Curmudgeonly Customers

Please enjoy my latest musing which was first published in Flavours Magazine and is not in Chef’s Tales the book:

All hoteliers have to deal with difficult, demanding guests, but can the whole stressful ordeal have a happy ending?

One of the most difficult components of our wonderful industry is the challenging guest, otherwise known as “difficult”, “fussy” – or if you would like to be politically correct, the guest who has “high expectations”. Let’s face it, we can call them whatever we like (at the back of the house) but some of them are simply put, a pain in the neck.

One day, I was strolling through the lobby and spotted one of those aforementioned guests with “high expectations”. This one seemed to have a problem, evident from the fact that he had opened his suitcase in the middle of the lobby and stripped down to his boxers, all the while making enough noise to gain as much attention as possible.

I quickened my steps so that he wouldn’t notice me, breathing a sigh of relief when I reached the back door to my kingdom and stepped into the white-tiled domain of the kitchen – a welcome comfort zone.

I couldn’t help giggling to myself as I thought of the poor duty manager having to deal with this guy, mentally congratulating myself on never having to deal with clowns like that. Then I made myself a nice cup of hot coffee and sat down in my office.

Word of the difficult customer spread around the hotel in no time, as did stories of his check-in – the hotel was running at 100% occupancy, and he had shown up at 10am wanting his room now, as he was tired and had just arrived after a long-haul flight. The front office had explained to him that the hotel was full and that check-in time was in fact 2pm, but he had protested that the travel agent had assured him that checking in at 10am would not be a problem. The front office reassured him that they had not been notified of that, and would give him the first available room, but this didn’t prove satisfactory, thus prompting the Chippendale show of protest in the lobby. After explaining to him that they couldn’t just kick any guest out of their room (and that stripping off was not going to get him a room earlier), they offered him a nice complimentary lunch with a couple of glasses of wine. Of course, he was already dressed and drinking before the offer was even fully enunciated.

Later that evening, I was going up to the hotel’s sky lounge to meet a friend and have a couple of drinks before turning in for the night; I stepped into the elevator for the short vertical ride to the top floor. As the door was closing, I heard a voice outside shouting for me to wait, so I pressed the “open door” button – only to find that nutcase guest squeezing into the lift with me!

What were the chances of the only nutter in the hotel deciding to get into the very same lift as me?! Quite good, apparently.

As soon as he got into the lift, he started ranting.

“Well at least there is one gentleman in this hotel! Can you believe what a rotten place this is?” he frothed.

I was very relieved that I had changed into my street clothes prior to getting into the lift.

“Oh it’s not that bad – it actually grows on you if you give it a chance,” I replied.

“I checked in today at 10am and there was no room for me to sleep after flying for 14 hours! I had to strip down to my knickers to get some attention … well, at least I got a free lunch,” he moaned.

Made confident by his (now) more mellow tone, I made a monumental mistake and took a gamble.

“How was lunch then?” I asked. Before I could even properly finish the question, he spat out the answer.

“Terrible! Shocking actually. I had scrambled eggs – thanks to the jet lag I felt like it was breakfast time. The most basic meal of all, and they screwed up! I think the chef here must be an idiot – have you met him?” he said.

I swallowed deeply and answered with a trace of brave defiance in my voice: “Never met the chap, no. Have you?”

“No – but I would like to!” was his response.

Just as he said that, the elevator came to a screeching stop with a jerk and a sound of grinding metal.

“Of course! Why not?! They just keep heaping it on – this has got to be the most Mickey Mouse hotel that I have ever seen,” he groaned.

I was just wondering how it could possibly get any worse when there was a popping sound, and the lights went out. At least now I did not have to look at his face, I thought, but I wished that I could escape his voice as well.

“I must say, I’m quite nervous – I do hope the lift does not fall,” I ventured.

I could hear the guest from hell suck in his breath; then he came up with his master plan.

“All we have to do is use the emergency phone to call the chef, ask him to make some more of his special recipe scrambles eggs and throw them in the bottom of the shaft. Then, when the lift falls it will hit the rubber-like eggs and bounce a bit, and the lift will settle very nicely at the bottom of the shaft”.

Not wanting to aggravate the situation further, I intended to keep my opinions to myself and let sleeping dogs lie; however, this guy was starting to rattle my cage a little, so I snapped: “Come on, give the poor guy a chance – I am sure he is trying his hardest to make everyone happy”.

“Trying his hardest?! Trying his hardest?! He is indeed very trying, I will give him that! Anyway, what are you – his boyfriend?”

I was starting to think about climbing out of the small square hole in the roof by this time – anything to escape from the idle banter with this twit. Instead, I decided to use my mobile phone to light up the lift a bit so I could search for the emergency speaker button. My “roommate” then decided to push the alarm button incessantly, obviously thinking that if he kept it up every few seconds, it might somehow make the elevator move again.

I took over, pushed the speaker button – and disguised my voice so that the security officer would not realize it was me, and blow my desperately-needed cover.

“Is there anyone there?” I asked, in a strange, foreign-sounding voice.

“Yes, this is the security department here. Please stay calm and we will get you out as soon as possible. The fire department is also on the way,” a voice replied.

Right then, I thought I was going to get away with it … right up to the moment that the speaker suddenly came back on and the voice added “By the way, is that you, chef?”

I hesitated for a second and heard some fool shouting in the background, “Hey! Can someone tell the general manager that the executive chef is stuck in the lift!”

The atmosphere in the lift was suddenly thick with tension, and I miserably wondered what the heck I had done to deserve such a lousy experience.

“You miserable toad! Here I am, blowing off steam to some guy who I thought was a long-distance traveler, somebody who would understand my frustrations – and it turns out that you’re a snake in the grass!” he ranted.

“Now I have to eat outside the hotel to avoid the chefs from stomping on my steak before cooking it, or worse!” he added.

I slid down the wall of the lift and sat on the floor.

“Hey, I saw you today giving the staff hell in the lobby. Do you think that they wake up in the morning with the intention of upsetting you foremost on their minds?” I retorted.

“If there is one thing that you learn in this business, it is the most people – however hard on the outside – are in fact, fragile. Behaving as you did today was wrong; those people work very hard for a living, just like everyone else, so who are you to treat them like dirt and destroy their confidence?” I added.

The elevator was very quiet all of a sudden and I half expected a kick in the guts, but none came. While I was hoping that I had given him a little food for thought, I regretted being so harsh at such a stressful time. It was to the great relief of both of us that the lights came back on 30 minutes later, and the lift started moving again.

As soon as the lift doors opened, he walked straight out of the lift, without a backward glance.

He checked out the next day. Apparently, after checking out, he returned to the front desk and told the staff: “Tell the chef – what he said about people being fragile – I think he is right.” Then he left.

Since that day, that fellow refuses to stay in any hotel other than the one I am working in, whenever he is in town. For me, turning an unruly, demanding guest into a loyal customer is one of the best challenges of all.