Another Great Day at the Marco Beach Hilton
"It's a great day at the Marco Beach Hilton! How may I assist you?" From my position at the right-hand terminal at the front desk, I could hear the PBX operator answer each call with the same canned pitch and false cheer. Then the caller would speak and the tone of the response would shift to one of sympathy, "Oh, I'm so sorry. Let me see if I can connect you with someone who can help you." The switchboard was lit up with such calls, all blinking frantically in anticipation of an answer from night manager Mark Hiedel, who was in the reservations office just as frantically trying to arrange alternative accommodations at other properties for the numerous reservations we had to turn away that day.
It was the Friday night of Memorial Day weekend, 1985. The Marco Beach Hilton, a stunningly beautiful new resort hotel on the sugar-sand beach of exclusive Marco Island, Florida, had opened on May the 15th. From that grand opening day until this fateful Friday, the flow of business in and out of the hotel had been steady and manageable, and even this had proved challenging to our fledgling housekeeping staff. When this Friday arrived, it marked the first major turn over, with more than two thirds of our 297 rooms checking out and checking back in on the same day. It was also payday. When the day ahead was anticipated to be one of very long hours and very hard work, our housekeepers literally grabbed the money and ran. After receiving their paychecks, they had quit en masse and walked off of the job.
In the ensuing panic, the managers had gone to work cleaning rooms, enlisting the aid of desk clerks, bellmen and anyone else who could be drafted and conscripted to the herculean task of turning over the property, while leaving only the barest skeleton of a crew to man the front desk and other stations of guest service and administration. This resulted in a chain reaction of chaos, and when I walked in to begin my shift as senior night auditor, Mark Hiedel had handed me a snarled mountain of registration cards to organize and feed into the computer, along with the paper trail that represented nearly the entire day's activity at the front desk. Until this was done, the Lodgistix property management system couldn't even tell us just how bad this mess really was. I was actually fortunate to be given this task, as it proved to insulate me somewhat from dealing with the lobby full of unhappy guests that were still waiting for their rooms to be made ready at 11PM. And it freed Mark Hiedel to deal with those who were waiting off property to be assigned new reservations at nearby competing properties, along with those who had checked into lesser accommodations and who were now demanding satisfaction and lighting up the phone lines to express their disapproval. And 11PM on a holiday weekend was that witching hour in which Marco Island became like Bethlehem at Christmas: no more room in any of the inns.
Just before 1AM, as I was completing the data entry that would allow us to begin managing the hotel again, Harry Hogan walked up to my station at the front desk and asked, "Where's Cindy?"
Cindy Hogan was the front office manager and Harry's wife. I had worked as her assistant front office manager at a condominium resort on Sanibel Island, and had allowed her to talk me into taking a lesser position here because it was a beautiful, high end property and had that magic HiIton "H" on the front of the building. And because she had said, "Come on, I could really use your help." This was true enough, as I had been bypassed for the front office manager's job on Sanibel when she took it, and had the guest service and accounting experience that she lacked. Her strength was reservations, which she was very good at, and it meant that our value as a team did exceed the sum of our individual parts. Since I had recently uncovered some serious accounting irregularities at our previous place of employment, it had been made clear to me that my upward mobility there was at an end, and a change of venue was in order. And what I knew was serious enough that I was concerned about ending my hotel career at the bottom of the Caloosahatchee River, or in an undisclosed locale somewhere in the Everglades. Senior night auditor at a brand new, four star resort hotel fifty miles away seemed to be just the ticket I needed to a fresh start, and so it was.
One look at Harry suggested that he had been waiting for his wife's nightmare of a day to end by killing time and drinks in the lounge, and he was growing impatient. Harry was general manager of a nice enough little resort on Fort Myers Beach, which at that moment looked like a highly preferable career choice to the Marco Beach Hilton. "Believe it or not," I told him, "She's still cleaning rooms."
"Cleaning rooms!" he bellowed. "Doesn't she know that if you're cleaning rooms at one o'clock in the morning, the game is already lost!"
Cindy Hogan had come down from the room tower looking like the tired and disheveled mess that she was, and had walked up behind her husband just in time to hear this remark. She was too tired to argue. And of, course, he was right.
"The game was lost a long time ago," she said, obviously weary and defeated. "I was just trying to make it a little closer. Let's go home."
"We'll know the score in the morning," I said.
The score wasn't pretty. We went down with a couple of dozen rooms empty, a few of which were clean, but since this hadn't been communicated in Lodgistix, the status was incorrect at the front desk. Numerous reservations had been accommodated at other properties, and many guests with guaranteed reservations had simply given up and had gone elsewhere -- or had gone home -- in disgust. The confusion and turmoil in the hotel meant that most of our guests in house had been forced to check in late, were disturbed and inconvenienced in other ways, and had in general received very poor service. And, in the days that followed, our depleted housekeeping department did a deplorable job of servicing the occupied rooms. The mood of the hotel guests was angry and ugly, and that of the staff depressed and helpless.
The task of fixing this staffing mess in the housekeeping department fell to the personnel director at the Marco Beach Hilton, a man by the name of Ernie Harber. Ernie was a tall, lanky, craggy faced fellow of about 60, who spoke with a loud, slow, Georgia drawl, and who defined incongruous by being openly gay at a time in which this was still quite unusual -- especially in a business environment like that of a Hilton hotel. As this incongruous gay man, he was always impeccably dressed, often times in brightly colored suits, and he wore a blond toupee that looked like Troy Donohue's hair perched upon an old man's head. He made outrageous passes at the young men on the hotel's staff, and when they protested that they were not inclined to homosexuality, he would say things like, "Well, I'll tell you what boy, if you tried it, I guarantee you, you'd love it!" I once heard him defend himself to a young bellman who had been offended by such a remark by saying, "Now how's a fella gonna catch fish if he don't dangle his bait in the water?" He got away with this stuff by being so over the top that it was hard to take him too seriously, and by being a truly knowledgeable hotel man and an excellent personnel manager.
Ernie Harber could be both unorthodox and extremely effective. Later on, when I was night manager, I would suffer a collapsed lung on the job one night, and after a visit to the doctor, end up in Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers the next morning. After being treated by having a tube from a machine called a "Thoraclex" inserted in my chest, and as I was just nicely being settled into a shared room, there was suddenly a flurry of activity. Two nurses and two orderlies came in and quickly transferred me to a gurney and, while the Thoraclex and the attached chest tube were carried carefully in place and undisturbed, I found myself being whisked away to a private room in a quiet corner on the hospital's top floor. The nurse in charge of this floor then came in and asked me if I was comfortable and if I had everything I needed. She assured me this new, private room was the best they had to offer, and I was now being referred to as "Mr. Ropp," whereas previously my first name had sufficed. The nurse had yet to leave when a doctor came in and introduced himself as the Chief of Thoracic Surgery and assured me that the treatment and care I was receiving were topnotch and the best they had to offer. He handed me his business card and told me to call him personally if I had any questions or concerns.
The moment I was alone, the phone rang and the unmistakable voice of my personnel director was on the other end of the line: "How they treatin' you, pardner? I called 'em and told 'em you were a member of the Hilton family, and you'd better be gettin' the best room in the house and the best doctors or they'd be hell to pay. You are not to see a bill, and you better not be bothered by anything but gettin' well. Told 'em to send everything to my attention here at the hotel."
I was catching up quickly now. "You told them what? So that's why I'm getting the VIP treatment! You told them I was part of the Hilton family? Geez, Ernie!"
"Hey! I didn't lie to nobody! You are Hilton family! Marco Beach Hilton family! Now don't you go arguin' with me and don't you say nuthin'. If they think you're ol' Conrad's kin, so what? If they'd ask me the difference, I woulda told 'em. As for you, you went down on the job, son! Took one for the team! Least we can do is get you healed up and back on your feet, and of course we're gonna pick up the tab. Got the approval right here. Boss insists. Done deal!"
Some of the staff that had walked out the past Friday were individuals who Ernie Harber had brought to the Marco Beach Hilton from the Naples Beach and Tennis Club where he had worked previously, and he took their unscheduled departure as a personal affront. In truth, this wasn't even unusual behavior, and it occurred at two other Southwest Florida properties that I worked at. In Florida at that time, it was a common practice for housekeepers to work the required 13 weeks to qualify for unemployment, quit their jobs, then go to work at a new place of employment when the benefits ran out. Some places were so desperate for help that they would welcome them back to the same job, and this continued in an endless cycle. Marco Island is an upscale community and, as the name implies, an island. This meant that the individuals needed to fill the numerous housekeeping positions on the island were at a premium, and many who had walked off of the job on that Friday fully expected to simply be hired back the next week. Ernie Harber's response to this was, "Ya'll can go work someplace else! Good riddance to ya! Best thing for this hotel is if you all go work at the competition!"
This was no false bravado on the part of Ernie Harber. By the time of the emergency staff meeting necessitated by this Memorial Day disaster, he was ready to put a new plan into effect. And so after the discussion concerning all that had gone wrong, he was ready to make his case:
"Now, I think I can fix this housekeepin' mess if you let me," he began. "If we rehire these maids or other uns like 'em, then they're gonna be thinkin' that they can hold this hotel hostage, and walk off and come back as they please. About one more weekend like this last one'll mean they'll be new managers sittin' here tryin' to figure out how they're gonna keep their jobs, just like we're doin' today. What I am proposin' is that we go in a new and entirely different direction." With that, he waved a piece of paper around in the air as copies were passed out to all present.
One of the issues confronting Southwest Florida in the 1980's was what to do with the recent flood of immigrants who had come over in the various "boatlifts" that had followed the most famous of these, the Mariel Boatlift from Cuba in 1980. These Cuban refugees had settled around the Miami area and in Southeast Florida, while a less publicized incursion of Haitian nationals had come into Florida on the lower Gulf Coast and had settled in the impoverished area around Immokolee, an unincorporated settlement populated by mostly migrant farm workers in the Corkscrew Swamp northwest of Naples. The handout that Ernie Harber was passing around outlined a program by the federal government that encouraged local businesses to hire these Haitian refugees, and provided incentives to do so.
As everyone looked at the flyer, Ernie made his pitch: "If we hire these Haitian folks, the Department of Immigration gives 'em a green card. We pay 'em minimum wage, which is a king's ransom where they're from, and the government gives us a payroll credit for half of their wages. That allows us to spend the money we save on the additional trainin' they're gonna need, and it defrays the cost of transportin' 'em to and from work. We got to overcome a language barrier because they don't speak English, but what we get is employees highly motivated to work and succeed. And it gives us a chance to give some worthy folks a pathway to citizenship in the good ol' U.S. of A.. Housekeepin' is the bedrock and foundation that a hotel is built upon, and I say if we can't hire us a staff that respects and reflects the quality of this beautiful property, then we go and make us one otta these folks."
And that's precisely what Ernie Harber did. He went up to Immokalee, set up a table with a sign on the front that announced the Marco Beach Hilton was hiring housekeeping help, and once this fact somehow got translated around town, he found himself inundated with hopeful applicants. One woman kept saying to Ernie, "Chreestian! No Voodoo! Chreestian!" until he finally figured out the gist of what she meant and responded, "Voodoo! Heavens no, we don't need none of that! We got work to do and there ain't no time for pullin' the heads offa chickens and puttin' hexes on people!" With that, the word quickly spread that the Marco Beach Hilton was hiring only the Christian Haitians, and that those who followed the ways of Voodoo need not apply. And as this hiring process progressed, Ernie would learn that this is how these Haitian immigrants defined each other. "Chreestian" translated to Catholic Christian, and "Voodoo" indicated those who followed and practiced the dark arts that the Church opposed. Beyond the language barrier was a culture barrier that would be even more interesting to overcome.
But overcome these barriers we did! Along with the female staff of housekeepers, Ernie hired two young men in their mid 20's to serve as housemen; that is those who clean and care for the public areas of the hotel. Their names were Ives and Edmond, and they became the mainstays of the Haitian crew, as both knew a few English words and were anxious to learn more, and because the women continually went to them with their problems and for clarification and instruction. Language proved to be a bigger barrier than anticipated at first. When the housekeeping director learned that French was the "language of instruction" in Haiti, the shelves in the housekeeping department were labeled bilingually in French and English, only to find out that our Creole speaking crew was illiterate in any language. Color coding the various sizes and kinds of sheets, cases, towels, etc., solved this, and day by day this situation got easier and more comfortable for everyone.
The Haitians proved to be a humble yet proud and overall lovely group of people. Contrasted to the locals who looked upon the position of hotel maid as somehow demeaning and beneath their dignity, our Haitian ladies came to work with their Hilton Green uniform dresses neat, clean, and carefully pressed. One of them, a friendly lady named Vi, who had previous experience working as a hotel maid in Haiti, showed the others how to fan-fold a handkerchief and pin it to their uniforms as a sharp and professional looking accessory. It was noticed that on Mondays the crew would often come in wearing flowers pinned to their dresses, and it was learned that this was because they proudly wore their work uniforms to church. Turns out it was better than any dress any of them owned, and they also took that much pride in their jobs and where they worked. Following Vi's lead and the custom of housekeepers in Haiti, they would smile and curtsey when they passed guests in the hallway, and our wealthy clientele found this touch of Caribbean culture delightful. Ives and Edmond were always immaculately groomed and kept the public areas equally spotless, and they exceeded expectations in all that they did. And perhaps what surprised the rest of the staff the most was how happy these people were, and how contagious this proved to be. We had originally thought of them as below the lowest rung of the social ladder, and when we realized that they had found the American Dream in this basic work at the lowest of wages, it made most of the rest of us appreciate what we had in a whole new way.
The next big test for the Marco Beach Hilton was Fourth of July weekend. Our guests that weekend were largely from the wealthy Cuban-American community of Miami, and they packed the hotel to beyond capacity with unregistered guests and countless children. When some of these children discovered that pulling the fire alarm resulted in the evacuation of the building, they could not resist repeating the prank, and so within a 24 hour period, the hotel experienced three false fire alarms. Each of these resulted in the automated fire control system taking over, and that meant that the elevators stopped working, the air conditioning and ventilation system closed down, and the guests in all eleven stories of the room tower had to make their way to ground level via the crowded and narrow stairways on the north and south ends of the building. In the July heat, these stairways became unbearably hot, and the lack of fresh air caused many to faint or vomit. And though we could identify the area and determine that the alarm was false, the Marco Island Fire Chief insisted that each alarm result in a complete evacuation of the building because their apparatus could only reach the fourth floor, and he viewed the extreme discomfort of our guests a better option than a towering inferno beyond their reach should there be an actual fire.
I had just come on shift when the third of these false alarms occurred, and the mayhem was unbelievable. Lodgistix told us we had 803 souls in house, but by the time the tower finally emptied, the lobby, all inside public areas, the area surrounding the pool, and even much of the boardwalk going out to the beach were jammed with more than twice this many people. As the crowd in these areas grew, so did the angry tone of our guests, and by the time the fire department arrived to ascertain officially that there was no fire and life could return to normal, the mood was ugly enough that the firemen promptly called the police. Mark Hiedel, another auditor and myself remained frozen behind the front desk, hoping that order would somehow restore itself. Just as the police came in, an angry guest who was shouting that he was just so mad he wanted to hit somebody, decided I was the closest target and took a swing at me across the desk. His fist clipped my tie as I reared back away from the punch, and four police officers immediately locked arms and inserted themselves between the seething mob and the front desk. As they tried to move the crowd back away from the employees, back up was called, and we could hear the sirens coming down Collier Boulevard. One of the policemen shouted for us to get out of sight, so we retreated into the PBX office in back of the front desk and Mark Hiedel locked the door. He proceeded to call the general manager, a man named Dave Egan, and, proving himself the master of understatement, said, "Mr. Egan? We have a slight problem at the hotel. I think it might be a good idea if you came down here."
What Mr. Egan found was a hotel lobby swarming with angry people still buzzing like killer bees. There were four Marco Island police officers behind the front desk, and eight more officers out in front of it. At the boss's command, room service and lounge personnel appeared with trays full of liquor and glasses, and drinks on the house were offered around as long as there were willing takers, which was about an hour. I saw Dave Egan throw down a quick shot himself before he began mingling with the crowd, offering apologies and encouraging the folks to drink up, have fun and enjoy their stay. Slowly but surely, the anger of the mob was diffused, and guests began to filter back to their rooms or out into the night to pursue entertainment elsewhere. The staff re-took command of the hotel, and the rest of the weekend passed without further incident. And through it all our Haitian housekeepers answered every challenge without complaint, and were still with us when the whole ordeal was over.
The "Great Fourth of July Riot" as this event came to be known among the staff, following so closely upon the heels of what we referred to as the "Memorial Day Disaster," set off alarms at Hilton Corporate, as the complaints from our unhappy and dissatisfied guests reached to the upper echelons of the company. The Marco Beach Hilton was a franchise property, privately owned by Sandcastles Resorts, which successfully owned and operated similar properties at Destin, in the Florida Panhandle, and on the east coast, at Fort Lauderdale, and the events of our first two months of operation now drew the ire of an upper management unaccustomed to such embarrassment. The wrath of the corporate hotel gods, as well as that of our own ownership, fell upon the Marco Beach Hilton.
The elephant in the room in this situation was impending changes to the tax code that were aimed at shoring up loopholes and eliminating many of the tax benefits in real estate transactions that had fueled the Florida land boom of the 1970's and early 80's. The provision that struck fear into the heart of developers was one that "prevented losses from 'passive' investment in real estate partnerships from offsetting income from other sources, like from salary or fees from professional services." Coupled with the reduction or loss of interest and depreciation deductions for potential buyers, the result was the general perception that the cash cow that had been the Florida real estate market was about to dry up, and as these changes were debated in Congress during 1985, investment in second home properties slowed to a standstill. The Marco Beach Hilton, which had been planned originally as a condominium type development in which the individual rooms were to be sold to independent investors, was suddenly confronted with the reality of being owned and operated as a traditional for-profit hotel. "Condo-ing off the rooms," as the practice was called, allowed operating losses to be shared to the tax benefit of all involved, and many properties were actually developed and operated with the intention of losing money. That luxury was no longer going to be an affordable option, and our inability to provide the quality of service inherent in the Hilton name, and the hospitality experience that our guests expected of Sandcastles Resorts, could not have occurred at a worse possible time.
The action that followed came to be called "The Great July Purge," as the company reviewed our early financial statements in horror and correctly anticipated the rough business seas that lie ahead. Over 60 percent of the hotel staff was laid off, and Dave Egan was soon gone. Through the season that followed, we went through three general managers in quick succession, as upper management demanded the long, hard march to profitability begin, and each month's financial report made the case that this goal was moving farther away instead of closer. The term "white elephant" was associated with the hotel in whispers, and the future looked uncertain at best.
But in the midst of this, good things were happening, too. Ernie Harber was right about the fact that a solid housekeeping department was the bedrock and foundation of a good hotel, and he protected and fussed over our Haitian crew like a big, blond-combed gay rooster. With the wage credit money, he set up a training program in basic English that paid our housekeepers to attend classes held at the hotel, and the benefit was a language barrier that was rapidly disappearing. Someone brought in a collection of the old "Dick and Jane" reading primers, and it warmed our hearts to see the wonder and delight it brought when the light of literacy began to shine into the lives of adults walking the same path to knowledge that so many of us had way back in elementary school. At night in the quiet times, Edmond would read these books to the PBX operator, who would gently correct his pronunciation and provide encouragement. "That Puff is a rascal!" he would exclaim. "Good word, 'rascal,' no?"
Mark Hiedel, in a move demonstrating the "Peter Principle," was promoted to controller, and I was promoted to night manager. Mark was in over his head, especially in the circumstances we were facing, and he was gone in a couple of months. I began staying later into the mornings to organize the data and keep the accounting function flowing. I coached and advised the receivables and payables clerks, and while I couldn't function as the full blown controller, with help and instruction from the company comptroller, I was able to hold the function of the department together enough so that he could generate financials that generally reflected the reality of the business. I was learning hotel accounting like Edmond was learning to read.
Cindy Hogan's idea of guest services was to hire desk clerks who were pretty and perky, but with little in the way of technical skills. I began going in earlier in the evening to straighten out the front desk and help these girls balance out their shift closings so as to keep the audit manageable, and to get the pending reservations in order so that a small problem in the evening didn't end up being a crisis in the middle of the night. For the night staff, she assigned me the oddballs and misfits that she considered unfit for daytime duty, and I filled out the crew with a friend who was a crackerjack auditor and a young lady I knew from a previous job, who served as relief PBX operator. I had one in-house security officer who was an alcoholic former cop, and another who was a one-eyed Baptist preacher. When the alcoholic cop fell off of the wagon one too many times, he was replaced with a moonlighting botanist who also proved to be an excellent cook. The night bellmen consisted of a kid who had quit college and a retired man who had blown his pension. I taught the kid to do the audit, and the old man to do room service. We cross trained so that our bases were always covered, and everyone had the back of everyone else.
Edmond was the night houseman, and, in addition to his regular duties, took care of guest service requests and filled in any gaps that he saw. When an employee at the Marriott down the road from us had been sexually assaulted leaving work one night, Edmond took it upon himself to make sure our female employees made it to their cars safely. One night, we had a new desk clerk who came running back into the hotel in terror a few minutes are clocking out, claiming that some strange black man had been stalking her in the parking lot. As she stood in back of the front office breathlessly telling her story, she suddenly pointed to the doorway and screamed, "There he is!" We all looked up to see a smiling but confused Edmond and burst out laughing.
Still not understanding, she said, "I don't see what's so funny!"
"He wasn't stalking you," I explained. "He was protecting you!"
From this night on, it was standard operating procedure to have Edmond arrive at the desk promptly as the shift changed to be the official safety escort for our departing desk staff. He would smile and bow and hold his hand out, and often times march out into the night with a pretty girl on each arm. Edmond particularly enjoyed this duty. When one of the girls asked him if he was ever afraid he said, "In America? No! In Haiti? Afraid, yes! I need gun but could not have one. In America, I can have gun, but do not need one!"
That first winter season was long and hard, but as spring came, it was clear that we had become a pretty good hotel. While the company's upper management struggled to find a general manager equal to the task, those of us down at the other end of the totem pole had managed to take a short staff, often consisting of some odd characters, and make a patchwork quilt capable of pulling off some pretty professional grassroots hospitality. Ernie Harber stood at the front desk with me one night when he was serving as manager on duty and commented, "You know, when the goin' gets tough, the idiots get goin'. Those that stay are the keepers."
Ernie's Haitians were keepers. They weren't fast, but they were steady and consistent, and once the cleanliness and room quality were solidified, we found that we could improvise around a lot of the problems that came up, and pull off stunts that covered our tracks so that guests saw us as a well oiled machine when we were actually scampering to achieve what needed to be done. The difference was found in having key people among the managers and staff who genuinely liked and enjoyed serving the public and with each other, and who knew instinctively that doing a good job is mostly a matter of "team work, elbow grease and givin' a damn," as Ernie Harber used to say.
In my life, I've read two books by business magnates that greatly influenced me. In high school, I read Main Street Merchant: The Story of the J.C. Penney Company. Mr. Penney boiled down success in business to one simple rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Treat every customer as you would want to be treated if you were that customer. He called his first stores Golden Rule for this reason. The other book was Be My Guest by Conrad Hilton, who began his career as a bellman and rose to the top of the hospitality industry -- an industry that he defined as much as J.C. Penney defined retailing -- by also following one simple and similar rule: "No reasonable request will ever be refused." I read this book because Ernie Harber put copies of it in the employee lounge at the Marco Beach Hilton. His point in doing so was was well taken. Keep it simple, be sincere, give a good, honest effort and do the best you can. Operate a Hilton hotel according to the philosophy that worked for the founder and it should work for us. Those who tried it found out that it did.
As the season ended, the hotel was sold to a retired gentleman hotelier from New York. Rumor had it that he bought the property for his much younger wife who fell in love with it, because he made a bet that he could make it turn a profit, and because when he examined the property he did so not merely by reviewing the financials, but by staying incognito in the hotel as a guest and observing and interacting with the staff. He liked who he met and what he saw and, knowing what Ernie Harber and some of the rest of us also knew, it is much easier to fix a business from the top down than from the bottom up. What we had in the spring of 1986, as we approached our first anniversary date, was a core staff that had survived those early days and, in the crucible of that first hard year, had been forged into a solid and professional team. We still needed some key pieces, there was still much that needed to be accomplished, and there was much that needed to be improved upon. But what existed now was the bedrock and solid foundation of a housekeeping department upon which we had built the core of a pretty credible hotel operation. What we needed most now was leadership.
Leadership came in the person of a new general manager named John Doughery: a graduate from the much heralded and respected Cornell University Hotel School, the best general manager I ever worked for, and a perfect fit for the property. In fact, some 28 years later, John is still at the helm of what is now called the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort. A new controller was brought in whose name was Gene Johnson, another Georgia native like Ernie Harber, though when I mentioned this to him he was quick to look at me out of one eye and say, "Now don't you go gettin' the idea that means we share the same tailor."
"Under new management" meant that things began to improve quickly. Managers who didn't perform to Hilton standards left and were replaced by those who did. Staffing was upgraded and improved as needed, and the feel of the hotel became more confident and professional.
Cindy Hogan came under fire because of the poor performance of her "Barbie Doll" desk staff, and couldn't understand how the "inferior" people she had given me for the night crew could excel as they had done. They could, and I was proud and pleased for them when the night shift ended up being one of the areas that was identified as a strength of the hotel and not a weakness. By the time this spring rolled around, we had become a solid and tested team that showed up every night and by morning handed over a Marco Beach Hilton ready to have another great day. If that day proved to be not so great, we were there that night to fix the mistakes and point out the adjustments that needed to be made. And we managed to have some fun along the way.
Ernie Harber was often manager on duty, and even when he was not, he often stayed around into the evening hours. We used two way radios to communicate quickly when we needed Edmond to respond to a guest service request or an emergency, and Ernie would always carry a radio so he could continually pester Edmond with tasks like changing a light bulb in a little used stairway or removing some piece of trash he had found somewhere. Edmond was very patient and knew, like we all did, that it was usually much easier to go along with Ernie than to argue.
By now, Edmond's English had progressed to the point where he understood things much better, and one night Ernie made one of his gay remarks or did something that Edmond found most offensive -- he never would tell me exactly what happened. Suddenly he was at the front desk all agitated and excited and saying, "Ernie is very strange! Very strange! Edmond is not strange! No! Edmond is not strange!" In learning English, Edmond found it helpful to actually carry a pocket thesaurus in his pocket. He often spoke in synonyms that most English speakers wouldn't use the way he did, and we all suddenly realized that he was using "strange" as a synonym for "queer." Poor Edmond had no idea what was going on when the entire night crew suddenly exploded into laughter, and he protested his lack of strangeness all the more. I finally was able to get him to calm down and told him that he didn't have be alone with Ernie anywhere in the hotel.
From that night on, whenever Ernie was on property we would turn the radio monitor up in the PBX room and listen to the entertainment:
"Yeah, this is Unit 1 to Unit 2. Edmond, I got a light bulb out here in the fourth floor emergency stairway. You want to bring a replacement up?"
"Sorry, Ernie! No hear you!"
"What do you mean you don't hear me? If you don't hear me then how can ya answer me?"
"You breaking up, Ernie. No hear what you say!"
"Doggone it, Edmond! I'll break you up! I know ya can hear me!"
On and on it would go like this. It got to be like old time radio. Somebody would say, "Hey everybody! 'The Ernie and Edmond Show' is on!" And we'd all gather around the radio receiver to listen.
With a new controller in place, my responsibilities reverted back to my job description as night manager. I worked closely with Gene Johnson and was able to identify and guide him to many issues and problems that needed to be cleaned up. We quickly became an effective team, and by the spring of 1986, life was becoming more manageable and orderly every day, and I was able to heave a big sigh of relief. In fact, it seemed like it was when I heaved this sigh of relief that my left lung collapsed, and I began to realize the toll that the long, hard season had taken. As I lay in the hospital, I counted 142 straight days on the job without a day off since Mark Hiedel had been fired. Most of these days had been 10, 12, 14 or on occasion even 16 hours long. More often than not, I spent my off hours taking care of our four young girls while my wife worked, and many was the night when I went to work with four hours of sleep or less. The upside of this was that I had received a priceless education in the hotel business, but the downside was that I was tired and my body was telling me I wasn't indestructible after all.
As I lay in my hospital bed pondering all of this, I heard a familiar voice out in the hallway. "You sure this is the best room you got? This young man is key personnel and very well thought of at our place of business, and I can't tell you the trouble I'll be in if he isn't getting the best of everything in this ol' hospital of yours."
It was vintage Ernie, and he walked through the door into my room with the head nurse tagging along behind him and reassuring him that I was being well tended and cared for. "This is the best we have," she was telling him as he came through the door. "We're not exactly a Hilton Hotel you know!"
"Well, you can say that again!" Ernie said, as he scrunched his nose and pursed his lips as if trying to avoid a bad smell.
"This room is very nice, they're treating me like a king, and I'm very comfortable," I interjected.
"Well," said Ernie, "I guess if this suits you then it suits me."
The nurse took her cue and left. Ernie shook my hand, looked me over, and proceed to slouch his big frame down in the easy chair in the corner. He looked the room over and said, "Say now, this isn't half bad after all!" He had wangled the afternoon off for Vicki and Monica, the two accounting clerks, and gave them the task of visiting me with a large bouquet of flowers from the hotel. He sniffed at them as he asked how I was doing. "I knew we had you ridin' the horse too hard, and John asked me to personally thank you for all you did for us this past year and to assure you that you're going to be gettin' the time off you got comin'. We're gonna take better care of you. He wants you to know how much we appreciate you, and that goes double for me personally." I was choked up. The usually irascible Ernie was easier to take than the sentimental one.
Five days in the hospital and two more at home and I was cleared to go back to work. When I walked into the front office, there was a cake from the hotel, flowers from Cindy Hogan, and the best gift of all from the night crew, an audit that was in balance and a night shift that was in order. Heidi, the PBX operator that Cindy gave to me because she wasn't confident in her ability to even answer the telephone in the day time, had run the night crew and managed the night audit in my absence. "They didn't do half bad," said Gene Johnson like a proud papa. "Not half bad at all."
Near the end of the summer, I got an offer to become controller at the Airport Ramada, which was only a few miles from my home in San Carlos Park, just south of Fort Myers. It was daytime hours, two days off a week, a little more money, and I knew they really needed me. It was a very hard decision to make, and I talked it over long and hard with both Gene Johnson and John Doughery before making the decision to leave the Marco Beach Hilton. John did my exit interview personally, and told me that if I ever wanted to come back, there would be a place for me. Ernie Harber and I both choked up when I said my good byes to him. Edmond was right when he said Ernie was "very strange," but I had learned a lot from this incongruous old redneck gay man in the blond wig. And when the chips were down, he'd taken good care of me.
I did a year at the Airport Ramada. Nice enough hotel, worked with and for nice people, but it wasn't the Marco Beach Hilton. My wife, Jean, and I decided after much discussion that maybe it was time to go back home to Michigan where we had come from, and concentrate on a life more centered around our children and family. We moved to Leelanau County, Michigan in 1987, and bought a five acre farmstead from a man named Ken Shalda on a land contract and a hand shake. The next spring we bought a little cottage resort from his brother Dale the same way. We went into business for ourselves, along with working other jobs to make ends meet. Success was coming slowly but surely when Jean had problems with heart palpitations during the tourist season of 1990, and couldn't work for the summer months when we needed to make the money that would see us through the long, cold winter.
We were deeply in debt and had mortgaged our future betting that we could make this life work, and this really threw a monkey wrench into the works, to use another Ernie Harber expression. Northwest Michigan is the opposite side of the seasonal tourist equation from Southwest Florida. Wintertime jobs were scarce and what there were didn't pay much. With the season coming rapidly upon the Marco Beach Hilton, I made a trip to Florida and found myself sitting across from John Doughery. Before I knew it, he had offered me the position of assistant front office manager, and was apologizing that it was all he had available. "Aw, gee, Phil, it doesn't pay much," he said apologetically, then quoted me a figure that was several times what I could expect to earn in Michigan over that next six months or so. We winterized our home and the cottages, listed the property for sale, and rented a house in Naples for the winter.
When spring came, Jean and I were confronted with some big decisions. Our property up north hadn't sold, and we were beginning to get checks from past guests assuming we were going to be open for business in the upcoming summer. At this same time, John got wind of a Hilton property in the Washington D.C. area that needed accounting help, and had swung me an offer for an assistant controller's job that would represent a substantial increase in pay. "Of course, we'd love for you to stay here, but this is such a nice opportunity, and your skill set would be a perfect fit..."
Having a boss who always has your back and your best interests at heart is a wonderful thing. But we missed our home and our life in Michigan, and realized that if we wanted to give it another go, John Doughery and the Marco Beach Hilton had given us another shot at it. In a way, telling this story is a tribute to this man who was such a good boss and such a good friend that he not once but twice put me on my feet professionally and allowed me to set myself in the direction my life needed to go. And each time that he did this, it was a sacrifice for the hotel that for me, to this day, is the beautiful lady by the sea that taught me so well and made so many things possible. She could be a demanding mistress, but in some strange way, her quest for excellence had become mine. The success she achieved, in some small way, belonged to me. And the success I achieved, in a very much larger way, belonged to her. When May came, we took the fork in the road that led towards home and began getting ready to open up for a Memorial Day weekend that was anything but a disaster. Once open, we vowed that we would never close down again, and we never did.
My first shift back to work at the Marco Beach Hilton was a combination of meeting new people and reconnecting with old friends. Cindy Hogan was long gone. The front office manager, and my new boss, was a Pakistani man named Mac Chaudry. I received a warm welcome from Mac, and we became fast friends. He spoke five different languages and ran a warm, cosmopolitan, efficient and very professional front office. The entire crew was new since my time there. Mac now had on staff a team of young ladies who managed to be both very attractive and very good at the technical aspects of the job. They were referred to as "guest service agents" now instead of "desk clerks." The bar had been raised and it would actually take me a few weeks to get acclimated to the new standards of service and excellence that John Doughery had set and Mac Chaudry had reached. The Marco Beach Hilton was now rated number six in guest service among all Hilton hotels, and among the franchisees there were none better. This was a far cry from the "Memorial Day Disaster" and the "Great Fourth of July Riot," and it was gratifying to now see the final outcome of the great turn around that I had been privileged to be a part of a little more than five years earlier.
The Haitian ladies still formed the core of what by now had become an exceptional and highly skilled professional housekeeping department. They met or exceeded Hilton standards and were paid Hilton wages. Ives had transferred over to the legendary Fontainebleau in Miami Beach where he now served as a housekeeping manager, and Edmond remained at the Marco Beach Hilton and had risen to a similar capacity. He soon appeared at the front desk, warmly shaking my hand and beaming the famous Edmond smile as he exclaimed, "Welcome back, my friend! I am so happy to see you again!" The quality of his English had vastly improved in the past five years, and he spoke with the clipped, distinct Creole accent that is typical of Haitians. His English sounded much like that of their next door island neighbors from Jamaica.
As Edmond and I were chatting, I looked up to see the tall and unmistakable figure of Ernie Harber enter through the front doors and make his way across the lobby to where we were standing. He looked me over and said, "Well, would you look at what the cat dragged in! I heard you got tired of sloppin' hogs up there in Michigan and decided to come back home to where you belong!"
Ernie's frequent and often fractured use of biblical references, in this case comparing my return to the Hilton to that of the prodigal son, only added to the incongruity of the man. He stood before me wearing a red and white striped polo shirt, bright red slacks, and with the sleeves of a white cable knit golf cardigan tied loosely around his neck. The trademark blond toupee was perched atop of his head as usual.
"What's with the get up?" I asked. "Did you retire?"
"Retire! Now how could I retire? Unlike some people I know, I'm just smart enough to take a day off once in awhile. No, I'm still here. They call it "human resources" now instead of "personnel," but it's the same ol' manure and somebody's gotta shovel it. An' ridin' herd on this guy is still a full time job!" As he spoke, he punched Edmond playfully on the arm.
"He seems to have done pretty well for himself," I said in Edmond's defense. "And Ives too, from what I hear."
"Yep, Ives has done us proud over at the Fontainebleau. And Edmond's the same ol' Edmond. Can't live with 'im, can't live without 'im."
"And he is still the same old Ernie," Edmond said, flashing the famous smile. "Still very strange."
"Aw, now how do you like that?" said Ernie, feigning hurt feelings. "See what I mean? I'll tell you what, Edmond, we never woulda taught you to speak English if I'd known what a smart aleck you were gonna turn out to be. Now you come on! This man's got work to do and you can't just stand here and pester 'im all day. Let's go back and see what's for supper tonight. I'm buyin'."
And so they left for the employee lounge, where lunch and dinner were always served to the employees for free, and where Ernie Harber was always buying. As they walked away, "The Ernie and Edmond Show" continued:
"Now you listen here, Edmond, I know what you mean by "very strange" and I don't think it's funny, not one little bit!"
"Ernie, you are a crazy mon!"
"Crazy man, eh? Well you may just be right about that. Anybody'd be crazy after puttin' up with you all these years."
As they disappeared down the hallway, it occurred to me that much had changed at the Marco Beach Hilton. And some things remained remarkably the same.
Edmond proudly informed me that he had applied for U.S. citizenship and was studying hard for the Naturalization Examination. In the quiet moments of the day, the PBX operator now helped him study for his citizenship test the way another operator had once helped him read a first grade primer.
In January, the Gulf War against Iraq broke out. As we were watching the early hours of the war on a portable TV in the PBX office, one of the desk clerks, I mean guest service agents, came running back to the front desk from the employee lounge in a panic. "You've got to talk to Edmond! He's convinced he has to run away and join the Army! You're his friend, maybe he'll listen to you."
I walked into the employee lounge and sat down next to a pensive and quiet Edmond, who was twirling his fork in the food on his plate. "Food bad tonight?" I asked.
"The food is fine. I just have too much on my mind to have an appetite. I am going to join the Army and go fight the war. It is my duty as an almost citizen. And don't try to stop me. I looked it up and I don't have to be a citizen to join the Army. Ernie said I do, but not so!"
When I told the distraught Edmond that it wasn't necessarily his duty to run off and join the Army, he said, "You know, I was raised by my grandmother in Haiti because my father was killed by Papa Doc. My mother, she died of too much work and a broken heart. Saddam Hussein, he is just another Papa Doc, no?"
"Well, sure, that's about right," I said. "Saddam Hussein is pretty much the Papa Doc of Iraq."
"Then I will go and fight him. My grandmother, she save all her money to send me to America, then she die. I was here already when Baby Doc was thrown out. Many of my friends die. I cannot allow some other Papa Doc or Baby Doc to attack the America that saved me and do nothing! I do nothing in Haiti, I will fight to save America now!"
I assured Edmond that the future of the United States of America was not at risk because of Saddam Hussein, and that he had no more power against the U.S. than the Duvalier family did when they ruled Haiti with the same kind of iron fist. "You know, Edmond, you're a lot better citizen than I am, and you're not even a citizen yet. Maybe what you ought to do is stay here and work on becoming one, because America needs a lot more citizens like you. Take care of your responsibilities at the hotel, work on passing your exam, and let the Army take care of Saddam Hussein. If things get so bad that they need you, they'll let you know. That's their job and they know how to do it. What they need is for you to stay here and do your job. That's how America works. We all do our jobs as best we can right where are and just try to be the best people we can be. Trust me, you can do a lot more right here."
We were both quiet for a minute when something occurred to me. "Hey, Edmond, you know what? In all the time I've known you, I've never known your last name. What is it?"
"Edmond!" he said.
"No, not your Christian name; your surname, your last name."
"It is Edmond!"
I was incredulous. "Then what's your first name?"
"Jésus!" he said. "Jesus!"
"Well, why don't you go by that?"
"Because," he replied, "I am not Jésus. I am just Edmond."
As I rose to go back to work, I laid my hand on his shoulder and told him, "None of us are Jésus, but you are surely a lot more than 'just' Edmond."
I was just nicely back at the front desk when Ernie appeared. "Did you manage to get that fool Edmond talked down offa Mt. Rushmore?"
"Yeah, I think so. At least for the moment."
"I sure hope so! I got enough to worry 'bout without Edmond bein' off in some stupid war someplace gettin' hisself killed."
Ernie Harber turned quiet and thoughtful for a moment then said, "You know, it's funny how this buncha Haitian folks without a pot to pee in came in here and saved the bacon for a buncha fat cats who got no clue that what they really built this ol' hotel for was to save that buncha Haitian folks."
"Makes sense to me," I said. "This ol' hotel has saved my bacon a couple of times."
"Yeah, me too," Ernie said softly. "Say! It's been another great day at the Marco Beach Hilton! Let's go back and see what's left for supper. I'm buyin!"
Phil is the owner of the news portal Radio New Jerusalem.