Do Hotels Have A Duty To Communicate Tragedies?

I get a lot of interesting questions on the “Ask Lucky” page of the blog. Many of them I don’t have an answer to, unfortunately, and I’m fine saying “sorry, I don’t know.” Once in a while I get a question where I’m just truly stumped, though.

A reader just asked me the following question, which falls in that category:

Lucky, my wife and I are three months into a year-long trip around the world. We’ve mixed up our stays between hotels and homestays via AirBnB. As someone that is also living on the road, I want your opinion on a recent tragic event witnessed at a hotel in Vietnam.

A small child drowned in a hotel pool. We watched as a guest and a hotel staff member attempted to resuscitate the child. An ambulance arrived after several minutes and took the child for further care at a local hospital. Needless to say, my wife and I were completely shocked and traumatized. The imagery from this event not only clouded the rest of our stay, but will remain with us for a long time.

Have you experienced something like this? What are reasonable expectations from the hotel (a big brand)? There was no communication to guests. In the vacuum of official information, guests began to gossip.

I by no means wish to capitalize on this tragic event. However, I’m left with a feeling that the hotel not only didn’t provide sufficient oversight of the pool area, but didn’t respectfully communicate to guests.

First of all, what a horrible, horrible situation. Fortunately I’ve never witnessed anything like that before.

This really isn’t my area of expertise, so I’m curious to hear what you guys think about the above situation.

As far as the “lack of oversight” part goes, I’m not familiar enough with the situation to chime in (was the child supervised, was the hotel supposed to have a lifeguard, etc.?).

It’s the second part I’m most curious about, though, and where I can go either way. In the event of a tragedy, should a hotel be communicating to guests what happened? If so, through what means? Does this vary based on whether the tragedy happened in a public area where others saw it, or in private? I have to imagine that each hotel brand has guidelines as to how to respond in these situations, no?

What a horrible situation…

Filed Under: Advice
  1. Unless the incident directly impacts other guests, I think it proper for the hotel management not to issue any formal communication. This not only best protects the privacy of those involved, but limits the negative impact on others who are entitled to enjoy their stay and may not know or hear about the situation.

  2. @Stuart Falk: +1

    Similar situations arise on cruise ships. Unless the guests are directly impacted (delay/reroute etc), there’s no reason to communicate.

  3. In years when we received consulting and training for management of our dental practice, one of the quotes I remember best was not to “overlook the elephant in the room”. No, they don’t owe the guests anything, but if it were my business, I would address it head-on, discussing what happened, obviously trying to disassociate the hotel from guilt, but acknowledging how distressing it was and perhaps offering referrals to mental health professionals for anyone who felt they could not cope. If they also offered to cancel any remaining days without penalty, I would be impressed. I would not expect anything more than that. But I would most certainly be impressed if they chose to go that route.

  4. Unfortunately in the US at least I’m sure the lawyers tell the hotels not to say anything for fear of accidentally saying something that implies liability.

  5. This situation may be a little bit tricky, because the hotel may not know who witnessed the event and who did not. But I certainly think that communication is an important part of service recovery. Not to equate the situations in any way – this one is far more tragic – but last year I was staying at a chain hotel in Idaho. At 5 a.m. in the middle of winter, there was a fire alarm that forced all of the guests out into the cold. The hotel didn’t handle it well from the outset; no one ever came around to tell us it was OK to go back inside. But the thing that really bothered me was that the next morning when I checked out, no one at the desk said a word. Obviously the alarm had affected every single guest who was staying there that night, so I was amazed that it was not even acknowledged. As another poster mentioned, it’s never OK to ignore the elephant in the room.

  6. Why even ask you?? They will be traumatized for a long time to come? OMG who cares… A couple will wake up tomorrow with a horrific painful void where there used to be a bundle of joy. Guess what… It will never ever leave them. And he’s essentially complaining of a vacuum of information in his life!!
    Listen dude….. as a parent who naturally worries every day but is thankful my child is healthy… Get over yourself and be exceptionally thankful you are not a direct family member of the poor victim of a tragic accident. I don’t care if this sounds harsh. Selfish people really get to me.

  7. Hey Andy,

    Shut it.

    There’s nothing selfish about being honest about the impact of a tragedy no matter how distant one is from that tragedy and pondering the correct response a hotel should have.

    It only becomes selfish if a person is burdening someone closer to the tragedy with their grief and questions. That’s not happening here. Though you are attacking a stranger who just watched a child die. That’s pretty $h!tty.

    If you stil don’t understand the difference here’s a whole article about burdening people with grief that I actually posted a few months back when people were harassing Ben over his feelings on MH17.

  8. I flew transatlantic on a major European airline, About one hour after the lights were dimmed the emergency klaxon sounded. This is a sound designed to wake the dead. Cabin crew ran to their stations with terror all over their faces. Confusion reigned for several minutes and then all was forgotten. There was no explanation. After deplaning in Zurich I inquired and was told a cabin crew member hit the wrong switch while operating the cabin lights in F.
    While I went back to sleep, some passengers were terrified. perhaps an explanation should have been made.

  9. @Stewart Falk

    Cruise ship lines consistently come under enormous scrutiny for not publishing honest, meaningful safety statistics. To me, this would be an area where they could improve both the information outflow as well as making the lines look more transparent.

    @Steven S

    There’s a common saying in the PR world, which is “Go ugly early.” While this usually means getting in front of a problem by announcing it before others find out, in this case, others saw the tragedy, and it really would be in the hotel’s best interest to put out some honest information without, of course, taking responsibility, nor trying to place blame either.

    @ Andy

    Sorry that you have to worry about your child(ren?) every day – clearly that’s stressful for you. Also, this post wasn’t about you being a parent, or parenting, or drowning, really, it was about whether or not hotels should acknowledge when something terrible happens in full view of some guests, vs. letting the rumor mill take over. Like, say, a note left under the doors of the guests explaining in one to three sentences what happened. Also, wanting a hotel to communicate with guests isn’t selfish. It’s wanting a hotel to communicate with guests.

  10. Wow, a family has lost their child and all this person has on their mind is how do they make some money off of this. How many Starwood points do you think that family world give to have their child back? Talk about people giving Americans a bad name.

  11. @Beefeater

    Thank you for the link to the LA Times piece – wholly relevant here, and wholly relevant for life. Thanks for the contribution.

  12. I work in the non-profit hospitality area with a focus on pediatric cancer. Unfortunately, I see tragedies all too often either in the room or in a public space.

    We do not communicate such information on what happened on-premise due to privacy of the family. Pretty sure this is probably true in this situation too. Unless, if there is danger to the kids and families staying there, I agree on this stance. Most family members will request that they communicate things (such as a child’s death) through their own means (or not at all).

    While there will be indeed gossip (it’s only natural), we do have psychologists + support staff who routinely integrate themselves with the guest population to alleviate any concerns they have.

  13. If this was my family, I would not want the hotel trivializing my loss by telling every hotel guest about it. And then possibly offering compensation to other guests…..If there was a crime, I can understand authorities asking guests, questions, etc.
    Most companies of all types, just don’t publicize events. I think that is good policy. If there is a serious lapse of control of an area around a pool, then the media will get the word out. Shamefully, that’s how it usually happens. We hear, read or observe these events in the media, after the fact. But, if I saw a situation, that warranted attention, no matter where I was in this world, I WOULD BRING IT TO THE ATTENTION OF MANAGEMENT. As a grandfather, I would feel absolutely horrible if I observed a deficiency that resulted in something like this.

  14. @Beefeater ….Shut it? How eloquent of you. I’m not attacking anyone, unlike you.

    I was questioning the motives of clearly feeling sorry for himself when a CHILD IS DEAD. What can a hotel do to bring a child back? Nothing, and no information disseminated to guests can really help the family or anyone else. It was clearly a complaint towards the hotel. Once again, you aggressive nasty person, a CHILD IS DEAD.


    Re your sarcastic regard for my stressful life… My life is thankfully great, I don’t worry more than any parent who wants the best for their child. I do not lose sleep, but the thought of having my child who loves swimming, drown, is a natural concern. I am happy he is fine and am deeply sad for any parent or family member who loses a child. Any desire for a hotel to put out the news in a tasteful or informative way, while perhaps you can identify with, in my humble opinion is that it pales in huge insignificance to the tragedy.

    The poor young victim…Rest in Peace.

  15. Last year I was at a conference at a downtown Memphis big Chain hotel.
    During the first night, one conference attendee’s room was broken into, and while SHE slept, all of her money was stolen out of multiple locations. A thief had time and was quiet enough to rummage through her suitcase, computer bag, and purse, to steal all of her money.
    The hotel never told anyone about it. EVERYONE (around 1,000 people) KNEW about it. Some people asked the hotel manager about it and received unresponsive answers.
    I tweeted the hotels CSR (normally a quite responsive and helpful twitter team). I received a response, but the only response was for the person who was robbed to contact the twitter team. Which was worthless as that person was already dealing with the police.
    never acknowledged by the hotel to any guest

  16. Most hotels in Asia and I think I have yet to see on in Canada US or Europe.. none of the hotels I remember have a lifeguard at pools.

  17. If it is a clear safety issue with the hotel then it should definitely be communicated or the hotel is negligent. If it is a tragedy/accident and not the hotel’s fault then there is no need to blow it up any bigger than it is and ruin other people’s vacation.

  18. We were staying at a hotel in Aruba this past July and a man walking along the beach grabbed some valuables out of a woman’s bag. A group ran to track the thief and ended up in a parking lot where there was a confrontation. While there was no tragedy remotely on the proportions of what happened in the case described in the original post, the hotel left a note with turndown service the night of the incident that alerted people there had been an incident, to keep valuables safe, to stay alert to outsiders, and to summon hotel staff if something happened. As someone who was aware of what happened that day, I felt like the situation had been perfectly handled for the benefit of all guests without disclosing more than the most basic information.

  19. Andy’s tone may leave something to be desired, but I agree with his sentiment. This is a private tragedy that unfortunately occurred in a public place. The hotel has no obligation to share information about the event with its guests. In fact, doing so would be a major violation of the family’s privacy.

    Furthermore, I’m critical of the reader’s behaviour in this situation. This event clearly took some time to unfold – presumably the child was discovered, people called for help, the body was pulled from the water, the guest/staff attempted resuscitation, paramedics arrived and worked on the child, and finally he/she was taken away to the hospital. This ordeal must have gone on for at least 15 minutes, during which time it sounds like the reader and his wife stood gawking with the crowd. If they’re traumatized, it seems to me it’s their own fault for not walking away. If you slow down to stare as you pass a horrific accident you have no one else to blame for what you see. I think this is where the hotel could have done better. They should have cleared the other guests and non-essential personnel from the area.

    Ultimately, most of us in the developed world lead pretty sheltered lives. The reader and his wife have taken a year off to experience the world, and now they are. Unfortunately, the world isn’t all Krug and rubber ducks from the FCT. The more time they spend away from the pool at big brand hotels, the more they’ll see just how raw and fragile life is for the majority of people on this planet.

    In the readers defense, he doesn’t really raise the issue of compensation in his email. His complaint is more with regards to the lack of communication. It’s interesting how many of us (myself included) have read an ulterior motive into his comments. I think that speaks volumes about the mindset of most people in this “game”!

  20. @Lucky What is your experience with supervision of pools and activities at hotels around the world?

    What a tragic situation for all involved, the rescuers, the patrons and especially the poor family who lost that child. Thoughts are with all of them

    As a paramedic its interesting to read people’s reactions, suggestions and stories in response to this. I have worked in NYC and Canada as well as the London Ambulance Service and an educational stint in the UAE and I am always fascinated by the different responses by people from different locales.

    I know here in Australia, all Government pools and public beaches require trained lifeguard supervision, this also extends to pools that are not fully enclosed, during appropriately signed swimming times and a statement of dangers for “participate at your own risk” times. I was also interested to see that the UAE in my experience is also pretty vigilant in this with hotels such as the Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi having hotel staff on the beach and in the kids swimming pool, as well as hotels such as Atlantis on the Palm and the tourist beaches also providing lifeguards with a great emergency back up system.

    As to the hotels response. It has always been my experience, that while I am usually called to deal directly with the afflicted person, that those who are witness need just as much emotional care whether they know the victim or not. Different people react in varying ways and require differing support and compassion. This can be from a simple conversation with facts about the incident through to proper counselling as these kind of events are traumatic for all those involved and can help people process what they have seen. I have rarely seen this support from hotels however we do have to remember that these events are rare, and that the managers and staff of public institutions are also human and themselves must deal in their own way with these situations. I always feel a compassionate but straight forward conversation always helps while keeping in mind that the victim and family require their privacy.

    I understand the frustration of the questioner and I do not think they should be criticised for expressing their feelings about a situation as I understand that lack of reference to the victim and their family may have irked others. Any conversation about the safety of activities we participate in as well as the mental health of people should be welcomed.

  21. I agree with those who say that the hotel had no duty to notify anyone, and shouldn’t have notified anyone. Personally, I would prefer not to know any details of things like this, unless my safety were at risk.

  22. We were on a cruise this spring in which the captain announced that a passenger was seriously ill and we would make best possible speed to Kefalonia rather than trying hard to take lots of time and arrive in the morning. Thus, we arrived at about 10PM and lots of people were watching the dock. Emergency workers rushed onboard, then walked off with an empty stretcher, stood around for a while and then departed. Lots of people wished there had been more information, because it seemed clear that the passenger had lost his battle. Perhaps an announcement should have been made, but the family’s privacy was important, especially if next of kin had yet to be notified. Also, there might have been passengers who were not keen on knowing that the passenger was likely in the fridge on board. (Probably.) So, a dilemma for the ship, as they’d clearly brought the other pax into the situation by announcing and then hurrying so. But…

  23. @David C has a very interesting point.

    Also, arguments like « we have to limit the negative impact on other guests », don’t « ruin their vacation » or let them « enjoy their stay » are just a way to relapse into a culturally accepted macho reaction that constrains to « suck it up ». By completely dismissing the emotion and suggesting that the witness’ trauma is his fault, we choose to minimize his response to the event (without taking into consideration any of his psychological background or past experiences) and shame on him for actually *feeling* something.

    Protecting the family’s privacy and assuring its well being is obviously the main priority. But to a wider degree, the hotel disorganization and lack of response is just part of this culture which assumes that if we don’t talk about it, it just didn’t happen.

  24. Hestiant to weigh in here, becuase emotions are running high, but…

    First, hopefully the child recovered…the reader’s question doesn’t say that the child died, so I’m going to hope he didn’t.

    Second, though I’m not familiar with the laws of Vietnam or hotel chain, in some situations the hotel would probably be legally constrained from sharing much information — information related to the medical treatment of an individual, for example, often can’t be publicly shared without the permission of the patient or his parents.

    Finally, we are humans and it is natural for us to care about those around us. If I had witnessed this, I would want to know if the child was ok, though I’m not sure if there would be a practical way of finding out. And if I were a guest who hadn’t witnessed the event, would there be any benefit to telling me that it happened? I don’t know…

  25. @Steve how do you know the room was broken into? Maybe the stuff was stolen by a new “friend” she met in town that she had taken back to her room. Happens a lot to men that bring strangers back to their room.

  26. I have 2 views on this.
    1. For a situation which involves the untimely death of someone, the hotel in question is under no obligation to communicate with any other guest as to what happened. The privacy and memory of the deceased should be respected. Eg, having worked at the Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, we had a 76 year old lady drop dead in the F&B corridor of a heart attack. When people asked what happened, we just said that a lady was taken ill.
    2. If the situation is a terrorist attack, eg 26/11 in Mumbai when the Taj was under seige, communication is critical. My colleagues (I wasnt on shift at the time) were in constant contact with guests to ensure that they dont lose their lives

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