MILAN, ITALY— “We don’t have your rooms, Mr. St. John.” Those are the words a tour leader never wants to hear. The words weren’t, “We don’t have your rooms ready, Mr. St. John, because housekeeping is running a little behind.” Or “We don’t have your rooms ready, Mr. St. John because the laundry is down, and we are waiting on clean linens.” No. It was the first one. The Queen mother of all things a tour leader NEVER wants to hear from a hotel manager when he is minutes away from check-in, and on his way to Venice to meet the 25 flight-weary people who—at that moment—were headed to the same hotel expecting the room that you promised them when they booked the trip with you months earlier. Yeah, that one.
“Well you’re going to have to find the rooms,” I said. “Our group stayed here last year. It was perfect, and that’s why I booked your hotel this year. I asked for exactly the same.”
Author’s note: When writing, I believe in a very sparing—almost non-existent—use of exclamation points. Though if I ever felt like going on an exclamation point binge to relay my frustration and anger with a particular situation, this column would be the one. Nevertheless, I will refrain from the use of excessive exclamation points, though the reader should mentally insert multiple exclamation points after each of the following quotes attributed to the author.
My best friend, travel companion, collaborator, work partner, and fellow tour leader, Wyatt Waters, was seated next to me on the fast train headed to Venice. He is a very non-confrontational person, and—in our 20-year working relationship/friendship—has probably never even heard me raise my voice, once. He heard two decade’s worth on this day. He was staring straight ahead in his seat, silent, looking very uncomfortable.
“I’ll tell you what you do have,” I continued.” “You have 25 Americans, plus two tour leaders, who have traveled about 5,000 miles and are expecting rooms at your hotel on the Grand Canal. What’s worse, you’re going to have me at the front desk in about 45 minutes, and I expect my rooms. I don’t know what you are going to have to do to make this happen, but you’ve got 45 minutes to figure it out. They have paid too much money to receive anything less than what they have been promised.” (I’m not sure how many exclamation points you mentally inserted in those previous sentences, but odds are, you undershot the situation).
I was mad.
It’s the nightmare scenario I always imagined when Waters and I started leading these tours to Italy several years ago. The majority of the trips we take are in Tuscany. There, we stay in two villas, owned by the same person, who is meticulous in her details. We have never had a problem booking her villas. Though on the Northern Italy tours we take to Venice, Bologna, and Milan, there is always a slight possibility that there might be a screw-up at the hotel.
The rooms had been booked months earlier. All room charges had been pre-paid. The reservation had been checked and re-checked several times over the past weeks, just to make sure nothing like this would ever happen. Yet it was happening, and I was the one who was going to take the heat. But, more importantly, I was in charge of supplying these enthusiastic—but temporarily road-weary—travelers upscale accommodations.
The hotel was perfect. We stayed there last year. The rooms were elegant, large, and furnished with antiques. Many of the rooms overlook the Grand Canal. The hotel is steps away from St. Mark’s Square, which as any frequent traveler to Europe knows, the closer to the city center, the better. Nevertheless, the situation, at that moment, was far from being perfect.
Waters and I took a water taxi from the train station to the hotel, and the manager was waiting for me as we stepped into the door of the hotel. He began apologizing immediately. “Apologies are great,” I snapped back, “But are apologies going to put my guests in your rooms?” (insert a few more exclamation points there, after the question mark, or before, it doesn’t matter to me). He and a front desk worker led me into the lounge off of the lobby. It was a nice small corner space with windows on two sides overlooking the Grand Canal. I figured they were trying to get me away from the front desk area but also put me in a nice room to offer a more calming environment. It wasn’t working.
“We have a problem, Mr. St. John.”
“I know you do.” (more exclamation points)
“It is mostly our fault. When we sent the email correspondence confirming the reserved rooms, we offered two hotel options. The lady in your office chose our annex.”
“I never chose your annex. I chose this same hotel. It’s the one we stayed in last year, and it’s the one I expect to stay in this year. You see at the top of the email where it has this hotel’s name? That’s where we booked to stay, and that’s where we are going to stay.” It was clearly obvious now why he had moved me into the small lounge.
“Yes, Mr. St. John. But if you look at this line here your lady chose this hotel— our annex a block away— instead of our main hotel.” We spent 15 minutes more arguing semantics and email structure, and how-are-Americans-supposed-to-know-this-is-an-entirely-different-hotel-and-not-another-wing-of the same hotel arguments, but it became evident that there were already people sleeping in the rooms I was expecting, and our guests were not going to be out on the streets, but just in a lesser hotel with several inconveniences, think Ritz Carlton vs Holiday Inn.
“Ok, so there’s nothing we can do. We will stay in the annex. But what are you going to do for our inconvenience?” He had admitted that they dropped the ball in the correspondence.
“How about an open bar reception, on the house?”
“How about that, and a chilled bottle of prosecco waiting for our guests in their rooms when they check in? And I don’t want the open bar tab until the last night of our stay here.” He seemed very happy that a resolution had been made. I was happy to have received something for our guests and took some solace in the fact that we never really spend a lot of time in our rooms, anyway.
All seemed to be fine until the second morning when there was no hot water in the hotel and everyone was forced to take cold showers. Trust me, that is the last thing a jet-lagged traveler wants to encounter early into a trip. You think you may know cold, but you don’t know cold until you know Venice-shower-without-hot-water-in-December cold. I could go into details about my discussions with the manager after that event, but you’d just have to use even more imaginary exclamation points. What you do need to know is that I instructed the manager to make his offer of the open bar for all of our guests before dinner on the next night instead of after dinner. I wanted our guests good and thirsty. I wanted them to spend this complimentary two-hour period in that small bar like they were college seniors on a Spring Break road trip with their daddy’s credit card and a no-limit account.
During lunch, I told the group, “Before we go to dinner tonight, we are going to be in the small lounge on the Grand Canal. We are going to have the entire place to ourselves for two hours. The management of the hotel is picking up the bar tab. They are happy to do so. So, do me a favor, every time the waiter asks you if you’d like another drink, and you are wavering on saying no, just remember that cold shower you took yesterday morning, and then ask him for another shot of single malt scotch.”
I dubbed it the “Cold Shower Happy Hour.” Everyone had a blast. I haven’t had any alcohol in my system since 1983, and I wasn’t about to start drinking again over a hotel room mix-up. But I sat there with my glass of water enjoying the lively fellowship and conversation. I was able to catch up with a childhood friend from the old neighborhood who was traveling with us. The conversation got louder and looser as the evening wore on. That night our guests put the “Oh!” in open bar (OK, so I used an exclamation point). The Cold Shower Happy Hour was a hit.
It truly was a blast, and almost so much fun that it was worth the lesser rooms and cold shower— almost. We always serve plenty of wine to our guests during their lunches and dinners, and there is no shortage at wine tastings. But this was different. This felt earned. The wheels of conversation were greased a little more than usual. The bar was abuzz with spirited conversation. The energy in the room— as it had been the entire trip, despite the mix-up— was extremely positive.
In the end, I would rather have had the rooms we were supposed to have, but I probably could have endured another cold shower or two for the sake of having two more hours of great fellowship and togetherness. I was appreciative of the hotel’s effort to make things right, the bartenders received the best tips they’ve had all year, and everybody got a story to tell.