobody is looking at your ID when you hand it over during check-in.
“When you sign off on the guest check, if you’re billing it to the room … hand that receipt with your information back to the server so that you know it’s in the custody and control of the hotel and not some random person,” Barth said.
“Businesses need to recognize they’re asking people to go out and do things on their behalf and that they need to take an active role in teaching and training them about how to be safe and secure when they travel,” Barth said.
As for Cheri Marchionda, she’s found her own way to feel a little safer again while on the road.
“I have a lock that I found and I use that everywhere I go. In fact, I carry two … I always request no connecting doors but I always carry two, just in case I get that,” Marchionda said.
Portable door locks are easily available online, or even a simple rubber doorstop can help secure a hotel door. A few other things to keep in mind: When you’re in the elevator, don’t push your floor number first and someone gets out on your floor, let them go ahead of you. Also, request only one room key so you always know where it is.
Hilton was not involved in Marchionda’s lawsuit, but the company told us it maintains “rigorous safety standards for Hilton-managed properties” and expects the same of its franchised hotels.
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