Tony Deyal | Upside down and topsy-turvy
I heard there was a survey by the International Luxury Hotels Association, and one of the questions was, "If you could choose any hotel in the world for an overnight stay, which one would you select?" The almost unanimous choice of most of the male respondents was the Paris Hilton. All of them wanted to spend at least "1 Night in Paris".
My choice, until a few days ago, would have been the Trinidad Hilton, designed by Conrad Hilton, the great-grandfather of Paris and founder of the Hilton chain. At the start of his career as a hotel magnate, Conrad was no socialite like Paris, and, in fact, spent a lifetime earning the money that fuelled the 'hot' lifestyle that has become the trademark of the heiress.
He first worked in his father's grocery store then, at the height of the Texas oil boom, bought and ran a 40-room hotel that was so well patronised that rooms changed hands several times a day and even the dining room was converted into additional "sleeping" space.
By the 1960s, Conrad Hilton created the first international hotel chain, and, despite his early adventures in the "rental-by-the-hour" business, he established a worldwide standard for hotel accommodations. The hotel business and the concept of hospitality goes back to Ancient Greece, Rome and even biblical times. The fact that there was no room at the Inn for Joseph and Mary is clear proof of that.
Out of those early years, a definition of hospitality emerged which, Wikipedia says, "sees it as the relationship between a guest and a host, wherein the host receives the guest with goodwill, including the reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers. Louis, chevalier de Jaucourt, describes hospitality in the Encyclopedie as the virtue of a great soul that cares for the whole universe through the ties of humanity." These standards are supposedly captured in the vision of the present Hilton chain and are, "To fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality - by delivering exceptional experiences - every hotel, every guest, every time."
On Sunday this week, I had an extremely exceptional experience in the Trinidad Hilton, a hotel that I have known, loved and patronised over the past 45 years. It opened in 1962, the year Trinidad and Tobago became independent. Hilton saw the site on a ridge overlooking Port-of-Spain, the capital city, and decided it would be the world's first 'upside-down' hotel. The Hilton became the talk of the town and the destination for many school 'outings'.
Dr Eric Williams, the prime minister, unable to take part in the formal opening of the hotel, wrote, "After seeing London Hilton now under construction and hearing of the Tel Aviv Hilton, foundations of which are now being laid, I am quite satisfied that Trinidad Hilton is one of the world's leading hotels. I send you warmest greetings on the occasion of the formal opening of the Trinidad Hilton and to wish it all success in the years to come."
What impressed most of us was the hotel's size. It was bigger than the Salvatori Building which, in 1961, was described by the calypsonian, Mighty Sparrow, as "the big maco building, Lord! It higher than a mountain ... ."
Comedian John Agitation told the joke about a visitor from one of the smaller islands who was invited by a Trinidadian businessman to a meeting at the Hilton. Sitting at the poolside, the man ordered a small sandwich that turned out to be huge. He protested, but was told it was the smallest sandwich they sold. He then ordered a small drink. He got a large tumbler full of alcohol. He was taken aback by the quantity, but, hearing that they did not serve any smaller drink, took his first sip and then, finding it the best drink he ever had, continued until he became tipsy and decided to take a trip to the washroom. In doing so, he fell into the pool and started shouting, "Oh, Lard! Don't pull de chain, don't pull de chain!"
Actually the size of the meals and drinks was really not as substantial as Agitation's joke, but the hotel maintained the standards that Conrad Hilton had insisted on and, whenever I was able to breakfast, stay, or party there on a Carnival Monday night, I did.
I loved the copper- and artwork, the fact that paintings by my former neighbour Knolly Greenidge were hung in the rooms, and the warmth of the staff, many of them who know me and are always friendly.
This is why on Sunday, we decided to have breakfast there. My son Zubin, at 19, was heading back to Cave Hill in Barbados to wrap up a fantastic year for him. He had earned a first-class honours degree in economics and finance. My daughter Jasmine, who was just a few months old when she first stayed at the Hilton, had started at UWI and was happier than she had been for a long time.
Indranie was back to writing and had a successful year as a columnist for the Stabroek News and I had just ended a particularly distasteful period of my return to Trinidad after many years abroad. I have written and, in fact, preached that the Hilton breakfast was the best value for money of all hotels in the Caribbean and looked forward to it. I had called the hotel and was told by the operator that we did not need a reservation and that breakfast ended at 11 a.m.
When we arrived there, the place was crowded. We stood in line and, when our turn came, were told that as we were not guests, we could not be seated. Even though I tried to explain that we had called and were told that we did not need a reservation, we were still embarrassingly turned away. No room at the inn and nobody to speak to about it.
I tried to call the hotel manager the next day but he never returned my call. It is only when I complained to the Hilton chain's PR department that I received a call from a hotel functionary and then a PR person on behalf of the manager and offers of breakfast and dinner. I really wanted to tell them in no uncertain terms where to put their food, but chose instead to decline politely.
My only consolation was a comment from one of my friends, "It is an upside-down hotel, so what kind of service you expect?"
* Tony Deyal was last seen asking, "What's the difference between a hotel manager and a new dog? After a year, the dog is still excited to see you."