There is a big queue at the reception; the manager confirms what his initial fears were, we’re overbooked for the night and have to turn away someone. It means I get to do something I always love. This was my 4th month at this hotel and I already had all the freedom of taking big decisions. As I ponder over what degree of ‘sad Pranav’ I should bring to the table, my manager sees me walk by the aisle of the reception to talk to the last person in the queue and tell him that he is snobbishly late and certainly has to go, sleep in another expensive building. My manager doesn’t know what to do with me – mostly because he’s tired of confrontations – so he let’s me do the talking. “Sorry sir, we’re fully booked for the night. I’m afraid we’re going to have you stay-over at Wyndham, just next to us. We’ve already booked you into a similar Deluxe room and the room charges are on us”. My hair is split, mostly slicked through with oil but now it’s standing upright through pure excitement – I love this part of denial from the customer.
The Russian, totally lost in his own thoughts gets back to reality, “Whad ddo yyyou meannn? Me, I book 6 months bbefforee. See, confirmation.”
Red races pulsing, mouth salivating for confront, “I understand sir. And I see you’re staying for a week. Please stay for a night at Wyndham and we’ll have you over in the morning”
“No nooo. You joking. See, my girlfriend Anastassia (points at a gorgeous Eastern European, scantily clad in a seductive tape, just pushing through the door and entering the hotel lobby). I just pick her up. She really babababa (hands motioning beer glasses into mouth).”
Me: “I’m sorry sir. We just can’t do anything now. I’m sure you can understand.”
Him: “Nooo. See, me Russian. Get me room. Tonight, I, I, I (two hands showing he wants to give Anastassia the Russian treatment)”
Me: “You can do the same at Wyndham sir. In fact why don’t I secure you an upgrade too”
Him: “Enough. You gknow Russian Mafia. Mafia – I bring gun (hands shooting the entire hotel now). Jusd give me room. If no, I do, do with Anastassia here (pointing to the sofas at the lobby)”
I lazily look over my shoulder to signal my manager, ‘We’ve got a tough cookie. I’m having so much fun’. Although I never let on that I loved confrontations like this, I always hoped to stop two people from doing it, when I wasn’t getting any.
Welcome to the weird world of overpaid executives, underpaid labor, broken romances, golden oldies telling waiters that they once were the toast of the city, condoms, hot flings, prostitution, contraception, yearly holidays, money swindling, savings wiped out, pool parties, black ties, failed team building corporate events, 24-hour menstruations, closely followed by 24-hour horny men, families rebonding, affairs ending like real world porn etc. I’ve seen incidents with people shitting in the lobby from too much drinking, over-excited couple with their hands extending to areas of the body making uncomfortable viewing, hookers pry their chances on hotel staff, housekeeping walking in on naked people, plebians taping themselves in weird positions, selfies taken on the balcony totally au-naturel, corporate executives requesting phone numbers of their co-workers, single old women rub the bums of every employee around and many more. This is a world that is opposite to a casino in only one way – the house never wins.
Even though I could write the events and tribulations of guests we’ve had and there’s enough sex and weirdity to keep you reading for months, but this is a narration of what goes on the other side – the employees. Self chosen, as the only viable career option, there is enough drama, sex and hilarity on this side too. Fascinating, not out of choice, but because this is an eclectic group of people rival ‘Mind you Language’ cast, they surprised me on every front. What ensues is a narration in a diary format which I logged through the month of February. (Buckle up, serious fun ahead!)
Feb 1st week
When smartphones and cheaper data became ubuiquitous, it helped hospitality people more introvert’ive than anyone around. Previously, 300 people were jammed into shady corridors (accomodation) and made to work with unbelievably low self esteem. Dingy rooms, un-humane rules and ungodly work hours made everyone lose control. By the going of things it always seemed someone was on the brink of spinning out. Two people flipping out and holding each other’s necks, was a monthly occurrence on the hotel-scene. But God bless internet. It saved people from fighting and made them look down rather than pose like the ‘Rock’. Things got so bad that becoming inward was a trait that turned Godzillas into tongue-tied mutes. The way hotels in the Middle East save money on employees is by giving them low salaries but compensating that by providing common housing, free meals and arranged transportation. A driver runs the shuttle every hour between home and office to transport employees round the clock so that the hotel runs 24*7. One fine morning, we had this Pakistani driver, an amiable chap behind the wheel, ferrying us on the Dubai highway at impressive speeds. Just as he was driving us across, most of the people were asleep through the journey. Suddenly, one Brazilian housekeeping guy noted that the Pakistani chap’s eyes were closed too. The Brazillian called out the Indian hardware engineering guy in front of him to wake the driver. The Indian guy listened, looked at his mobile and shrugged off any concerns. The Indian started praying and scrolled down on his Facebook. Hearing what the Brazilian just said, few people familiar with Urdu and Hindi were urged to talk to the driver. But none came forward and cocooned into their own shells of ignorance. “If no one is going to talk, let us at least complain to HR about him” Murmurs of ‘yeah’ were heard as people feared any sort of confrontation in their lives now. Gone were the days of searching for trouble. People wanted to scroll, hide and recuse from trouble. The internet had meeked out chest-pumping lions to such a degree that they didn’t care about living anymore. A month later, the driver was given a bonus for prompt 2 years of work. As it turned out, the murmurs of ‘yeah’ meant someone else will do it; I just want to reach safely today.
The Brazilian was seen tilting his head from side to side and holding the cross with one and a phone in the other hand for the entire journey of 40 minutes.
No organization on the face of the earth can rival this strong network of people living together, traveling every day and working side-by-side for so long. It is quite true that being lightly educated with not the biggest of ambitions will make an excellent group, where friendship reigns. Sharing, giving up and absence of envy make this lot, extremely lovable. Yet, this bunch of friends (yes, every co-worker becomes a friend) have a big folly in their thinking. Despite marginal incomes and never-coming promotions, they believe they will to do something great with money. Each department has their own fantasy when it comes to doing things with money. The Front Office people get used to the bourgeois and can’t downsize when they look to take a vacation. The same goes for the Sales department who take it up a notch and try to live the bourgeois every-day. The Housekeeping and Engineers mostly from India, Bangladesh and Africa send money to their families who spend it on housing, kids education and basic necessitites. Being a lower educated class, most don’t have promotions on their agenda. The food and beverage and the kitchen lot are a peculiar kind. You’ll find most of them drunk as the sun sets on their work-day. They are the typical ‘I’ll see everyday as it comes’ lot. When you have the company providing basic necessities, whatever you earn is usually considered as savings. Yet these savings don’t last enough and any dreams of financial freedom that these people have are found on weak basements. After years – decades of service in this sector, people usually have enough to buy a home back in their yard. And we never recognize that moving into a home that’s big is only going to keep the expenses up – Maintanence, Property Tax, Utilities and many more bigger bills.
I had started doing a few shifts in the night, when I made close ties with the Housekeeping guys who worked alongside. A couple of them were from Kerala and another two from Tanzania. As time progressed, they started sharing the things they nicked from the minibar. Peanuts turned into Snickers bars which soon progressed into mini Bombay Sapphire bottles. Another day passed, the Mallu guys joined me into a WhatsApp group and I benevolently sent a ‘hello guys, let’s play cricket today evening’ text. Fifteen minutes passed and the blue tick went up: everyone saw my text but none replied. This was a little weird because I’ve read about people relating to quiet WhatsApp groups in sarcasm memes but I haven’t been part of a group that was so quiet. And so I waited until the guys would text something and I’d join in the conversation. Day passed and then night fell – eerily quiet. ‘Maybe these guys are not into talking too much’. The next day work happened: I saw the guys and asked why no one spoke. He waved his hand, said ‘take it light bro’ and disappeared. That night, my phone vibrated for 230 times. I had 230 videos of porn: mixture of Desi, Brazzers, Kink, lesbian and everything else. Dubai, as it turned out had blocked porn sites. You’d have to use a VPN to bypass the site detectors and if caught using a VPN, the government wagers a huge fine and maybe, a prison sentence. How do you keep testosterone charged people on the leash with no porn available: circulate enough porn on a weekly basis that makes you go weak in the knees for a year.
You’d have often heard “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” This couldn’t be less apt for the hotel industry. If you have a relative already working in the company, you are guaranteed a position there. In fact, the online recruitment form specifically asks if you have a relative and to specify where the relative works. Every known person or relative takes preference as compared to an unknown commodity. But at the end of the employment form, you’ll find, “The company is a fair employer that does not discriminate on race, gender, age etc”. Fair my ass: the whole industry is as color biased as it could be. But hey, if you don’t have pretty Cinderella’s at the front, and ugly, big brained decision makers in the back, it ain’t a hotel. No complaints, Professore!
The minibar is a unique specimen when it comes to hotel operations. Every hotel has Housekeeping and Room Service staff who nick a chocolate, a can of Sprite every now and then. And so when the guests say they didn’t consume anything from the minibar, we believe them and scrape off the charges. But at this company, I had a head-tilter when I saw the amount of Minibar rebates we had done for the previous year. The amount was so incredible that the company contemplated taking out the concept of minbar from the property. Sanity prevailed when they did the math and kept stocking the minibar. This is how the calculation goes: for every 4 people who refuse, 1 person pays the entire minibar bill. We markup the prices of every item upto 7 times their retail price. In fact we get it below retail price, directly in relationship with the suppliers and have a markup of 9-10 times at the minibar. We only pray that the 1 person out of 5 who accepts, has a big bill to compensate the previous 4 NO’s. Hence, we don’t mind the huge rebate form, when we can still make incremental revenue. Throughout the history of mini-bars, hotels dangled with the concept of placing pressure sensors below the items but it backfires when guests take something and replace with a wad of newspaper. Besides pressure sensors were expensive too. So, the next time you stay at a hotel, you can munch on a few Doritos and reject the claim outright upon Check-out. We will know you are lying but will still take off the charges because, we let you have a mini-win as you leave our premises. As the popular saying goes, “It’s not how you begin or how you progress, people only remember how you finish.” We let you score a small win at the end wherein you’ll repay by leaving a happy review on TripAdvisor.
At the front desk we lie and make our own-way around facts every single day. Ignorant people come up and ask, “Do you know where the cruise-ship aboards?” – sure, port Rashid. “How much does it take for a taxi to airport??” – Yeah, it will be 100, while taxi fares has never crossed 85. “Do you know which Mexican is good around here” – sure, the tex mex is great, it’s a must go. I mean, I just came to this job a month back and you’re asking me recommendations. Be smart, ask me this first: Heard the Dubai Hotel industry is booming. Is that why you chose this place? So how long you’ve been here? Then ask for your recommendations. But hey, when you prey us with these questions, remember, we will never have enough money to go to any of the places you ask for. Sure, fire ahead anyway! I’ll keep fibbing.
February 2nd week
A platinum member is someone who stays 50 nights or more within the calendar year. One such guy came to me late in the night. He had checked-in with me awhile back and asked about the squash facilities in the property. I showed him the place and hinted that he could hit the spa to relax after a game. I had been into the spa, the day I arrived but didn’t pay much attention to the aesthetics. I just noted that the spa had strong herbal scents and the rooms were small. But that night, I went with the platinum guy into the spa. What I saw shocked me – it was gothic, dark, small – definitely not a place where I wanted someone to sponge my back. And so, I got on the road to see how other hotels managed their spa. Sofitel was clearly head and shoulders above – in terms of design, aesthetic feel and service. While most of them had regular customers from the Hotel’s brand, they didn’t seem to have a loyalty claim of their own. I asked them, “How many people are regulars?” The general answer received was, “We get about 50% of customers from the people staying at the hotel. 40-45% monthly from the people living in Dubai. The rest 5% are the people who get the beach access with a spa treatment later in the day”
I asked “How many of those 45% local people are regulars that visit you often?”
She said: “Not much. Maybe 10%”
I muttered, “Incredible. So you were doing good at getting new customers and bad at retaining them?”
They all say, “Well our product is good and people always leave a good review on Tripadvisor”
I said, “Here’s what you’re going to do: Look at Wizz Air website for membership inspiration. Offer them a spa exclusive membership for 100AED. Every Time they use the spa, they get a 40AED discount on the total bill. Plus their membership will have a punch card capable of 10 punches. For the first treatment, it counts as 2 punches and the rest will be one punch per treatment. As Thursday approaches, send them an email offering an extra 10% discount if they’d like a treatment over the weekend. Plus you’ll also get them another free punch which means they have 4 punches for 2 spa treatments with 40AED+40 (2nd treatment)+(Total bill*10%) discount for their two sessions. If they didn’t have a habit of a spa treatment, they are going to have one after a couple of sessions. Every-time they refer a friend they get a free punch as well. Once they complete 10 punches on their card, they are going to get a free treatment. If they aren’t regular before, they will be from hereon. You can make your spa a standalone performer this way.”
This idea has 3 psychology tricks running behind it:
- Once people get to 4, they are more likely to complete something rather than they were stuck at 2. This makes them come back for 6 more treatments or refer more people (new customers at zero marketing cost = happy Finance department)
- As Charles Duhigg expounds in The Power of Habit, companies can make extremely loyal fans if their product acts as a habit in their customer’s day. For ex: Dunkin Donuts constructed their shops away from the city and on people’s way to work. They’d give thick milkshakes that people can sip throughout their journey to office. This habit of listening to the radio and having something to drink in their mouth; made them acquire a huge market share even if they were late entrants in the breakfast arena. Similarly, this idea of hitting the spa every weekend, will be a habit that you can etch into customer’s schedule. They have worked hard through the weekend and deserve something for themselves. That something special is a rub in your spa every weekend.
- A person who has never hit the spa, will never understand it’s magic on the body. But the person who’s had one treatment is more likely to get another and many more. In that case, offering discounts until they become one of your 1000 true fans isn’t a bad idea
In a day, a hotelier gets to meet 50-60 people. Memorable conversations rarely happen and putting a face to a name is very difficult. When a problem turns up (a bad review or credit card issue), the manager turns around to ask, “Do you remember this guest?” Of course you don’t. What was the date? Two months back – holy god no. But you never say you don’t remember because people hate that thing. Then they go, “How can you not remember? It’s your Check/In.”
How?? I’ll tell you how. I don’t even remember the name of the girl I hooked up on Tinder last week. She was gorgeous, fiery and intense and I still don’t remember her name. In fact, what’s your name again?? And so you cook up a story about how the reviewer was an asshole throughout his entire time here and it’s better to refute any service related complaint he claims.
Anish, a wide grinned Malayali works at the concierge bell-desk. He gets to drive Lamb, Porsche and Bentleys every-day. He comes to the reception, dimple cheeked, his head looking at the rising sun in US and says, “Indha thalavali unnaku thevaya machan? (Do you need this headache)” He subtly meant that I was wasted in this role.
‘Biggest Breakout: Indian living in Bahrain becomes millionaire because of American Taxpayers’ would read Trumpian clickbaity Breitbart headline, if they knew what was happening. We had incentive schemes for up-selling rooms, breakfast or club access to guests. We’d often get lame, cheap guests who’d just stay with their families and not spend a dime on any food. But every other month, we’d get this band of US Navy and Army people who stay with us under Army Rates. That discounted price gives them the liberty to upgrade their room to a Club room with Club Lounge Access – essentially breakfast, afternoon tea and 2 hours of unlimited alcohol in the evening. They also get fringe benefits like inviting another person, super-fast Wifi, minibar items and a late Checkout until 4PM. All this would be 30 Dinars + taxes. We’d get 10% from every upsell made. If the person was staying 7 nights, that’s 21 Bahraini Dinars in our pocket for 2 minutes of talk. I’ve heard some legends make 1000 Dinars from upselling bonuses alone – well she was French in a Arab nation!
Bringing in revenue at a hotel is hard and a repetitive process. But cutting down costs – now that’s permanent (at-least for a few years) if you could succeed. When you think over what the imperceptible ways you could cut costs are, my hotel succeeded by doing this – give employees free shelter but make them pay for water – it feels like you’re generous but you ain’t. Imperceptible. Give them internet at the lobby and inside the gym – this way they won’t revolt. Again, imperceptible.
“Dubai has been built with investment money from India and Britain, buildings were constructed by workers from Pakistan and Nepal, Management Consultants from America and Australia headed business plans while Filippinos manned the restaurant outlets” would scream Business Magazines when describing how Dubai came to be. Most of the workers, either the Pathans who were melting crucible in the hot sun or the wonderfully adorned Filipina at a restuarant, everyone in Dubai had one goal: save enough money so that we could go back home richer. This meant we’d save cash at every corner, inside every item. The operators in a hotel – the ones who answer your call when you dial ‘0’ mostly consist of women. At this particular time, we had a batch of Filipina women heading the phones at our property. One night, I started work early as we had a busy period of incoming. I noticed that our operator was looking at e-coupons for Carrefour. 6 hours later, exhausted from having no water or peepee break, I came back to grab a glass. It’s totally peaceful inside and so I take shelter from the firing line for a few minutes. She was still looking at the coupons when I asked her, “Why don’t you just go to the shop directly?” She replied, “Oh no no. When I’m there I won’t get a whole picture. But this way I could save more than 10AED by comparing everything on the desktop.”
“You look at her and even though she has the all the wealth in the world you’ll still find her clipping coupons on the dining table, come Saturday.”
- Warren Buffett on his late wife