21st September 2014
All in a Day’s Work as a Holiday Rep: A Barricade in Desenzano
I rounded the corner and stopped, astonished at the sight in front of me. Fluttering flags and hand-written placards blocked the entrance to my hotel. I wondered if I had stumbled upon a very local festival, Italians love their festivals, but already I suspected something more sinister. It had all the hallmarks of a protest. Sprawled on sun beds and plastic chairs the participants smirked at me that no one was working in the hotel as all the staff were outside. I skirted round them and entered the reception area. Inside I found two people in Hansel and Gretel outfits, one was mopping the floor and the other was behind the desk. Both seemed surprised to see me.
I introduced myself as the tour manager responsible for a group of twenty people arriving that evening and expressed my concern regarding the pickets outside. An assurance that the events outside would not affect us was not convincing and I called our local agent to ask if they were aware of the situation. The response was brief and unsympathetic – it was Good Friday, the office was closing for the holiday and any problems would have to wait until Tuesday. I was stuttering that I did not think this particular problem could wait when the phone went dead. I called back but a disembodied voice informed me that the office was now closed. Sensing impending disaster I called my boss but it seemed England had also closed for Easter. I left a message about the strike.
My mind was in turmoil as I wandered around Desenzano envious of the carefree holidaymakers soaking up the sun and an Aperol spritz outside the lively bars lining the waterfront on Lake Garda. What should I do if the pickets were still there when I returned to the hotel? Reluctantly I re-traced my steps and they were still there. Now I had to work out an explanation for my guests and decide when to tell them. I chatted animatedly to them throughout the short transfer to our hotel assuring them they were about to enjoy an Easter break to remember. My heart was thudding in my chest as we turned the corner. I was relieved to see an empty road ahead. There was no need to say anything.
As Gretel struggled to do the check-in she whispered to me that dinner would have to be delayed as the waitresses had not yet arrived. The lack of cooking suggested our meal had not arrived either and a glimpse into the kitchen confirmed my worst fears – it was empty and no pans were bubbling on the stoves. I suspected our meal was being cooked or scavenged elsewhere.
We were all gathered in the bar when two young ladies tottered in on six inch heels sporting skirts that were not much longer. Their plunging necklines had all my male guests open-mouthed as they were ushered into the restaurant and we were invited to follow them. Plates of tepid tomato pasta were plonked in front of us with the aplomb of someone who considered waiting on tables was beneath them. Two small pieces of boiled chicken accompanied by a bowl of lettuce leaves did nothing to lighten the mood. It was time to take action and I asked for the manager. He was not available – he had sacked all the staff and then disappeared. I took photographs of our meal and immediately a stern, suited gentleman appeared and introduced himself as the director and promised that it would be better the next day.
I hoped we would not be there the next day as I was expecting my company would move us to another hotel. My clients were of the same opinion. Fortunately they were happy with all other aspects of the hotel and in particular the service in the bar. Generous measures and a failure to charge for them were having a very mellowing effect. A concerned guest pointed this out to me and I felt obliged to inform Gretel. She shrugged and said that the ‘big boss’ would arrive soon and everything would be fine.
Fresh coffee and warm croissants cheered everyone up at breakfast the next morning and I allowed myself to think the crisis had been averted. Then a convoy drew up outside – the pickets were back. My group watched curiously before turning to me for an explanation. Most of them were philosophical about the situation and some even saw the funny side of it. Meanwhile Hansel, now sporting a monogrammed white jacket, scurried around serving coffee and refilling the breakfast buffet watching by the two ‘waitresses’ as they lounged on the sun terrace drinking coffee.
Fortified by the promise of a good meal that evening with wine included (my suggestion) we sent off on an excursion. As we walked past them the pickets appealed for our support. I was surprised my guests did not point out that their action was spoiling their holiday but stopped to lend a sympathetic ear. As we headed for Bardolino it soon became clear the crisis at the hotel was not far from their minds and when our guide invited questions. Did she know what was on the menu for dinner that evening? Confidently I promised to find out. It should have taken one call from my mobile but it took several. In response to my first call I was told the chef had not arrived. My second call resulted in the news that the chef had arrived but was out shopping. The third time I called I was informed that the director had to okay the menu but he was in a meeting with the protestors. I began to smell a rat, or rather veal, as I had specifically requested that veal was not on the menu as it was not popular with British tourists.
My companions were becoming suspicious and constantly requesting news so I went into hiding while the group strolled along the wide promenade at Bardolino. I was a sitting target in the bus when we moved on to Sirmione so I made a big show of calling the hotel. This time I got an answer – the main course would be veal. There was uproar as several people refused to entertain the notion of eating teenage cows and demanded a second choice. Three more calls and two hours lurking in shady alleys in the delightful town of Sirmione and I was informed that the main course would be scaloppini. From my experience of Italian cuisine I knew that scaloppini was a style of cooking and generally related to veal. I suspected someone thought they were being very clever. Determined to keep that knowledge to myself I gave everyone the slip in Lazise and strolled around the outskirts of this pretty walled town.
That evening the meal was so badly cooked the meat defied identification but the wine went down well. The most disillusioned had gone out for dinner muttering that they expected to be reimbursed for their meal. It was a reasonable request but I could make no promises. I redistributed their wine amongst the group before the hotel could reclaim it. I felt I was getting off lightly as the group were clearly more interested in having a good holiday than making my life miserable – I was doing a good job of that myself. There had been no contact from my office and I felt very alone.
Easter day dawned without recognition in our hotel and no fresh coffee for breakfast as the machine had broken down. This was not the only casualty. The lack of staff was becoming increasingly apparent in my growing list of locked safety deposit boxes, doors falling off showers, dirty rooms and telephones not working. I reported all these problems to Gretel who shrugged and said it was Easter and nothing could be done. We lined up at the bar for some coffee and when it became clear we were expected to pay for it I demanded to see the boss. He had arrived in the early hours but was unavailable due to his need to catch up on some sleep. It had been difficult to identify him as he looked, and behaved like a guest in the hotel. He did respond with a message agreeing to waive the charge for coffee but this generosity was limited to one hot drink per person.
We spent that day in Verona and I was grateful that my companions were able to put aside the problems at the hotel and concentrate on enjoying this beautiful city. And it was such a lovely day out most people decided not to spoil it by risking another bad meal at our hotel and to eat in Desenzano instead. I was hoping to join them but two people protested that they had paid to eat in the hotel and they were not going to pay again. Company policy dictated that I should join them. I hoped the food would be edible. It was surprisingly good but I was not left in peace to enjoy it. I was escorted to the back office and ordered to explain the absence of eighteen guests – I was happy to comply. After dinner the group was re-united and we sat outside on the patio. The barman and the two waitresses were also there and I had keep asking them to come inside to serve guests waiting at the bar.
Some people had an early start the next morning so I requested an early breakfast. My request was refused and after another battle the boss offered them a cup coffee from the bar. It was an empty gesture as the breakfast waiter overslept and they were still trying to rouse him an hour after my guests had departed for Venice. The stalwart Hansel had returned to his own hotel and the barman was in charge of breakfast. I had been up early to make sure my guests got away on time. At seven thirty Gretel was polishing glass doors but breakfast was not ready. When I pointed this out to Gretel she said had I ordered it. I said no and indicated the sign that said breakfast was served from seven thirty to ten. I sat down at our empty table and listened to Gretel frantically dialling numbers and getting no response. The rest of the group had decided to have a late start and by the time they arrived a very grumpy barman was organising the buffet. One crisis averted but another one loomed.
To tempt the group to eat in the hotel that evening I had been told that menus would be provided at breakfast so choices could be made. Just after the last person left the menus arrived. When I said it was too late and that I had been promised the menus early I was assured that it was early. The boss himself stormed into the restaurant and announced that he was doing more than enough to please my guests. My relationship with him, which had started reasonably well, had deteriorated alarmingly and I had acquired a shadow – the gentleman who had said he was the director the first evening.
Tuesday arrived and so did our local agent – five days too late – ready to discuss compensation. I was told to wait in the bar where I watched another drama unfolding. My guests were paying their bills and every one was exactly €6. Some protested that they had not bought anything and others demanded receipts. It was uproar as a flustered Gretel, unable to deal with either request, appealed to the boss for help. He stormed into reception and cancelled some bills and roared that the receipts would be posted to everyone else. Meanwhile I began ushering everyone towards the bus that had arrived to take us to the airport. It was a relief for me and my shadow when everyone was on board as I had covered a lot of ground at great speed trying to make a quick getaway.
Back in the UK I discovered that the message I had sent from the front line had not been taken seriously. Such things never happened to their holiday reps. But the feedback forms provided proof and everyone was refunded the cost of four dinners. Except me, for me it was all in a day’s work.