Whether one was in the morning or afternoon shift, the main purpose was in making the guests “feel at home”. The 37th part of a series describing the unknown triumphs and travails of doing international business
Our hotel was situated in the “old town” of Alexandria, where, some two hundred years earlier the first lot of settlers had come in to live. It was on the Potomac river and trading was brisk. In fact, there are some very old buildings and hotels in the area that can trace back the history, and are declared ‘national’ heritage and monument sights.
Besides, Alexandria, being part of Virginia state, was the gateway to Washington DC, the capital, and because of the space limitations, thousands of government employees always lived in the area. The town, therefore, was always buzzing with activity; it had a great variety of restaurants, sight-seeing historical sites, and the connecting link to cross over to Maryland state over the bridge on Potomac. Route No. 1 passed through the town!
One of prime jobs as the supervisor was to know the town itself; I did this best by walking around the area, road by road, after my shift was over during day time, making notes of restaurants, landmarks, etc. The hotel was one of the few that was all ‘suites’ and generally occupied by business travellers visiting DC and meeting the IT companies in Virginia. So, we catered to their breakfast and supper (dinner) needs and did not have regular lunch at our restaurant. The general practice, in business has been, all over the world that most have a “work-through-lunch”, having a quick sandwich, and a leisurely dinner! Of course, our restaurant catered to group lunches upon order, which is why, it was in the evenings when guests would come for booking tables, seek recommendations after mentioning the choice of food that they wanted to eat, and have our complimentary vans drop and collect them! Not only I went on these trips regularly, but drove the coach myself, to experience the work involved.
We had some 22 suites on the ninth floor, catering to Platinum members who were served complimentary breakfasts; there were times when we had run out of rooms on this floor because of high traffic of Platinum guests. We had to assign them to different floors, but yet they had access keys to the elevators that would take them to the Club floor so that they could enjoy the benefit for breakfast in the mornings and snacks in the evenings. Of course, there were days when the assigned in charge of the Club room failed to turn up and the front desk had to cover up this lapse, by taking over that additional responsibility too. In case we had a staff problem ourselves, we had to issue complimentary breakfast at our restaurant, by giving away the coupons! In the first couple of months, I had to undergo training of running the Club room as well in case of emergencies.
Attached to the front desk was a little kiosk that contained various items of sale for the guests. Essential items like toothbrush, paste, shampoo, soap (all kinds of toiletries) were in the suites on a complimentary basis. But the shop had all other items, including snacks, soft drinks, cameras, films, shoe polish, etc. Since I was a regular visitor to Wal-Mart, I found many items, such as umbrellas and eatables that were cheap, and we introduced them in our shop. We had cigarettes on sale also, but, because of government regulations and strict enforcements, we did not make a sale until we demanded and inspected a photo ID of the buyer that he/she was old enough to make the purchase! By keeping a strict control on the sales, and cash register, I was able to bring in a good turnover, soon after I took over.
Unlike the Courtyard, at the Sheraton Suites, all the associates at the front desk had their own little ‘banks’ for their operations. At the end of the day, i.e. their shift, they had to record the dealings and drop in the collection in the safety box, which was in the control of the accounts. There were surprise checks at regular intervals to ensure that the banks were not misused by the associate. In case of misappropriation, the person concerned was relieved of the duty.
When I joined the Suites, we did have an exclusive floor, designed for ‘smokers’ only. On some days, when we were sold out, we had no choice, but to allocate the rooms to non-smokers, who did not accept them, but when bookings were made, our sales operators were trained to clarify the position of this possibility on such days. We did our best to have the housekeeping do the special cleaning and spraying, but we did have trouble with guests, who were compensated in many ways for this unfortunate situation, arising out of total sell-out.
On the second floor, we had a gym, which was open always (accessible by the room key for the guest), but the swimming pool had its operating times, as, due to the Alexandria County regulations only a lifeguard, certified by them, must be present, when it is open to the guests. We could not, therefore, employ even the Olympic gold medallist, if he/she was not certified as a lifeguard by the county. This was the general regulations in most other places, as well.
The gym had a great number of items for the guest to use; but the selection and type of equipment was uniform for all the Sheratons of the same category, but only the number of units may increase, in relation to the size of the rooms in each location. It had nice and pleasant warm water during cold wintery months, while it was cold water for summer. In either case, however, in case of first thunderstorm, due to the possibility of lightening, we had to clear all the users out of the pool immediately.
There were emergency phones available at all important locations, such as above, in order to meet any contingency. Children were not permitted to use the gym unless they were accompanied by a responsible adult member of their family. As a matter of courtesy to the guests, we delivered USA Today every morning to all the occupants; the (Platinum) guests, staying in the Club level had the Wall Street Journal additionally. If someone wanted the Washington Post, they had to get it from the shopee at the lounge.
Whether one was in the morning or afternoon shift, the main purpose was in keeping the guests happy, comfortable and to make them “feel at home”. Every complaint was promptly attended to by the associate concerned and if the guest made difficult demands, the supervisor and/or manager took over the situation and resolved the issue. Guest commentary cards were not only collected, but serious follow up action taken so that such mistakes, if any, did not recur. We were repeatedly told that one unhappy customer is likely to talk about his/her experience to ten other prospective guests, which was detrimental to our interests. We had to remember that an unhappy guest would voluntarily talk about his/her bad experience, as against a happy one, who would only make a good recommendation, when he/she is asked for opinion!
All the front desk associates had to go through the first aid training programs and take part in other customer-related workshops that were regularly conducted by the Human Resources director. Krista and John from Courtyard had become part of the Suites, much to my liking, and Jodie Chang also joined us a little later to take over the sales manager.
I was getting well acquainted with the Geac System and as new associates joined, it became my responsibility to train them as well and take care of their needs until they were able to handle the work independently.
The rush for check-out would become very high just after breakfast in the mornings, as guests would be in a hurry to leave, catch their flights and so on. Yet, in the process of doing this job, we had to keep a good conversation with them and seek their comments on the Guests Commentary Cards; if they had confronted any small issues, they may have overlooked them. If this was not take care of during the check out process, they may be rightly tempted to write this down when they get a questionnaire about their stay, which was sent by emails. If we did not enquire about their stay and how they enjoyed it will also be considered as an affront. So, not only we learnt to remember the names of our guests, but also their likes and dislikes, particularly if they were becoming a regular visitor.
The guest commentary card was analysed at the national level and the corporate office would evaluate the reports, by a team of experts, and place the hotel ratings suitably. We had to remember that we were in competition with other Sheraton Suites, nation-wide, and we had to stand out as the best. Not an easy task, we were in good wicket.
We learnt to create a sense of belonging for the guests and we all went the extra mile to accomplish this feat, as far as possible.
AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce and was associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts. From being the advisor to exporters, he took over the mantle of a trader, travelled far and wide, and switched over to setting up garment factories and then worked in the US. He can be contacted at [email protected].)
The reduced drafts available due to lack of dredging in the Hooghly River Port system there for all to see, and the recent mishandling of the growth of ports and dredging on the Malabar coast is making matters worse
The recent face-off between Cochin Port Trust and Mercator bringing all channel and related deepening dredging in Kochi Harbour to a grinding halt drives yet another nail into the economic security of India with far-reaching consequences well beyond just the Arabian Sea that land-bound policy makers in Delhi do not seem to want to understand.
Last Friday, the Union government-controlled Cochin Port served a notice to Mercator giving the Mumbai-based firm 14 days to resume work. If Cochin Port Trust terminates Mercator’s contract, it will have to find another contractor to complete the rest of the work. While Cochin Port said that Mercator could not complete half of the targeted work even a year after it started. On the other hand, Mercator claimed that it has already done three to four times that quantity (of 2 million cubic metres) and spent more than the contract value already.
What is the real reason behind this specific episode as well as the larger issue on a national basis is what this short essay tries to bring out.
1) Specifically in context with Kochi Harbour, the realities, issues, difficulties and problems in trying to deepen the channel as well as waters around the berths have long been known, and the lack of tangible benefits render this an exercise in futility. This has been known for over two decades, and not just because of the report from Cochin Refineries/Kochi Refineries/BPCL, either.
2) Globally, for more than a few very sensible reasons, operational cargo ports now move away from the traditional habitats which supported their evolution in the first case. Those who do not learn from this simple truth are destined to see their cities collapse in due course. The expansion or formation of a new deep-water port in Kerala should have been at any other location—not Kochi. The reasons are—environmental as far as the existing habitats are concerned, deeper natural options available, easier rail and road connectivity, total fresh start and better accountability without going into legacy problems.
3) Further specifically in context with the way dredging is being done at Kochi Harbour—and I have first-hand knowledge on this—the issue here is more to do with faulty procedures followed down the line and total lack of operational supervision by the Cochin Port Trust. I could write a book on the subject—but very briefly, the same sub-contractors, the same dredgers and the same people on those dredgers do a wonderful job at some other locations in India (both private and public sector) but here off Kochi, the odds are stacked against anybody succeeding. Could it be because the existing powers that be don't want dredging to succeed off Kochi?
3) So why would some vested interests not want Kochi to grow, or even retain existing levels, as a major port? Good question—and to understand that, one has to also understand the politics behind why said vested interests are more keen to see UAE and Sri Lankan ports go from strength to strength. Look deeper behind the private player involved, look at the way politics in Kerala moves, and the answers on why the odds are stacked against Kochi being a major player as a port are clear to see—but it is the people of India who keep footing the bill.
4) On the larger issue of national importance—Kochi is home to some extremely important Indian Navy, Indian Coast Guard, satellite monitoring, as well as other national security assets. Their access to the open sea is being hindered due to the existing situation being worsened. The shipyard and now the new terminals have created problems for the naval airbase near the harbour. Placing a private terminal right in the middle of all this, where security clearance has been and continues to be an issue, is like placing the consular office of an enemy country in the middle of a military ops room.
What could be a possible solution in the present scenario, given that so much has already been spent?
To answer that, a basic understanding of dredging would help, as well as going back to the point already raised—the same dredging assets perform brilliantly elsewhere.
In this particular case, the Cochin Port Trust sub-contracted dredging on the basis of a target depth to be achieved and also provided a time-line. In an ideal world, a sub-contractor does a due diligence, re-checks the data provided to agree on a starting point (datum), bids for the work, the winner/winners reach an agreement with the authorities, and then completes the task. Surveys are conducted with all relevant parties present, along with independent third-party surveyors, and the payments are made.
Till a few years ago, the reality of this depended on the checks and balances as well as personal integrities of the people from the ports. Of course, in some cases, there was blatant cheating. Siltation will happen. Nature will be the easiest entity to blame, and there will always be a convenient storm, typhoon, cyclone or tsunami, after which the whole cycle starts again.But some interesting changes have taken place:
1) The typical dredging scams could not be carried out with private ports, which is one reason you do not read about dredging or channel depth problems with private ports in India. They know how to get their money’s worth.
2) Scientific methods to perform independent surveys using fairly low-cost sonar equipment mounted on simple boats or even satellite information on real depths dredged is now easily available—especially to third parties tasked with re-confirming work done.
3) Some public sector ports have honest managements. Some don’t. Kochi’s maritime authorities and Cochin Port Trust have shown their true colours in the Enrica Lexie episode—do you expect anything better in dredging?
At the end of the day, however, it is the tax-payer who suffers. Seaports in other states like Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh continue to race ahead, Tamil Nadu is not far behind.
In the specific case of Kochi, however, it is the importance of the maritime defence aspect which needs to be re-considered. The earlier dredging in Kochi is brought under the Indian Navy, the better—after all, the same dredgers and same people onboard have done a wonderful job at Seabird-I, Karwar.
(Veeresh Malik had a long career in the Merchant Navy, which he left in 1983. He has qualifications in ship-broking and chartering, loves to travel, and has been in print and electronic media for over two decades. After starting and selling a couple of companies, is now back to his first love-writing.)
The two top executives are booked for allegedly siphoning off Reebok's money by creating ghost distributors across the country and generating forged bills over the last five years
Gurgaon: The Gurgaon Police has formed a special investigation team to look into the alleged Rs870- crore fraud case filed by Reebok India Co against its former MD Subhinder Singh Prem and COO Vishnu Bhagat.
"We have constituted a special investigation team to be headed by Assistant Commissioner of Police Rajesh Phogat for the purpose," Maheshwar Dayal, DCP (East), Gurgaon, told PTI.
He also clarified that the company in its original complaint had stated that the hit due to alleged fraudulent practice of its two former top executives was "Rs870 crore" and the amount mentioned in the FIR was a typographical error.
As per the FIR filed yesterday, Reebok India alleged Prem and Bhagat had indulged in "criminal conspiracy" and "fraudulent" practices over a period of time that resulted in Adidas group taking a "total hit of approximately Rs8,700 crore in the books".
Reebok India is a part of the Adidas group.
In the FIR, Reebok India further said it will also incur a restructuring cost of Rs 487 crore to remedy the consequences of the "criminal and fraudulent" acts of its formers top executives.
Asked about the progress of the case, Dayal said: "Now, we have asked the complainant to give us documents and other evidence to prove that a scam of this magnitude has happened in the company."
When contacted, Adidas Group said: "We are given to understand that our criminal complaint has been registered for investigation by the Indian law enforcement authorities...We shall continue to cooperate with the authorities in their investigation of the matter.