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“How many girls and how many boys?”
“Of the births—how many girls, how many boys?” I say.
“We don’t have the breakdown,” says Trish.
“But isn’t that the next question you’d naturally ask? If a country manager reports a baby born in one of our hotels in Shanghai, or Kiev, or Atlanta, wouldn’t you want to know if it was a boy or a girl…?”
“The number of boys and girls has no value, business-wise,” says Trish.
“… How he or she is doing? How the mother is? Where they live, or where they are going to live? Do we send a gift?”
“We don’t collect that data, Kate.”
“Why not, though? Guests of the future, those kids…”
“There are only nine of them. People are born in our hotels, people die in them, but those are not typical Guest Experiences. More people get married in hotels, and many more attend as guests of the wedding but also guests of the hotel.”
“Double guests,” I observe.
“Exactly. And we, or the hotel hosting the wedding, are also hosting the wedding guests,” says Trish.
“Double hosts,” I say.
I zone out of the meeting and doodle on my branded notepad. I didn’t get any sleep because I found emails from another woman on Adam’s computer last night. I haven’t told him yet because I don’t know exactly what I’ve discovered. Adam crashed out on the sofa but at least he actually slept. He’s never had trouble sleeping. Before we got married, when shopping and cooking still felt like playing house, the first time we had a night in, Adam fell asleep in front of the television and I minded. Abandoned on the sofa. The same sofa he slept on last night while I lay awake in our bed, worrying.
I turn the hotel-corporation logo into a skull-faced totem pole with Trish’s hairstyle, and it occurs to me that most of our double-concentrate wedding guests are themselves married, or have been, or will be, which means that all over the world, hotel rooms and corridors, bars, spas, restaurants, lifts, and lobbies are populated with brides and grooms of the past, present, and future and I’d guess, though we don’t collect this data either, that quite a high percentage are also adulterers because the other thing that hotels are often used for, apart from weddings, is affairs.
“Loyalty is crucial,” says Trish, and my attention snaps back into the room. “We talk a lot about brand preference and actually it’s the same thing as brand loyalty, which grows out of the Guest Experience, so the key question is: What Do Guests Want?”
She pauses a moment for this to sink in.
“We need to work out what inspires brand loyalty and apply it. Rigorously. We can’t just do things and hope for the best. For example, adding hash browns to the hot items on the breakfast buffet in all the Palazzios, or reinstating concierges across all the Regals, or providing branded umbrellas in the Empire Express chain—are these going to make guests choose us again? Are they impacting the Guest Experience? I’m happy to sanction things we know drive brand preference, but if they’re not then they are just a cost to the business.”
Around the table, several costs to the business shrink visibly—Laura, who brought back concierges, a popular but expensive idea; Owen, who designed the “Empire Strikes Back” umbrellas, so well made that they bound open in their enthusiasm to protect you from the rain; and Sam, who masterminded the hash-browns initiative, which has been slated at head office even though I bet we’d all have hash browns were we staying in a Palazzio, which is unlikely because although Palazzio is our biggest and best-known brand, it’s a little downmarket for most of the executives in the room.
Trish takes us through the figures for 2007, how we’re performing relative to our main competitors. It’s not good news. The main competition is, as always, Hilton and InterContinental Hotel Group, but now we also have to watch out for Novotel.
“We’ve got to steal market share,” says Trish. The Senior Vice President for Sales and Marketing and my new boss, Trish is one of the most powerful people in Palazzio Hotel Corporation. Highly ambitious, a tall and broad bottle-blonde, a formidable presence in any situation, a handsome woman you’d have to say, and, on a good day, sexy. She goes on. “Our strategy to steal share is brand preference. We must win loyalty so that guests choose us. Not just once but every time they need a hotel.” The whole room agrees with Trish. This is what we must do. I’ve only been here four months, but already I’ve heard what people say about her: you can dot the i’s but don’t cross the t.
“The question we need to answer is: What Do Guests Want?” says Trish, and summons Nick from marketing. He is wearing a yellow cashmere golfing jumper. Trish stiffens her spine and leans in toward the screen. The rest of us slump and lean away.
“We know that finding a hotel at the end of a long day of meetings or travel can be stressful, so we want our Hardworking Heroes to start relaxing the moment they see the familiar Empire Express sign,” Nick says. “We want them to start feeling at home when they walk over the branded welcome mat at the main entrance, and when they enter the registration area the background music should soothe their minds and reinforce their confidence that they’ve made a smart choice. It’s not just visible things that make a difference—we need to leverage all the senses to build up a sense of familiarity and ease with our hotels. In many ways we’re training guests just as much as we train staff.”
Like dogs, I think—but don’t say. There are fifteen people in this meeting, eight hundred in head office and six hundred and thirty-three thousand spread out over twelve thousand hotels in a hundred countries. We’re all just single digits in a giant corporate machine and the idea, I’ve learned, is to blend into the bigger number.
Trish clears her throat. “Nick’s point is that although you can see many aspects of branding in broad daylight, where it really works is subliminal. And we have to achieve consistency across all areas.”
Nods of agreement in the half-dark room.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work on how to make the Guest Experience richer, and what we’ve come up with is Signature Scent.” Nick clicks up a new slide:
Brand Standard 739
• Hotels must provide the brand-defined Signature Scent throughout reception and lobby areas
• The SS must have a strong presence in all public areas of the hotel
• The SS must be operational from 0700 to 2200 hours
• Scent machines must be located at regular intervals (the quantity of machines will vary according to lobby size)
• Scent cartridges must be replaced monthly to ensure consistent delivery of scent
• No other scented products in the lobby and registration areas of the hotel. (Staff wishing to wear perfume may wear the Signature Scent as body spray.)
“Do we really need that last point?” I say. “Surely nobody will opt to wear the Signature Scent?”
“They do,” says Nick. “We piloted this in New Orleans and Singapore. People wanted the spray.”
“It’s a freebie,” says Sam. “Try some!” She brings out a box from underneath the table with samples—“Diamond” for the Regal hotels, “Palazzio Pearl” for the Palazzios, and “Empire Amethyst” for the Empire Express chain.
“Look,” says Trish. “There are more complaints than we can tolerate about hotels not being ‘fresh’ enough. Bad smells drifting into the lobby—burned food, fried breakfasts, even drains sometimes. This is how we’re addressing it.”
“But it’s not just that,” says Sam. “There’s a positive side to this too! It’s like the advice you get when you’re selling your house—prepare warm bread or fresh coffee when people are looking round, because the delicious smell will make them more likely to buy. We go so much by our senses. It must go back to when we lived in caves and things like that.”
“Right, I get it,” I say, “though we might want to look at the acronym. The SS could be problematic in some places.”
“Like where?” says Sam.
“Germany, France, and Great Britain for a start,” I say. “Austria, Poland—”
“I really don’t think it will make much difference, but you can check that when you go,” says Trish.
I’d forgotten about my trip to Poland. I don’t know how I’m going to get through it now.
* * *
I think back to yesterday—Sunday afternoon, pottering about at home. Adam is getting ready to go out for Christmas drinks with his friends. Our daughters are in the kitchen feeding chocolate cereal to Charlie the dog, a black Staff who’s grown stout with age.
I want to check the gym schedule, because we’re going to Adam’s parents for Christmas and the polite extra eating can only be mitigated by exercise before as well as after, so I go into the box room we use as a study to see if I can use Adam’s computer. This is already strange because Adam always keeps his computer locked and, knowing this, why bother? But still. I wander in and waggle the mouse and BAM!—his emails. A woman’s name I don’t recognize. And her calling my husband Prince Charming.
I recoil from the screen, retreat from the room immediately. Dazed, I sit on our rumpled, unmade bed. Downstairs the children start squabbling. They sound so far away. Bubbles rather than voices rising up past my ears. I am a spent swimmer with no land in sight. If I ask him, he will fob me off. On some distant shore, Adam steps out of the shower.
He enters with dripping-wet hair and a towel wrapped around his middle. I can’t look at him. “I’m going to run a bath for the girls,” I say, and walk out. It is surprisingly easy to act normal, especially since normal already includes one or both of us being a bit pissed off.
Once the children are asleep and Adam out, I set up on the floor in the study with bags of presents, wrapping paper, tape, scissors, glass of wine. Adam’s emails have been carefully put away again, the account locked. A little box is waiting for the correct password. I type in Adam’s birthday, my fingers and nerves aflutter because I am stealing something, or attempting to. The numbers and letters I tap into the keyboard come up as dots on the screen, as if the computer is aiding and abetting me by hiding my break-in, but then it switches allegiance—it’s Adam’s computer after all: wrong password. I go back to sitting on the floor, swig the wine, and put the glass down too quickly so that some of it sloshes out onto the gift I am wrapping, a pale blue toweling dressing gown for his mother.
Aha—his mother’s maiden name!
I am relieved—I have failed to transgress—but then I remember why I am doing this. Who is Louise Phelps and why is she calling my husband Prince Charming?
Somewhere inside myself I already know. Often Adam doesn’t come to bed until the small hours—he dozes in front of the television until I am asleep—and if knowing includes this feeling of heavy, unspecified dread, then I’ve known for ages, been working very hard at not knowing, at keeping that knowledge battened down, out of sight, out of earshot, in a locked chest where I can’t feel it. Recently it has started seeping out. I bought a book called The Happy Couple: How to Make Long-Term Relationships Last and Thrive, the kind of book Adam scoffs at but hasn’t noticed me reading because he doesn’t come over to my side of the bed very often; or if he has noticed, he isn’t commenting. And, a few weeks ago, when I woke and Adam wasn’t there, I tiptoed into the study and surprised him at his computer—which he hurriedly closed, bundling me back to bed. Not a big thing, but clues don’t have to be big—they just have to be spiky enough to poke through the membrane of usual awareness, like a splinter, or a thorn. The next morning, when I asked him what he’d been doing, he said, “Working.” I did not question further.
I type more passwords, less hesitant now, as if finding the right word will avert rather than bring on disaster. It isn’t our wedding anniversary, the place we met, the place we married. I continue wrapping presents. A train set and a pirate ship for the girls, a selection of handmade chocolates for my mother, a pair of beige cashmere socks for his father, and for my father a DVD boxed set of Laurel and Hardy.
Two hours later, my wineglass drained, I have a mini-epiphany. I tell his computer that I have forgotten the password and it replies with a security question to which I know the answer: his father’s middle name.
* * *
I find Prince Charming straightaway. I still don’t know who Louise Phelps is, but in her email she commends Adam on his impeccable courtesy, she agrees with him that they should no longer be in contact, and she is grateful to him for having had the good sense to stop this thing before it had got out of hand, because she doesn’t want to threaten her marriage either. So that’s odd. Instead of discovering an affair, I seem to have discovered the end of one.
* * *
I scroll through an exchange of chatty, flirty, witty emails, outraged at the sheer effort Adam made on Louise Phelps’s behalf, and I hate reading how she lapped it all up. It is like watching a courtship, I think, then correct myself: not “like.” My husband has been chasing another woman and here it is, right in front of me in one long chain of correspondence: the most compelling thing I’ve ever read.
There are eighty-four emails between Adam and Louise Phelps, each one a cold, metal scoop taking something away from my insides. I was safe before; now I’m not. It wasn’t perfect, our marriage, but it was solid with firm foundations, a good place to bring up a family. I read thirty-two of their emails, but I don’t have time to read them all because it is 11:45 and Adam said he would be back by midnight.
At 11:59 I am in bed, long and rigid in the dark, eyes staring up at the ceiling, arms stiff by my sides. I hear the front door open at 12:14, some slumping about in the hall, which would be Adam taking off his coat and boots; some clunking, which would be him emptying his back pockets of wallet, keys, and phone onto the kitchen table; the suction sound of the fridge opening and a clink—more beer, maybe a glass of milk—the TV going on and the sitting-room door being pushed, by his foot probably, over the carpet and softly closing. The sounds rattle off me.
1:14. Adam by now passed out on the sofa. The house is quiet but I am not absorbing anything. The thoughts racing over my surface are brittle, less than a millimeter deep. I lie in the dark, a blinking stick.
At 3:20 I open The Happy Couple by Dr. Janis B. Rosenfeld and Dr. Michael Abrahams MD and turn to the chapter on infidelity. There are different sorts, apparently; listed in a handy chart and color-coded. Least threatening is when one-half of the couple gets a crush on a third party: sugar pink, not so bad, can even be invigorating for the main relationship. In the middle are active flirtations, bright coral, but if also a secret these turn into traffic-light red: Stop! Danger! At the far end of the spectrum, past chili pepper, beyond brick and beets, shrouded in burgundy lurks the darkest kind, but even this is not necessarily marriage-death. The important thing, say Rosenfeld and Abrahams, is to be able to talk about it.
We never talk about things like this. I trawl my memory. Once, in our twenties, Adam admitted admiration for Jennifer Lopez; it didn’t blossom into an ongoing conversation, but there were other things we didn’t mention. For example, we didn’t talk properly about the fact that his work wasn’t going very well. Adam quit his job three years ago to set up his own business. He keeps busy but doesn’t earn enough for us to live on—we’ve barely been scraping by—which is why I’m back at work full-time as “Director of Business Innovation” at PHC. It’s a new role and I’m only just getting to grips with it, but basically my job is to contribute to the financial growth of the company by generating new projects, products, and services. I was pleased to take this job; I had good years at home with the girls and they’re both now in school, and anyway I like work. I love hotels—I’ve built my whole career in or around them and it’s always an adventure, staying in one. Hospitality has always appealed to me; looking after people, making them feel at home.
* * *
The Guest Experience meeting isn’t going too well and Trish’s irritation is growing. “Look. If we all want to keep our jobs, and I assume we do, then we are going to have to do better than this. Our brands are not currently preferred by the market. Let me recap: we have made a promise to shareholders. Palazzio Hotel Corporation’s profits will rise from three hundred and thirty million pounds to four hundred and forty-five million in the next twenty-four months. The City will not be kind if we don’t deliver on it. We have to open more hotels, we have to get guests in, and we have to keep them coming back: with transport links multiplying and everything becoming faster and more digital, travelers’ tastes and needs are evolving rapidly, forcing us to innovate constantly or lose out to the competition. This place badly needs some innovation—” She pauses and looks over at me, and for a moment I fear she’s going to say that the future of the company depends on how well I do my job. Thankfully, she doesn’t.
“The Guest Experience is what holds it all together, it’s the key to brand loyalty. Gérard—could you capture this on the flip chart?”
I’m not the only one crazy with lack of sleep and strung out on coffee and adrenaline—Trish’s hair is more firmly sprayed, her eyes more lavishly made up than usual, as if she needed to fix herself into place. I notice Trish’s eyelashes made into long spiders’ legs by thick coats of mascara, not quite hiding the puffy circles that betray a fair few nightcaps of single malt, and the silk scarf side-knotted at her throat, a kind of faux-casual air-stewardess look. It’s the faux you have to watch out for.
Gérard writes on the flip chart What Guests Want, and underlines it.
“We’ve done some market research on this,” he says.
“And what does the market tell us?” says Trish.
“Location is important. Perhaps the most important—”
“We know that. What else?”
“Clean room, good price…”
“Yes, yes, of course—but those are basic. Granted, we have to get the basic things right, but every hotel has to, that’s what the guest expects. Those are Guest Expectations.” Trish pauses while Gérard writes it on the flip chart. “Beyond these, when they stay in our hotels, what experience can we give them that will make guests choose us again? What’s going to inspire brand loyalty? What Do Guests Want?”
“What do guests want?” repeats Gérard thoughtfully.
The $443 million question. I look at Trish’s tired skin, the shadows etched under her eyes that no amount of light-reflecting, skin-plumping, or radiance-bestowing Dior, Chanel, or L’Oréal could conceal.
“What do guests want?” says Nick from marketing, sounding desperate.
I feel my own eyes prickling. I didn’t close them for more than twenty minutes last night. I have drunk so much coffee that my fingertips feel wrinkled, my tongue a used doormat.
“A good night’s sleep,” I say.
Nick lets out a little cry of relief; his shoulders drop.
Gérard breaks into a wide smile.
Trish practically hugs me.
Copyright © 2016 by Anna Raverat