One of the most unusual things about working in the travel industry is that you can sometimes experience activities and lifestyles totally out of proportion with your personal wealth, or in this case, lack of wealth.
Many years ago when Judith and I, recently married and poor as church mice, had just such an experience. It nearly resulted in a quickie divorce on the grounds of emotional cruelty as I will explain.
We were in our mid twenties and had an enormous mortgage. I had a relatively junior sales job with British Caledonian Airways working in the head office department that supported their West Africa routes. They had just started operating to Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast and all the operators and hotels in that country wanted a slice of the new business that the service would generate from the UK.
As I mentioned earlier we were broke but, like most airline people (except striking BA cabin crew) we got great flight discounts and perks including free tickets on new routes for ‘familiarisation’ reasons. A very kind and enthusiastic contact in Intercontinental Hotels came up with a complimentary room in their 5 star hotel in Abidjan city centre. This hotel was known at the time as the most prestigious and luxurious hotel in Africa. So off we went to what we expected to be a cheap but heavenly holiday.
It had started so well with a black hotel limousine picking us up at the airport and whisking us to the hotel. Mind you the driver looked pretty appalled when he saw our beat up old cardboard cases and various plastic Woolworth bags. The hotel GM came out to greet us and escort us to a special top floor suite and took about half an hour to explain all the amenities including introductions to our personal butler. The first and last time we ever saw him as I will explain.
When he left Judith strolled over to the fridge and was about to open a can of coke when I picked up the room service and mini bar price list. Stop! I yelled as that drink alone would have exhausted half of our daily food budget. It got worse from then on and we clearly could not manage such food and drink costs In fact it got so bad that we spent some evenings sitting in the bar sipping one beer between us and eating every last free pretzel and pistachio nut in the place. At one stage I ended up sauntering around the coffee shop waiting for someone to leave their table. As soon as they got up we slipped into the still warm seats, ate anything left and ordered a small snack using the tip money that had been left. I still feel guilty about that!
On the final evening of what was a miserable and hungry week the hotel General Manager invited us to dinner at their ‘signature’ restaurant that revolved around the top of the hotel tower. He insisted we try some of their special cocktails before dinner and Judith took enthusiastically to one called a ‘Tipsy Elephant’ which was a lethal mixture of three spirits. These on a half starved stomach could have only one effect. This peaked when the waiter brought out a plate with a fresh, live and uncooked lobster to get her approval before preparing it. To his horror she grabbed the offered lobster, put it on her plate and pulled a claw off. ”Look” she slurred. “It’s undercooked”! I quickly tried to explain that she must have caught sunstroke and wheeled her away as she yelled “I am not going to stay here to be insulted” or something similar.
We thought that would be the end of the nightmare but the worst was saved for the end when we went to check out the next morning. We were presented with our very meagre bill and I handed over my one and only credit card whilst praying we had not exceeded its credit limit. As feared the clerk started looking concerned and kept tapping entries into her computer. She then looked up and said she was sorry but we would need to wait for the duty manager to talk to us about our bill.
We sat squirming for a few minutes and noticed curious glances from various other members of staff who knew about our bill. Finally the manager arrived with a very serious expression on his face. “Do you not like our hotel” he asked. “Yes, it is lovely” I replied whilst trying not to be intimidated. “Do you not like our restaurants”? “Where have you been eating” “Is our food not to your standard”?
By this time I was getting very embarrassed and annoyed as people were beginning to stop and listen. I asked him directly why he was asking us so many questions. “Well”, he said “we have never had any guests who are on our VIP “all inclusive” basis spending next to nothing!
Judith’s head turned slowly and menacingly towards me. “Can you explain what you actually mean by all inclusive she asked. Certainly madam, he replied, it means you could have eaten or drunk anything you wanted free of charge for the duration of your stay in our hotel.
She nearly physically attacked me there and then. I did not know I muttered. Wait until I get you alone she replied icily as her tummy rumbled. I paid for my error over the following months but I learned one important lesson. Never go anywhere you cannot afford and also listen carefully when someone makes you an offer you will not want to refuse.