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Sunday, 24 January 2010

Recollections of Greece

Before I decided to stay in Hurghada, Egypt, I was working as a Holiday Rep or, as they call them here, in Egypt, Tour Leader. This was a total change of career for me quite late in life. I had spent most of my working life in an office as a PA/Office Manager working with Chief Executives and Managing Directors – even an MP who was also a Junior Minister. After a lengthy career I decided on a change and started to work with the homeless. Initially I worked with general homelessness as a Support Worker meaning that I supported clients who were homeless through addiction or family strife or refugees – don’t get me started on how the UK treats the refugees once they have their legal papers, save to say they end up homeless on the street. Eventually I decided to specialize in working with women and became the Manager of a Supported Housing Unit. As you can imagine, this is not without its stressful moments so there came a time when I decided I really needed another BIG change. There were also personal reasons for needing this and for feeling I had to be a long way away from home.

I searched the internet and noticed a holiday company was looking for Reps. I applied, went to the interview and got the job.

As a Holiday Rep, one of the jobs is to deal with guest complaints. There are some common threads and it can become very wearing having to deal with the same complaint from new people every week/fortnight. Here are just a couple of memorable examples of some of the things I had to deal with during my time on the beautiful Greek island of Lesvos.

Lesvos is a paradise for bird watchers and hikers. This is especially true in the spring and autumn months during the migration when large numbers of relatively rare species can be seen passing through. Then there is, of course, the resident flamingo population on the salt flats. There are many areas in the interior of the island that are totally unspoilt and provide amazing opportunities for enjoyable hikes with breathtaking views from some of the higher vantage points.

This is an island where more than 85% of guests were “repeaters”. In some cases they had been coming to the same island every year for over 30 years. They know what to expect, always stay in the same hotel and have often become a friend of the family who own it. This means that complaints about the accommodation tend to be few and far between.

Most of the accommodation is either Bed and Breakfast or Self Catering (although personally I couldn’t cater for a sparrow with the sparsity of cooking and kitchen facilities provided – generally only 2 rings, no oven, no toaster or grill, 1 saucepan, 1 plate per person etc. etc. I’m sure you get the picture. Good thing eating out was so cheap.)

As a Rep I was supposed to sell lots of excursions. That’s why we have the welcome meetings really. You can imagine that with so many repeat guests, most of whom had been to the island several times, there was little they hadn’t already done. Happily for me, though, I was able to sell a lot of car hire. Even that was fraught with difficulty at times because the big holiday companies tend to be contracted to the big car hire names which are expensive and there are very many local car hire ‘bucket shops’ offering vehicles at half price or less. If something goes wrong, though, the service is not so good (I would say that, wouldn’t I) – I have seen clients waiting at the roadside for over 12 hours for the bucket shop hire company to come and collect them after the vehicle has broken down.

Some complaints, of course, are totally justified. For example, if you’ve paid extra for a sea view you do expect to be able to see the sea and no matter how impressive the garden is it’s not what you paid for. In that case I would willingly do everything I could to make sure the guest was moved to a room that matched their booking confirmation. After all, the guest is not at all interested in the hotel’s point of view – namely that the travel company I worked for did NOT pay the hotel any more for a sea view room (even though they charged more for this in the brochure) but other companies did so they got the sea view rooms. However, even here there needs to be some caution. We have to remember that travel brochures are written by marketing professionals with sales in mind and vetted by lawyers with potential suits in mind! The wording is very careful and can often lead you to expect something it doesn’t actually say. Nonetheless, I think one of the best was a guest who complained about a lack of sea view having paid the supplement.

He was on the ground floor in the hotel. The hotel, without prompting, offered to move him to the next higher floor (there was only 1 higher floor). The guest went to look at the room (which was identical to the ground floor room) and decided he didn’t like it so would stay downstairs. He complained to me so I visited his room to see whether or not he DID have the sea view. From his raised terrace I could clearly see the sea. I checked with my HQ (aware I would be judged on customer satisfaction as well as excursion sales) who told me that if I could see the sea then the guest could not complain or have any money back. The guest was very unhappy with this. He agreed he could, in fact, see the sea. Even sitting up in bed he could see the sea through the patio doors. But the road along the sea front was lined by trees and the hotel was on the far side of the road (there were no hotels on the beach side). This meant he did not have an UNINTERRUPTED view – which is what he expected. He claimed his view was spoilt because the view of the sea was broken up by the trees.

Pedanticism cut in again with other complaints along the lines of:

‘The brochure says it’s only 300m to the sea but it’s more like 800’ – the guest was thinking of HIS walk from Reception to the sea but the brochure was correct in that the distance from the nearest point of the hotel property to the sea was only 300m. Another is ‘according to the brochure we should have a balcony but we don’t’. In this case there was a balcony (technically speaking). It was what is called a “French Balcony” which is effectively a big (double door-sized) window that opens inwards with railings outside and up close. There is no way you can go out through these ‘balcony doors’ and you certainly have nowhere to sit but it is, technically speaking, a balcony and meets the conditions of the brochure for legal purposes.

One of my hotels in another part of the island was really lovely inside with private courtyards and frontage onto the beach with a narrow but busy road at the back. This road was used by delivery vehicles from very early in the morning and was also home to a night-club which was open until the early hours. I think the space between the night-club closing and the deliveries starting was only around 2½ - 3 hours! The rooms were also very small and sometimes an odd shape. This is because the hotel was actually a converted olive press and the rooms were at one time the olive storage areas. I would always do my best to move guests who complained about the noise but there was not much I would do about the size or shape of the rooms.

This Greek island can be very cold in winter with snow and hailstorms which is why it is not a year-round destination. In contrast, it can be unbearably hot in summer with temperatures well over 40o on occasion. For most guests, therefore, air conditioning is considered a real necessity. Although it is true to say that all the accommodation I was visiting (except the Reps apartments!) DID have air conditioning those guests new to the island were always very ‘put out’ to find they had to pay for it. It is normal in Greece for a daily charge to be made for the use of the air conditioning unit in the room. You need a control to operate it which you have to collect from Reception and the appropriate amount is added to your bill every day until you return the control unit. There seems to be no sense to the cost. Some of the cheaper hotels will charge you up to €5 per day whereas the more expensive hotels may only charge €2. It was included in only one of my hotels. It was sometimes also included if you rented an apartment but the company I worked for did not have any guests in apartments. The need to pay for air conditioning was a regular complaint from those who had not previously holidayed in Greece.

In one case, guests did put a strongly worded complaint to my employer about me because they had to pay for the air conditioning. They had effectively tried to ‘steal’ this service. They were disgruntled that it was not included in the holiday price (they had taken a late booking and were getting a week bed and breakfast with flights and transfers for less than £200). They went to Reception and asked for the control unit. They then went back to the room and played around with the unit (they had to stand on the dining table to do this) until they found a way to override the control unit. They then returned the control unit to Reception claiming the system was not working. Reception sent an engineer to fix it. It was working so Reception returned the control unit to the guests. Guests once again gave the control unit back claiming it might be working a bit but not satisfactorily and they’d rather do without. They then manipulated the unit manually every day and left it on effectively all day. They claimed, to Reception, that it wasn’t on but from outside you could see and hear the fan going and from inside the housekeeping staff could feel how cold the room was. At the end of their stay they were asked to pay for the air conditioning and refused. I was asked to go and speak to them. My job was to get them to pay before they left. It was a long conversation where I had to adopt the ‘broken record’ technique with “I understand what you’re saying but you do have to pay it now before you leave and you can take it up with Customer Service when you get back to the UK”. Guests also used the same technique with “there’s no way we’re going to pay for this”. They did pay in the end when I pointed out that we could refuse to allow them onto the airplane unless the bill was settled. They really didn’t like losing and wrote the letter of complaint calling me ‘rude’ and ‘aggressive’ (you may agree!!).

In one hotel I had a guest who claimed to be an Engineer with expertise in Air Conditioning Systems. He told me in conversation during one of my visits that the air conditioning unit in his room was not working properly but neither I nor the hotel should worry – he’d fixed it! When he left the hotel complained to me that this guest had actually broken the unit which then had to be returned to Athens to be properly repaired.

As a Rep, it’s not only your job to support the guests and make sure they have a great time. Sometimes, it’s your job to support the hotels your guests use. Believe me, some guests can really cause problems. At one stage it seems one hotel or another called me regularly on my day off asking me to call in to sort something out. Here are the most memorable.

At one hotel a particular lady guest would come and see me during every visit. She would always ask me lots of questions about all the excursion, ask for recommendations and eventually, having taken up most of my visit time so that no-one else got to see me, tell me that she and her husband would be going on this or that excursion and they would see me together to book the next day. After all, the holiday was a present from him to her for a special landmark birthday. The next day sure enough she would come and see me, but without him, and we would start the whole conversation again. Early in their stay I did receive complaints from another guest about this couple. The guest was in the next room and claimed to have been kept awake all night on one occasion with lots of shouting and banging. The next day this lady was seen with plasters and bandages so you can work out for yourselves what conclusions were jumped to. The lady in question was known to like a few drinks so who knows? Anyway, we get to the weekend and it’s that special day. This lady is thinking lovely excursion, romantic dinner, candle-light and everything else. The husband is thinking laze by the pool, chill out, few drinks and bed. Somewhat a mismatch I think. The husband won! They did NOTHING on the day itself which greatly upset this lady. I already mentioned she liked a drink and the next day, which was also my day off, she decided to drown her sorrows.

In a state that I think could be described as ‘non compos mentis’ this lady then left the hotel headed towards the main town not too far away. At the entrance to the town the road is really narrow between two houses with just enough room for two cars to pass. It was here that she decided to sit/lie down in the middle of the road. You can imagine the chaos on what is quite a busy main road from one end of the island to the other. Her husband, realizing he was totally unable to get her to move, left and returned to the hotel on his own. The local Police were called but couldn’t move her and eventually the hotel called me to come and talk her into returning to the hotel. She did eventually return to the hotel and no charges were brought but I can’t say that she achieved anything by this display of rebellion.

A few days later, after another argument with the husband, this same lady went into town to conduct a bar crawl on her own. The next day the hotel called me again because she had been complaining to Reception that her handbag had been stolen the night before containing all her money and jewelry. She also claimed that someone in a bar had tried to sexually assault her the previous evening. I offered to help her make a statement to the police but she declined and asked only for a statement from me saying she had reported the stolen property to me. The husband didn’t seem to remember the handbag or even is she had one matching the description she had given.

It’s funny how alcohol seems to play a role. Here is another example where alcohol was definitely a factor.

I was called to this particular hotel because two of my guests (a couple) were screaming and shouting at each other and fighting in the public courtyard disturbing the other guests. It seems this was punctuated somewhat by visits back to the room when one of them would throw the other’s belongings out of the window. These belongings would be retrieved and returned to the room and the roles would be reversed.

By the time I got there the actual fighting had stopped and all possessions were now in the hotel room. At this point the man was in the room. He was refusing to leave the room in case the lady took it over. He was not letting her in under any circumstances. The lady was in the courtyard and had the key to the room which she was refusing to hand over. Now, the key was very important – it had embedded into it a device that you pushed into a socket in the room and started the electricity. This means the man may have been in the room but without any light, hot water, television, phone, fridge, air conditioning or anything else. She, on the other hand, had the key but nowhere to go. The only thing they agreed on was that they couldn’t finish the holiday together. They agreed that one should stay in the hotel and the other should move – they just couldn't agree who should do what. He insisted on staying saying he had paid for the holiday so it was his right. She wanted to stay because she didn't/couldn’t work (health issues) and had no money except what he gave her so couldn't afford to pay to stay elsewhere. Just getting to this point had already taken a couple of hours. Eventually the accommodation issue was resolved about another hour later and the lady left the hotel. There were problems with her retrieving her belongings from the room, the man insisting I stay with her while she packed to make sure she didn’t take or damage any of his things and the lady insisting the man leave her some privacy to pack on her own.

During my various conversations with both parties at this time they both confided in me to a large extent and it certainly seemed that the amount of alcohol enjoyed by both was a factor. Nonetheless, I was very relieved to have found a satisfactory conclusion to this issue even at the loss of most of my day off. I left the hotel with the man still in residence and the lady accommodated elsewhere.

The next day I called at the hotel even though it was not on my visit list for that day. I just wanted to check that the man was OK then I was going to call on the lady to make sure she was also alright. When I got to the hotel I found that they were back together and both in the hotel!!! About 3 hours after the lady left the hotel they had both decided that it had been a big mistake, they had both made a mountain out of a molehill and they really couldn’t live without each other.

I thought that was the end of it but there’s more. A couple of months later I received a phone call from this lady. She was back on the island on her own and asked me to go and have a drink with her. She had come with another holiday company and I knew the Rep who was responsible for her this time. He told me the booking had been for 2 people but only 1 had turned up.

I did go and meet her. She said she had left this man and wanted to stay and work on Lesvos. What she really wanted from me was help to find work which I was not able to give. During the conversation I let her know I was aware her booking was for 2 people so how come she was alone. She explained that the day before the holiday she had taken her partner’s passport, put it in an envelope, gone to the post office and posted it back to him second class knowing it would take at least 3 days and there was no way he could get a replacement in less than 24 hours! I met her a couple more times and she did find work as a waitress in a restaurant though she struggled with this because of her health problems (with her hips).

She didn’t keep the job for very long though. About 4 weeks later I was on airport duty helping my company’s guests who were leaving to check in for the flight. While I was there I spotted this lady in the check-in queue and, guess what, she was with her partner. It seems he’d come to the island especially to win her back and take her home!

Part of me wants to say, “so romantic” and hope that it will be a case of “happily ever after” but I wonder.....

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