Hotels conduct customer service programs which also trained front office staff in acquiring knowledge of the prominent places in the area. This helped the guest in making their visit a memorable one
Our customer service programs involved acquiring of intimate knowledge of the places, markets and other specialities of the area in which our hotel was located. I was working in Alexandria, Virginia, commonly known as the "Old Town". Back in 1749, it was one of the most important river (Potomac) front towns, where vessels from England used to dock in, bringing materials and immigrants.
It was a centre of trade and other related activities. Even today, many of the streets are laid with cobblestones and there are a number of historical colonial type houses; the oldest of the taverns, popularly known then and now as Gadsby's Tavern, still operates (partly as a museum) and most English visitors would make it a point to visit the tavern and have a 'beer' for old times' sake! There are other important houses that still stand, perhaps, as a monument to the efficiency of the builders of the past! Even today, when there are floods on the Potomac, we have the river water overflowing in some of the streets nearby.
As against this picturesque historic background, just across the Potomac river, stands the majestic Washington DC, which, too has a lot to offer, all built in the last 250 years! These protected monuments are a sight to see, and it was mandatory for all the staff members to have some idea of these because a guest can always look you up and find that you are a staff member and so they can seek information and assistance from you.
The amount of complimentary magazines, brochures and leaflets that the hotel's front office received regularly was huge and we would distribute them as and when they came in. On the top of these, the library and lounge shelves had tonnes of these materials for customers to browse, after which, invariably, they would come and seek our advice, and assistance in booking/making their travel plans to these places.
America itself is a land of immigrants and so it is normal to meet people from hundreds of countries in a matter of minutes, if you were walking down the street in Washington DC for example. By and large, people here are cheerful and friendly, greet you even if you are taking a morning walk, and helpful. I would not dare to say this, if I were walking in a London street; likewise, New York City is a rush hour town, where everybody is in a hurry!
We had basically two kinds of guests; one that came on government related matters-busy, punctual and professional; and the other covered the rest who come on a holiday to see the capital and visit the historical sites.
I had a group of visitors, who came in a bus, and wanted to have a general idea of what they could do in two days as they all wanted to see important places. So, I began, if you wanted to see the very first aircraft, which the Wrights Brothers flew in 1903, well, you had to come down and look it up at the National Air & Space Museum. Or like the Charles Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis", which is also on display.
If you are the historical buff, and you wanted to really visit the Ford's Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, you had to visit DC. Some others would love to visit the JFK Centre for Performing Arts; for the great speech "I had a dream", you would love to visit Dr Martin Luther King Jr National Memorial.
Where else you can see $800 million being printed, everyday, but in the huge mint in DC? And you would wonder how they are able to bring in such a large quantity of paper, print them (which you can see, by taking an admission ticket early in the morning) and how they are distributed (or removed from the mint?) This is one amazing place to visit.
Of course, if you were keen to see the Apollo rockets and other spacecraft that landed on the moon, or the rocks that were brought back to earth, where else can you see them except at the Aerospace museum, near the Dulles airport?
If you wanted to see the Blue Hope Diamond, which originally came from India, you will have to visit the world's largest museum-the Smithsonian Institution, which includes research complexes and 15 other speciality museums. You need to decide and be guided by what is of your specific interest before you venture out to visit this monumental place. Even then, you would need a few days just for this purpose!
Members of the Jewish community would invariably visit the Holocaust Museum to see with horror Hitler's gas chamber and feel sad how people perished because of this tyrant.
There are other institutions like the National Art Gallery, Library of Congress (which has 532 miles of shelves and some 115 million books, and counting) and the beautiful Washington National Cathedral, the 6th largest in the world, built in gothic style, where many important activities have taken place.
The list is actually endless. There are two more things that I could suggest, because the weather prediction is good. One is to take the amphibian coach, which will take you around most sites in DC, and, at the end of which, the coach will get into the river and go about as a boat. Yes, it is amphibian!
The other is the trolley tours, which again will cover all these places and more, and has a fixed route for their trolleys. What you could do is get into the trolley and as it stops at a given site that you would want to explore further, you could get off, spend some time and take the next trolley (schedules are kept), and keep doing this-on and off the trolley-till the very evening, and return back to the hotel! A single ticket will cover the whole day trip, regardless of the number of times you get in and get out, in different trolleys!
There were a few others who would want to take a trip to a casino; the nearest one for us in Alexandria is the Charles Town in West Virginia (some 70 miles, I guess) and the other is in Atlantic City (New Jersey, some five hours by car). There are many other casinos in the country, with Las Vegas as the world's largest gambling town. Most people, however, take a chance at buying a Lotto or the weekly high value jackpot tickets and take a shot at their luck!
Upon completion of this introduction to the sites to see, the group leader took some time to have a discussion in the restaurant after which we arranged for their tours through organized tour companies, so that everyone in the group enjoyed their visit to the city.
It was customary for us to advice them to keep the valuables in safe custody; safety vaults were located in the front office. We would suggest them to go in groups and hold on to children when they cross roads and take all precautions.
Every visitor had an area location map, which included our hotel and nearby landmarks, restaurants, medical stores and shopping area. This map also included our drop off and pick up points within the area so that every conceivable assistance was made available to the guest so that the visit was a memorable one!
(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].)
Here some numbers that indicate how unreserved passengers subsidise the first class AC passengers, which include lots of freeloaders
Getting a railway ticket is a tough job unless you pay a premium and go through the touts. Most people who try the Tatkal route don’t get it. But often, I have discovered when travelling, that there were ample spare berths and seats available on the train itself, usually for a price. Can this be fixed? What is the real picture out there? Here are some numbers I have gathered after extensive observations, discussions and analysis.
• The total number of paying railway passengers is around 17-18 million per day on an average for FY 11-12. And rising. There are no estimates available on non-paying passengers. The average rises during the peak seasons.
• This number does not include passengers on the Delhi Metro (about 2 million per day) and certain other non-Indian Railways sectors, and there is a grey area on how passenger headcount and revenues are shared and accounted for on other Metro services and the Konkan Railway.
• Out of the paying passengers, by numbers, approximately 6% travel on reserved tickets. Approximately 52% of the paying passengers travel as commuters. The balance about 42% travel on unreserved tickets on longer than commuter journeys.
• The number of passengers travelling free, either ticketless or on a variety of ‘entitlements’ —this is a grey area. These are also not accounted for.
• The total earnings from passenger ticketing for the FY11-12 is estimated to be around Rs28,000-Rs32,000 crore. There is a huge grey area on break-ups here, by class of travel. In addition, a solid Rs750 crore or so is earned simply from cancellation charges.
• Just as it is true that earnings from freight subsidise passenger fares, it is also true that the lower class and unreserved class passengers subsidise the upper class fares.
Take a comparative of the potential revenue for the Indian Railways on a sample sector, Delhi-Bengaluru, on a typical superfast train, the Karnataka Express. Fares rounded off to the nearest rupee and passenger capacity varies as per configuration.
• Unreserved 2nd Class—about 200 passengers at Rs550 each = Rs1,10,000
• Reserved Sleeper—about 90 passengers at Rs600 each = Rs54,000 (plus day sitting plus Tatkal and taking into account part-journey passengers)
• AC 3Tier—about 80 passengers at Rs1,480 each = Rs1,18,400 (plus Tatkal)
• AC 2Tier—about 46 passengers at Rs2,400 each = Rs1,10,400 (plus Tatkal)
• 1AC—about 18 passengers at Rs4,170 each = Rs75,060
Please do the math. A typical configuration of a long distance train is 1 x 1AC, 2 or 3x 2AC, 3 or 4 x 3AC and up to 10-12 2nd Sleeper with 2-4 general coaches and a couple of high speed parcel vans. The railways have always known that a full 2nd class sleeper or 3AC Garib Rath configuration train makes far money for them than do these mixed trains, and that 1AC, especially, is a drain on railway resources.
a) Additional income from Tatkal charges are levied only on Reserved Sleeper, AC3T, AC2T and not levied on 1AC and unreserved 2nd Class.
b) Additional income from RAC and day passengers is earned only on Sleeper Class.
c) Additional income from RAC is earned only on Sleeper, AC3T and AC2T.
d) HOR and VIP passengers in 1AC are often entitled to non-revenue blocking off of the upper berth and therefore loss of revenue from the upper berth.
e) Passengers in unreserved and Sleeper classes have additional expenses by way of extortion from a variety of people, official and unofficial, which may or may not accrue to Indian Railways.
f) Some overflow from Unreserved General will find its way into the Sleeper Class, so that is undeclared revenue to the Indian Railways.
g) To provide support services to 1AC, the train will need to provide for an EOG (End on Generator coach) which could have been a revenue earning 2nd Class or Sleeper coach.
h) The pantry car, which could have been a hot-buffet re-serving coach, now has to provide facilities for fresh cooking of food for the 1AC pax)
It is not as though the officials and others in the Indian Railways do not know about this anomaly—that the 1AC passenger is directly subsidised by the unreserved passengers.
One solution was the introduction of the Garib Raths–fully air-conditioned trains with high density AC 3T and AC Chair Car configurations, operating at Rajdhani Express speeds and at fares placed lower than AC-3T, but still within reach of those travelling by Sleeper Class. There was a great demand that some of these “Garib Raths” be converted into point-to-point services, like no-frill airlines.
But these gave way to the more expensive and lower profit ‘Durontos’—where, once again, the infamous 1AC continues to be subsidised by the other passengers.
In addition, and here is another simple truth, a large number of berths in 1AC end up going most or all of the way on non-revenue basis. Or are simply kept vacant, unutilised—which the chairman and members of the Railway Board want to stand and apologise profusely in front of a Parliamentary Committee if a Member of Parliament (MP) does not get a 1AC berth?
Take a look at this report and see what happened to the chairman of the Railway Board when one MP was denied a 1AC berth; would any railway official henceforth take a chance?
Nothing makes me feel better than going through yet another railway experience, especially in India. At the same time, it would not be correct to ignore and remain blind to its short-comings and the blatant scams across all segments that appear to be growing by leaps and bounds on our tracks.
This, then, is the first of a series of articles on the subject. Comments, suggestions and queries invited. In the run-up to this series, the resources used included open and restricted railway documents, CAG reports, other government reports, first hand information from railway personnel existing and retired, responses to RTI applications and personal observations as well as experience going back decades.
In the next article, I will take you through the numbers for the over Rs10,000 crore per annum ticketing scam. The street estimate of revenue earned on passenger tickets by touts, black marketeers, counterfeit tickets, reservation scams and similar is envisaged to be around Rs40-Rs50 crore per day on an all India basis during the holiday and peak seasons. Taking an annualised average of shade below Rs30 crore per day, this comes to about Rs10,500 crore per annum.
(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.)