Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Entertaining Foreign Dignitaries - Part 1

At one stage a major part of my job was to meet and greet VIPs from abroad and escort them on special tours around the UK. These journeys were usually linked to the launch of a major new air service to their particular country and designed to ‘build relationships’ with those that could smooth our way.

Naturally these guests were very senior, very demanding and sometimes totally out of order in the things they did whilst staying as our guests. The people I was responsible for were mainly from West Africa. They were very wealthy in their own right, used to getting what they wanted and usually Muslim which meant that you had to be very careful about what food or drink they were offered.

These visits were often great fun and I made some strong friendships during that time. Needless to say there were other occasions where I, they or both combined caused such havoc that it could have resulted in some major international incidents. After all, the combination of differing races, religions, cultures and nationalities in a confined area is always going to make for a volatile mix. This blend can result in both offence and hilarity as my recollections will show.

I remember standing nervously at Gatwick’s arrivals area waiting for the first Nigerian group to arrive. They were very easy to recognise in that they were all enormous and wearing large flowing, mainly grey/white robes. I could see by their body language that they were not comfortable or used to travelling in groups or passing through the public areas of airports. The second thing I noticed was they had barely any baggage which I found strange until all was revealed later on.

I walked boldly up to the first guest and introduced myself as his host and escort. I held out my hand to shake his but instead he dropped his big black attaché case in it. Where is my car he demanded as I stood squirming trying to explain to them all that we had laid on a coach for all transfers. They looked aghast. No cars? One said he had not been in a coach in his life and another said he would lose face if he travelled in one.

Having finally got across to them that it was coach or nothing we took them to the parking area where our rather aged non air conditioned 52-seater coach was waiting to take them to their London hotel. It was the hottest day of the year so far but probably not as humid as downtown Lagos.

The real fun started when we tried to board them. You see each one had their own vision of where they featured in the tour’s ‘pecking’ order and, rather like cows at milking time, they would not get on out of sequence. The leader would insist on the front seat with the other less worthy individuals sat in their own chosen order behind. The jostling by these supposedly mature and wise men was something to behold. One particularly fat gentleman wearing what looked like a huge tent sat down in the front seat and refused to move despite shouted protestations of others.

Somehow we finally got them seated and off we went. The whole lot of them fell deeply asleep and we drove up to the hotel to the constant drone of snoring with the odd staccato fart in accompaniment. The air inside the coach was ‘steamy’ to say the least by the time we rolled up at the Cavendish hotel. On arrival I had to wake them up which earned me many reprimands and one slap in the face from a guest who thought for a moment that I was his wife….or one of them.

They were with us for only three days and we gave them all the free time they needed aside from official dinners, a trip to the theatre and a guided tour which was mandatory. I tried to tell them this at the hotel briefing but, by the time I had finished most were already on their way to the shops. It was soon after that I got my first complaint from the hotel management.

The mystery of the non existent baggage on arrival was solved. Why bring stuff from Lagos where there were shortages when you are flying to London and get anything. In the case of my group this included hi-fis, refrigerators, half of Selfridges, a touch of Harrods and the equivalent of a whole Marks and Spencer lingerie department. The hotel foyer was soon completely filled with boxes and even crates on wooden pallets. They had to turn (at a price) a whole conference room into a temporary store.

The trip to the theatre was a disaster. We went to see Phantom of the Opera and had seats at the front of the dress circle. Firstly the seats were too small and secondly they would not keep still or quiet. The first rumblings of snoring started shortly after the first song and it began to put the actors and their audience off. I started creeping around poking the perpetrators or sometimes squeezing their noses to try and stop them. Finally our giant in grey broke wind so powerfully that everybody thought it was a gunshot. Then the smell started.

The next day was set aside for the coach tour of London and I was dreading it. I had only just come off the phone from negotiating compensation with the theatre and now I had to escort these shopping-mad sleepyheads around the sights. I lost four entirely but managed to shuffle the rest on the coach. The running feud as to who sat where continued. The only undisputed seat was in the front row where our grey-clad giant sat as the group’s undisputed ‘top dog’.

We had a really enthusiastic guide who bragged to me that he always managed to keep peoples attention with his knowledge and humour. You have never met my boys I thought o myself. It started badly and ended worse as he spent the whole time talking while they slept noisily. They woke up briefly for lunch and then virtually passed out when back in the coach.

When we arrived back at the hotel and they were still comatose. I found myself hemmed in at the front by the guide and his driver who gave me a right earful. ‘These people are rude’ the guide said. ‘Yeah, no manners’, the driver pitched in. ‘I am warning you now’ the guide snarled. ‘If you ever again have a group of Nigerians like this do not under any circumstances expect me to guide them’!

He had started to shout and our guests were waking up. Having seen we were back they started to disembark in order to do a bit more shopping. When one guy demanded that the coach take him to Austin Reid in Regent Street I thought things might get violent.

As they left our grey giant grabbed each one as he went past and muttered to them for some money. He was the last to leave and by that time he had a fist full of cash. He added another fist full from his own wallet and dumped the lot into the hands of the driver and guide. He gave me a conspiritorial smile as he left which made me wonder if he had been asleep at all.

My two companions gazed at the notes and started counting. There was just short of seven hundred pounds and this was around thirty years ago. It was a fortune and it immediately created a different mindset. The guide said ‘maybe I was too hasty so if you have any such groups in future do not hesitate to ring me. Here is my direct number, I am always available’.

The next day I had to commission a removal van plus our coach to take their baggage to Gatwick Airport. The guests themselves got their way and went by individual taxi. They would not share with each other and the big guy had to be in the first one to leave! Me? I was shattered and fell asleep. I probably snored!

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