A short story by Robert Pimm
The first person I see enter the lobby is loaded with shopping bags from a major international clothing brand.
I will not name the brand because I do not like to promote these kind of clothes. But it is a brand like a masculine man’s name. So I am guessing that the man carrying the bags is hoping that wearing these clothes will make him more of a man than he is perhaps feeling inside.
‘Mr Anderson. Welcome to our hotel.’ I smile my thousand-watt smile. ‘Good choice.’
‘Hey. Tatiana. You’re using the script’ The man slides his passport across the counter and peers at my name badge. ‘Are you Russian?’
I maintain my thousand-watt smile and pick up the telephone, which our brand standards say must be answered within three rings. A Mr Miller in Suite 1295 says he wishes to complain that his shower is not working. I promise that Housekeeping will come shortly. Across the lobby I see a group of men whose uniform of dark trousers and blue smart-but-casual shirts, and the noises they are making, remind me of a party of schoolchildren. They are heading for our signature EcoSystem Lounge Bar.
The man with the shopping bags is right that our hotel chain’s core script for reception staff includes the words Welcome to our hotel and Good choice. But the guidance notes which accompany the script also tell us that The customer is a human being and that we should use originality, humour, respect and the personal touch in our exchanges. So I add: ‘No, sir, I am Ukrainian. You know. We leave the West behind.’
This is actually not the first time I am using this joke.
‘Hey Julius. How’s it hanging?’
Mr Anderson ignores my attempt at a personal touch and turns to greet the three people who have entered the lobby. They are like him: tall, well-built men who were perhaps attractive five or fifteen years ago. Now their skin is mottled from too much sunshine and their bellies are pushing out the fronts of their smart-but-casual shirts.
All of them carry shopping bags from the same exclusive clothing brand.
The four men laugh and make unnecessary physical contact to pretend that they are friends. But all of them are working to keep their places in the queue.
I consider making an original, humorous and personal comment about the fact that they have the same shopping bags and have maybe been on an outing together. But four more men have entered the lobby.
I now have eight customers waiting to check in and two phones ringing.
‘What hotel is this?’ The eighth man in the queue is grinning as if he is, perhaps, a comedian. ‘Don’t they have service standards? What happened to the three-minute check-in target?’
‘Zero minutes for VIPs. And gents – we’re all VIPs!’ Man number seven is standing with his legs braced and his shoulders squared. He is wearing a bright orange look-at-me tie and has black swept-back hair greying slightly at the temples. ‘It seems to me that the reception services at this hotel are slightly shit and we should complain to the management!’
I look with surprise at man number seven. Has he not noticed that I am working as quickly as I can to check in Mr Julius Anderson? Man number seven has a shopping bag from the exclusive store like everyone else. His bag is as big as a suitcase. He has placed it on the ground to block man number eight from approaching the reception desk.
‘Actually, I am surprised the GM is not here to meet us.’ The sixth man is shorter and younger-looking and is perhaps from Asia. ‘I understand this is a normal courtesy when another GM is visiting a hotel in this chain.’
‘He’d be a busy guy!’
The other seven men did not react much to the Asian-looking gentleman. But when Mr Julius Anderson makes what is really the same joke about the fact that 800 General Managers from our hotel chain are assembling for our annual leadership conference, everyone makes the kind of roaring, breathless sounds which are meant to show that they are helpless with laughter.
This is because Mr Anderson is Executive Vice President of our chain and Group President, Asia and Oceania. This means he is deciding who will be the General Managers of our two hundred hotels in that region.
GMs in our chain always laugh at Mr Anderson’s jokes.
The phones are ringing behind the reception desk. More men in smart-but-casual clothing are descending from taxis outside. At this moment someone who is shorter than everyone in the queue and who is dressed in cream and burgundy and a four-inch wide leather belt enters the lobby.
It is a woman.
It is Ms N, the General Manager of our hotel in C—.
C— is a country where it is famously difficult even to buy a loaf of bread, much less to run a five-star hotel. But this does not mean that the hotel in C— is no good. In fact, the hotel in C— won the Platinum Megastar award for the best hotel in our chain just one year after Ms N took over as General Manager there. The hotel won the award thanks to increased income and higher bookings from its new casino.
This makes Ms N something of a celebrity among other GMs.
But for me she is famous for other things, about which only she and I know. These involve, for example, a giant cake; a set of sharp Chroma knives; and many thousand cubic metres of concrete.
These things make me admire Ms N for her problem-solving abilities.
The men at the back of the queue do not know about the cake or the knives or the concrete. But they make way for Ms N as she advances; and gather in behind her once she has passed.
The exception is the man in the orange tie, whose gigantic shopping bag is like a road-block in the lobby. Ms N picks up the bag and rotates it by ninety degrees so that she can proceed.
Perhaps the men allow Ms N to move to the front of the queue because her small mouth is turned up in an inquisitive smile, as if she has discovered something intriguing. Perhaps it is because her eyes are sparkling as if she is excited about a special secret.
Perhaps it is because she is ignoring them.
Ms N is looking at me.
‘Tatiana,’ she says. ‘How are you?’ She leans across the counter and kisses me on both cheeks. Her skin is soft, and I smell a delicious perfume. I am impressed by this, because I used to work with Ms N in C— and I know that she has been travelling for 24 hours to get here on three different airlines.
‘I am well,’ I say. ‘Congratulations on your award.’
‘Thank you, Tatiana.’ She leans in close again. ‘But I do not care about awards. All I want is to move from our hotel in C— to our luxury new UP-branded hotel in Paris. A man I care about is living there.’
‘Good luck, Ms N.’
‘I shall need it, because every GM in our chain wants to run our luxury new UP-branded hotel in Paris.’ Ms N looks around and speaks more loudly. ‘Why is everyone standing here?’
‘They are waiting to check in,’ I say.
‘Check in?’ Ms N addresses the men crowded around her. ‘It seems to me some GMs have wrong priorities. Why are you creating congestion here when you could be exchanging best practice in the EcoSystem Lounge Bar?’ She rests her hand lightly on the arm of Mr Anderson. ‘Julius. Let me buy you a pre-dinner drink.’
Mr Anderson’s too-tanned face cracks into a grin. ‘I’ll get the drinks,’ he says.
‘He says the drinks are on him.’ Ms N sets off across the lobby. ‘Let’s go.’
The next moment Ms N and Mr Anderson are leading a gang of GMs to the bar and I am facing an empty space dotted with luggage and shopping bags.
The only person left is the man in the orange tie.
‘Losers.’ He gestures at the retreating crowd. ‘Lead, follow or get out of the way is my motto. And I’m a fucking leader.’ He slaps his passport on the counter. ‘See if you can check me in without saying Welcome to our hotel or Good choice.‘
I glance at the passport and smile my thousand-watt smile. ‘Sure will, Mr Knox.’
‘I need a room on floors four to six,’ he says. ‘Facing north. Not near elevators, stairs or lounges. If you’re on floors one thru three any low-life can climb in your window. Above floor seven if there’s a fire, the ladders don’t reach. And switch off the fucking fake smile, Tatiana, or I’ll switch it off for you.’
I stop smiling. ‘The room is booked, sir. Will there be anything else?’
‘Not now, honey,’ he says. ‘But watch that name. Mr Buddy Knox. You’ll be hearing a lot about me.’
‘Yes, Mr Knox,’ I say. ‘I am sure I will.’
* * *
From my seat at the back of the hall, where I am operating the sound and lighting technology for the conference, the eight hundred General Managers of our hotel chain are like ants in a colony.
Nearly every GM, whether male or, occasionally, female, is dressed in dark colours. All sit at tables, clustered around electronic display-boards in the pit of the room. On the stage above, the gods from our Houston senior leadership sit in armchairs, sometimes rising to address the throng below.
The man doing the addressing right now is Mr Julius Anderson, Executive Vice President and Group President, Asia and Oceania.
‘Gents,’ he says. ‘It’s time for us to take a long, hard look at a paradigm shift in experience optimisation for the female guest. We’re talking vanities, hairdryers and nail-files.’
To me, Mr Anderson’s words do not seem to mean anything at all. I am not even sure he is addressing me as I am not of course a gentleman of any description. But the response from the GMs in the pit is a rapturous burst of applause.
The rapture is because the ants who crowd the conference room floor are not ordinary arthropods. Instead, they form what I have read can be described as a super-organism. Each General Manager in the room is belonging to a sub-group with a specialised task; and these sub-groups, linked in a hierarchy, are meant to help the whole colony of GMs – our hotel chain – achieve its goals.
The result is that when one of our armchair gods speaks into the microphone, the super-organism pulses with life as GMs make notes, pick up tablet computers, or even take photos of the great men on stage in the distance and use social media to send these to each other.
Each General Manager is seeking attention. As they huddle around display-boards or rise to address the conference, each is hoping to make a mark with the armchair gods.
One of the top attention-seekers is Mr Buddy Knox. He is wearing the same dark suit as everyone else, set off by a crimson tie. His swept-back hair gleams in the spotlights. Each time the conference divides into groups, Mr Knox is eager to lead the discussion. When one of the armchair gods mentions the luxury new UP-branded hotel in the city of Paris, Mr Buddy Knox stands to explain his concept for making that hotel the most profitable in the history of our chain.
When he says this I am thinking of Ms N, who has told me she wishes to become GM of the new UP-branded hotel in Paris because a man she cares about is living there; but that other people also wish to take the position.
Clearly, Mr Buddy Knox is one of those people.
Clearly, Mr Buddy Knox is skilled in attracting the attention of the armchair gods who make decisions on where to move the GMs in our hotel chain.
Clearly, Ms N is facing tough competition if she is to achieve happiness.
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