The world after September 11, 2001, was a new place. A lot of people compared the shock of it to Pearl Harbor at the time because it engendered the same feeling that you had just been punched in the gut that my grandparents no doubt felt when they heard about the bombing. Everyone was sad and scared, and also defiant and nihilistic and lost. Many a third martini was drunk in the name of carpe-ing the diem.
In the travel industry, these feelings were compounded by the fact that business was awful. This terrible financial climate had started in 2000, but September 11th made it so much worse. In my company, all salespeople were laid off for the two weeks after the attacks, purportedly because it would be in bad taste to solicit business while the country was in mourning. (Of course, it didn’t hurt that all 700-something hotels got to save the salaries of their sales teams.) People were terrified to travel, which meant that no one needed a hotel room, which meant that our revenues were tank-tank-tanking.
So I did what any good hotelier would do. I reached down and scraped the bottom of the barrel.
I booked in groups of delinquent children selling chemicals door-to-door. I found religious cults who wanted to smoke cigarettes in our ballroom and passed out the ashtrays. I aggressively pursued the Furry Convention.
One day, the phone rang, and I spoke to a nice young woman about the wedding she was planning. She asked about square footage and dates, and I gave her the information that she requested. We set up an appointment for a site tour, and I awaited her arrival.
When she got to the hotel, she asked to sit down for a talk before the tour. Her face was serious, which made me a little nervous.
Her: “So, I know you have availability for the weekend of October 12, and I am prepared to pre-pay for everything in cash.”
Me: “Sure, sounds great! We’re looking forward to your wedding!”
Her: “Actually, I’m not having a wedding.”
Me: [Confused face.]
Her: “I represent a swingers group. Hotels will never sell their space to us, so I decided to pretend to be booking a wedding and check your availability. If you refuse to book us, we will sue you for discrimination.”
Her: Swingers. Like, an alternative lifestyle. Recreational partner swapping. Polyamory.
Me: I’ll be right back.
I ran back into my office to think. I wrung my hands.
Then I looked at my calendar.
There it was. My way out.
In all caps across the weekend in question were the magic words: MY SISTER’S WEDDING.
That’s right. I would be far, far away across the country at my sister’s wedding, safe from the horrified screams of the hotel staff as they encountered naked people in various entanglements around the hotel. The swingers could roam the halls at will, and I would be safe in church.
And that, my friends, is how we achieved positive RevPar growth during one of the worst economic periods the hotel industry has ever faced. That is also how sales people get the wretched reputations we have among operations managers.
“Memory Lane Monday” is a series of stories about my hotel career. On occasional Mondays, I will present you with the story of one of my most embarrassing moments in the business. There are no profound lessons to be gleaned from these tales – you should just feel free to laugh at me! If you liked this story, you should read about the time I surprised a guest in an awkward position.