One Saturday afternoon, I am sitting in the front row of First Class on a Northwest Airlines DC-10, heading from Minneapolis to LA, on my way to Australia.
The aircraft thrusts down the runway and takes-off. Immediately, a storage unit door in the galley in front of me opens automatically and an ice bucket comes out and rolls down the aisle into Economy Class, followed smartly by a tray, then a carton of orange juice, and then a carton of milk.
This is the most impressive customer process re-engineering that I have ever seen. Not only has Northwest reduced the delivery time of the beverage service to the Economy Class customers to practically nothing, they have also zeroed the headcount required to perform the process.
* * * * *
On my next trip to Australia, I arrive at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney at about 7 AM on Monday morning, after another short fourteen-hour flight from LA. When I booked this trip, the hotel said that I could have the same excellent room which I had last time.
Well, when I check in, it seems that being a Sheraton Club International Gold Card member means nothing to them. They say that I can’t have my ‘usual’ room, but a different one of identical specifications, because they are 100% full.
When I get to this room, it turns out to be identical to my preferred room, but of opposite symmetry, which leaves me confused and disoriented. Every time I want to go to the bathroom, I walk into the closet.
Later, I learn why they are 100% full. I read in the local paper that an American entertainer known as ‘Jacko’ is coming to Sydney and has booked four complete floors of the Sheraton on the Park. I vaguely remember him from when I was a boy (although I avoided any interest in pop music on principle); I think he's one of the Osmonds.
* * * * *
* * * * *
A couple of days later, I call a taxi from the office at about six and head back downtown. It is a beautiful, sunny afternoon in Sydney. We drive over the harbour bridge and past the magnificent opera house, which I had always wanted to see, and now I am taking for granted.
As we approach the Sheraton, the traffic grinds to a halt. We can see a vast crowd outside the hotel, and a mass of yellow and green balloons. I decide to walk the rest of the way. As he is writing my receipt, the taxi driver asks me who is coming to the Sheraton. “I think it’s Michael Jackson,” I say.
I walk down and across the road to the hotel. The crowd is about eight-people deep, screaming and pushing and generally being hysterical.
I assume that there must be a break in the crowd where the police are controlling the entry and exit of genuine hotel guests. I hold my key-card in my hand as a symbol of my right to enter the hotel. But, looking at the police officers immediately in front of the door, who are struggling to keep the crowd from invading, I realize that this is not going to be straightforward. I try to push through the crowd, but it is futile.
Looking around, I see other business people with briefcases and computers who are also milling about wondering what to do.
The bar of the Sheraton has an exit to the street. I walk about thirty yards down the road, to where the crowd has thinned to nothing, and up to the glass door of the bar. There is a thuggish man in a leather jacket standing in front of it, possibly one of Jackson’s security entourage.
I hold up my key-card and my Sheraton Club International Gold Card. He barely glances at them and doesn’t appear to be at all impressed.
“Sorry, this door is closed,” he says abruptly, before I say a word.
“How am I supposed to get to my room?” I demand.
“You’ll have to wait until Michael Jackson arrives,” is his non-negotiable (and smug) response.
Now I am positive that he does not work for the hotel; he shows no courtesy or respect at all. He must be a security thug hired by Jackson’s organization and he has been placed in a position of authority and power over me. I am a paying guest of this hotel (and a Sheraton Gold Club member!) and he is denying me entry. I feel the outrage swell inside me. It’s his male ego confronting my male ego, and he has the upper hand, which gives him pleasure and makes me very angry. There is no point in trying to reason with this individual, or discuss the matter with him any further.
I evaluate my opponent. He has about a hundred pounds of solid muscle on me, and several inches of height. I, on the other hand, conservatively estimate that I have about fifty IQ points on him.
I consider swinging at him with my attaché case. Laden with my laptop computer inside, the case is heavy and makes a plausible weapon. A moment of déjà vu comes over me. This action might knock the wind out of him slightly, but not enough to conclude the conflict, and probably wouldn’t do my computer any good either. Also, if I take this physical approach, he will respond physically and I am not likely to fare well. I decide to leverage my IQ advantage.
I know that the Sheraton has a back entrance; I used it myself on the last trip, but it means walking all the way around the block. I set off, looking-out for an alternative route. A few yards down is an office building, with a large foyer. I enter, go straight across and find an exit to the street at the other side of the block. Looking ahead towards the hotel, I see that there is no crowd at the back, although there may be another hired thug at that entrance. As I walk along this back street, a completely discreet door, in a featureless wall, suddenly opens and some hotel workers come out, with the look of people going off-duty. The door has no handle on the outside. Before it closes, I grab the door and rush inside.
I am in the underground service area of the hotel, a dark netherworld not to be seen by guests: gray concrete corridors, no natural light, signs that say ‘Laundry’, ‘Goods In’, ‘Human Resources’. I wander through and pass a few people who do not challenge me. Eventually I find a lift that takes me up into the lobby of the hotel.
There is a crowd inside as well, but they are controlled so that a large open space is being kept clear immediately inside the front doors. The hotel has a spiral staircase leading up to the mezzanine floor, which overlooks the lobby. That floor and the staircase are crowded with camera people. Looking up, I see that the several other floors which overlook the lobby are lined with hotel staff all looking down.
I walk around the back of the crowd, and into the bar, which is curiously peaceful and has a few normal people in it. I proceed down to the end of the bar, and to the very glass door that is guarded by the thug on the outside. I am now standing right behind him, only the glass separating us.
I want him to know that I have succeeded and that he has not been able to stop me; that I have won. I consider whether to tap on the glass and make that rude sign with a finger, (the Americans call it ‘giving the finger’) but I fumble with my fingers and I’m not sure which one it is supposed to be, or which way around. I decide to be spiritually superior, by walking away. (Besides, he might open the door and pull me out).
Back in the lobby, the crowd goes wild as Jackson walks in. I permit myself to stand on my toes and stretch up only once to see above the crowd, from the back. I glimpse a black hat and a white face (or mask?).
I retire to my room. Having showered and changed, I nonchalantly return to the lobby with absolutely no interest in seeing Michael Jackson; I am not going to lose my dignity at any cost. The crowd has nearly completely dispersed. A few sad individuals are loitering around instead of going home to revise for their school exams.
I relax in the bar and observe a Michael Jackson look-alike in a leather jacket and tight trousers, wearing black glasses despite the subdued lighting. He is strutting around trying to look completely cool. I observe two Japanese women wearing Michael Jackson leather jackets trying to look nonchalant while they have a drink, although it is obvious to all that they are loitering around on the off-chance that Michael might come down to the bar for a drink.
I decide that if I meet him in the gym the next morning, I will completely ignore him.
* * * * *
Later in the week, I get back from the Sydney office one evening to witness a lot of people buzzing around the hotel, but nowhere near as many as that first day when I couldn’t even get into the hotel. I learn from one of the hotel staff that Michael Jackson is about to leave for his first concert.
I leave my attaché case in my room, comb my hair and go back down to observe what is going on, not because I am a Jacko fan, but merely to use my privilege as a paying hotel guest to the full, and because there are many beautiful women loitering around, who look as if they need some focus in life, which I may be able selflessly to provide.
I am wearing a smart fawn suit from London, a pale blue shirt from Hong Kong (one of those ones which I had made for me), an elegant Marks and Spencer tie which blends the shirt and suit colours perfectly, and brown suede lace-up shoes.
I go down to the Mezzanine floor and take up a position at the railing, overlooking the lobby. It is an indication of how much quieter the hotel is today; the day that Jackson arrived, I would not have been able to get anywhere near the balcony. I lean against the railing and watch the goings-on. There is an odd assortment of characters: Japanese tourists, children, beautiful women, hippies, business people. Some are loitering like me, obviously waiting for the big event, others are going about their business.
A beautiful woman, in an elegant but revealing dress, comes and leans against the balcony next to me.
“I suppose you guys have had a busy day,” she says.
Looking at her, I do not recognize her as having any involvement with my project at work, and cannot discern how she would know anything about the relative eventfulness of my day.
“And who might we guys be?” I ask coolly.
“Security,” she replies confidently.
Now, I usually don’t mind if someone attributes any mysterious, exotic persona to me, but to be mistaken for a Jackson entourage thug like the one that I had dealt with earlier is too much.
“I’m a paying guest of the hotel,” I say indignantly. “I’m only curious to see what all the fuss is about.”
She seems disappointed and after a few seconds wanders off. Now, perhaps I should have implied that I am Security, she might have found it irresistible. Idiot.
A middle aged English woman comes and stands next to me and we both assure each other that we are not Jackson fans, we just want to see what all the fuss is about.
Suddenly there is silence. Then a group of men appears on the other side of the Mezzanine floor, and begins a measured descent down the spiral staircase.
“I didn’t know he had a moustache,” I say to the woman next to me. I’m being deliberately flippant and those within ear shot laugh.
“That’s his bodyguard,” she enlightens me.
There are four bodyguards, all tall African-American men, with short hair and wearing sharp designer suits and collarless shirts.
The scruffy man with them is, I think, Michael Jackson. He is anorexically thin, and wearing tight black clothes and a black hat. His skin is surprisingly brown, not pale white as I have seen in pictures. An African-American boy about ten years old accompanies him. Jackson waves casually to the people in the lobby and his group exits the hotel.
After he leaves, there seems to be that excited buzz that occurs after we’ve had our examination papers collected; everyone wanting to share and discuss their experience and thoughts with everyone else.
I go back to my room and have an apple for dinner, saving my corporate meal allowance.
Apparently on his return later that night, Jackson gets married in a private ceremony in the hotel. I am there! (Somewhere in the same hotel, several stories below the wedding).
* * * * *
On my final evening in Sydney, I am in my room watching the Sheraton’s in-house video channel, since none of the beautiful women chasing Michael have decided to chase me instead.
Roger Moore, famous for being The Saint and James Bond, appears on the screen and explains how Sheraton International is collecting money for Save The Children to provide vital immunizations to protect the lives of countless children in the Third World. He explains that each guest checking in to a Sheraton will have one dollar charged to their account, for the immunization fund. This will mean that Sheratons in Europe alone will raise $10 million each year for the fund. He reassures us that the donation is entirely voluntary.
Roger explains, “Of course, if you don’t want to make the donation, please advise the receptionist, and your account will be adjusted accordingly.” (He smirks).
I check the Financial Policies and Procedures manual, and it seems that there is no way that I can pass this charge on to the company; I cannot use my corporate American Express card to make charitable donations. Since it is optional, I can ‘opt’ not to have it, if I so wish.
The next day, when I am checking out, the gorgeous receptionist with the long blonde hair and the green eyes gives me my bill summary, in Australian dollars. I review it.
Room Service: $290
Mini bar: $48
Save the Children: $1
I catch the receptionist’s attention.
“About this charge for Save the Children”, I say, pointing to it.
“Yes?” she says, expectantly, her beautiful eyes locked on mine.
“Well, I...um...I…think it’s a jolly good idea,” I say.
* * * * *
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