Murder of Elisa Lam at Cecil Hotel Raises Concerns for Women Traveling Alone
Elisa Lam's murder is heart-breaking. Lam was a 21 year old student from Vancouver taking a semester off from college. She went on a trip by herself to Los Angeles where she checked into the historic Cecil Hotel. She had planned to travel on to Santa Cruz but went missing on January 31. Guests began complaining about low water pressure and a maintenance worker went to the rooftop water tanks to address the problem where he discovered Lam's body in one of the tanks.
The initial autopsy was inconclusive but it is unclear how Lam could have gotten onto the roof by herself which requires going through an alarmed door and climbing ladders to the water tanks. Her death is considered suspicious.
Lam was last seen on elevator security footage weeks before, exhibiting some rather unusual behavior. She appeared to peek out of the elevator and look around and then get back into the elevator without getting off as if someone was following her. The elevator has also appeared to stop working. Lam presses several of the elevator buttons and the elevator door never closes. Lam gets off and reenters several times, at one point making some odd gestures while it's unclear if another person is present in the hallway because of the limited range of the camera. Lam finally gets off the elevator and doesn't appear on camera again. After she gets off, the elevator starts working as the footage shows the door opening and closing three times revealing different floors but no one gets on.
Perhaps Lam wound up on the roof while looking for a way to get to her room since the elevator wasn't working. Perhaps the alarm on the door to the roof wasn't working either. Authorities are awaiting toxicology results to try to determine exactly how Lam died.
Concerns for Solo Travelers
As an avid traveler who often goes solo, it's unfortunate when this happens to someone not only because of the personal tragedy but because of the fear it generates. An investigation of the circumstances surrounding Lam's death reveals some unexpected concerns for travelers that they should be aware of when they are planning their trips.
The Cecil Hotel appears nice the way it is marketed. The pictures look luxurious. There is an elaborate high-ceilinged lobby with marble floors and a columned indoor pool. The rooms feature hardwood floors, sleek furniture, marble bathrooms and some even have kitchens and fireplaces. Granted some of the comforters and curtains appear to be dated, it doesn't look like a dump. There is a flat room rate of $65 per night, hardly putting the hotel in the low-budget range.
But what the Cecil Hotel doesn't advertise is that the neighborhood of the Cecil Hotel is not so nice. The website of the Cecil Hotel doesn't advertise any pictures of its location on its website. Instead there are pictures from tourist destinations in Los Angeles--Hollywood Boulevard, Beverly Hills, and Venice Beach. Cecil Hotel is actually less than a mile from Skid Row, which is home to one of the largest concentrations of homeless people in the United States which sometimes number as many as 5,000. This area of Downtown Los Angeles is hardly the tourist area that Hollywood Boulevard is.
What often happens is cities' start promoting their historic districts to draw in tourists and raise money. During this time the neighborhoods undergo a lengthy transition while posh shops and cafés and art museums move into the area and homes and hotels are gradually renovated. However the crimes that plagued the community before the new businesses moved in remain, only gradually being eliminated. This creates an odd juxtaposition of wealthier tourists and the impoverished locals, oftentimes spurring more crime because of the opportunities the tourists' presence creates.
Would Lam have suspected this from any of the website's pictures? Probably not. The website also does not include a history section like some more reputable historic hotels do. If it did, it would have to include many unnerving facts like that this 1927 hotel housed serial killer Richard Ramirez in 1985. But its reputation had plummeted long before Ramirez's stay. Soon after it was built it was known to house sketchy characters.
If I think about what I usually do when I'm trying to find a hotel, I think there's a good chance I wouldn't have come across this unfavorable information about the hotel. I would use a hotel booking site to research rates, and perhaps read a couple of reviews. I wouldn't delve into the hotel's history.
An article on Slate cautions travelers to avoid drifter/residential hotels, but the current status of this hotel as residential is hardly apparent. The hotel's official website doesn't indicate weekly or monthly rates, and $65 a night works out to almost $2000 per month, not something one would normally consider to be in the range of a drifter.
The Cecil Hotel's Unusually Low Occupancy Rate
But it's not the location or history that seems to be the most leery trait of this hotel. Instead, it's the surprisingly high vacancy rate. After the discovery of Lam's body, guests staying in 27 rooms opted to be moved to another hotel while another 11 opted to stay and drink bottled water while the hotel's water is being tested. That indicates that only 38 rooms were rented out at the time, while The Cecil Hotel contains a total of 600 rooms. That means there were 562 vacant rooms and probably indicates more than a few vacant floors since guests are usually grouped together to make housekeeping rounds more efficient.
It's not clear how easy or difficult it would be for someone to squat in this hotel or at least sneak in and lurk on one of the empty floors. The hotel's surveillance system certainly doesn't seem too foolproof since Lam's trail virtually disappears after she was last seen on the elevator. I've personally stayed at mainstream popular hotels next to a room where somebody tried to squat, so it seems like it would be easy given the disrepute of this hotel. The nearby homeless from Skid Row would definitely have a motive to attempt squatting.
Hotels never advertise their vacancy rate unless they're full, but there are some ways to guestimate. During the off-season hotels are going to have higher vacancy rates, and hotels in isolated places or non-tourist areas are usually going to have higher vacancy rates. During economic depressions, there also tend to be higher vacancy rates. High rates can also increase vacancy. Considering where The Cecil Hotel was located, $65 would seem like a high rate for this area.
To give you an idea of what is normal, in really successful economies hotel occupancy rates would near the 75th percentile during the Summer, with some being at 100% or the 90th percentile based on local events and attractions. During a recession, occupancy rates drop by 10% or more. Even in the off-season occupancy rates usually stay above 40%. It also varies by cities. For example Las Vegas' total hotel occupancy rate is usually in the 80th percentile. If we calculate the Cecil Hotel's occupancy rate when Lam was staying there, it results in a shockingly low 6%.
The scary thing is that there is no way to foresee that a hotel would be that deserted. If all the visitors are grouped on the same floors it may not even be apparent that the hotel has such low occupancy rates. The only possible precautions are to choose hotels with good reputations or choose smaller hotels with good reputations.
There are places Lam could have stayed that wouldn't have put her in such an isolated situation. Youth hostels have a bad rep due to Eli Roth's movie franchise and many Americans aren't even aware that there are hostels in America. But Lam could have stayed in one on or near Hollywood Boulevard for less than $65 a night. It's possible she could have ended up in a room by herself in the offseason, but less likely. Even if she had, there would not be 562 vacant rooms and 9 potentially vacant floors. Some hostels are more lax and money-desperate than others, but generally they turn away anyone who seems old or homeless or off. And Hollywood Boulevard, despite some criminal activity, is still touristy and therefore more of a concern for police. The city doesn't want visitors to be scared off from this area while Skid Row is out of hand.
Tips for Safer Travel
- Do some quick research about the age, location, and history of your hotel.
- Don't stay in hotels with high vacancy rates.
- Stick to reputable hotels in tourist areas.
- Avoid historic districts that are being restored and have low-income levels.