It was 1996 and I was appointed Trainee Lobby Manager at Hilton, Barakhamba Road, New Delhi. A large 444-room property, that was home to big corporates, travel agent groups and airline crew. Amidst all the action that could possibly be going on, the Lobby Manager’s job was most cumbersome. The 10-hour shift demanded that you look good, be active, sound pleasant and no matter what the situation, be in control. On any given day, there could be incidents as critical as a fire alarm requiring evacuation or suicide, and less alarming like an upset guest, a delayed order, an overbooking where you had to turn the guest away, fights in the nightclub, people trying to vandalise the hotel, so on and so forth. As much as it was both exhausting and challenging, it was indeed the perfect training (battle) ground for anyone who wished to pursue a career in the hotel industry.
Into the 2nd week, I was asked to report into and get trained by Nalin Mahendirata, Sr Lobby Manager and a veteran in the hotel, and so I had to clock the night shift. He was an excellent person, equipped to handle any kind of situation to keep the guests happy. For me, it was so difficult to pull-off that shift because one – it was the peak season, and two – there were flight delays due to the fog. Both factors resulted in the next major one – the need to accommodate a large number of passengers. This meant that we also had to setup banquet halls with make-shift beds, so we could support the demand to some extent. On one such day around 3:00 AM, Nalin decided to take his 2-hour sleep break at the lockers. He left me to handle the scene, with crystal clear instructions on one particular task amongst the many assigned to me for that day. An airline was staying with us at the hotel, and the instruction was to wait for the call from the airline company and then proceed with the next steps. The next steps meant that once I receive that call regarding the crew’s wake-up time, I would pass on the message to the hotel operator, sign the wake-up sheet and inform the front-desk to keep the bills ready. Wake up at hour zero, crew departure at zero +1 hour, reaching the airport at zero + 2 hours. The transportation was handled by the Delhi Airport Service, so off my list!
With all those details in mind, I continued my routine tasks on the shift. Being a busy season, I was getting numerous calls from other hotels asking for rooms and also from airlines with requests to reschedule/schedule wake-up calls. It all seemed like business as usual! At around 5:30 AM, Nalin came back to the desk and asked me to give him a quick update on the last few hours. I summarised and managed to cover all of them quickly. Once I was done, he skimmed through some logs and realised that there was an issue with the crew of Royal Jordanian (RJ) Airlines – their 4:00 AM wake-up call had not been made to them yet. He asked me if I had received any call from the airport regarding changes in the schedule, and I told him there were none. He then instantaneously called the airline, to enquire if a wake-up call had to be scheduled. The station manager of RJ was surprised to get a call from Nalin, because, as per his understanding, the crew should have left the hotel by now. Nalin insisted that we had not received any request for a wake-up call, and so we could not set the process in motion. However, the persistent station manager told Nalin that there was an error on our side, and that the crew had to leave immediately. Understanding the criticality of the situation, we quickly made the wake-up calls and also told the crew that they had only 45 mins until departure from the hotel.
It was intense, the way we got caught in that mess.The crew managed to reach the airport by 7:00 AM for a flight that was originally scheduled to depart at the same time. Due to the delay the flight lost its runway slot, and with ensuing fog had to wait for further instructions. The revised time that the air traffic control gave them was now at 9:30 AM. In the meantime, back at the hotel, the situation was unfolding against me, as the RJ staff was insisting that the call had been made to the hotel and that he had spoken to the lobby manager, whereas, I had not received any call. As expected, the issue got bigger, and Sudhir Bali, my front office manager, and General Manager got involved, and I was asked to go home for the day, pending further enquiry. I was miserable. If I had indeed missed the wake-up call, I was sure to be fired as the airline had encountered a massive loss, with the aircraft able to fly out around 12.30pm due to further delays on account of the Indian Air Force restrictions due to the oncoming Republic Day.
It was a horrible day. I was sad, and dejected I felt like my whole career had come to a standstill, and conspiracy theories were rife in my head. I had given my heart and soul to the job and losing it was not something I wanted. I could not sleep the entire day, and at 4:00 PM, I got a call from Mr Bali asking me to get back to the hotel. Thoughts about receiving a termination letter from my boss, were in my head.
When I reached the hotel, I was surprised to see Nalin still there, because his shift usually ended at 9:00 AM. He stayed back, and between Mr Bali and him, they had already completed a thorough investigation and wanted to share the insights with me.
So, here’s what actually happened – the RJ airport staff had forgotten to call me, and the proof presented was two-fold. First, there was no call to the hotel operator from any of the RJ’s phone numbers, and second, the Delhi Airport Service which is tasked with handling transport, only got a call from RJ at 5.45 AM, which meant that RJ had forgotten to even call them. I was not at fault and could resume my duties.The sigh of relief on my face was quite apparent, and I was very thankful to both Mr Bali and Nalin for helping me keep my job. Mr Bali had only one message for me – “We never leave our people alone to fend for themselves”.
This episode had a long lasting impact and helped build my leadership ethos around supporting and helping people. Everyone will make a mistake at some point in their career, and when they do, be supportive, and if required, forgiving. No one is born perfect, and it is our duty as a member of the ‘One Team’ to help, share, support and motivate our colleagues who are sad, depressed, in trouble and in need of our help. As the Indian Army soldier says, “Never leave your kind behind”. Together we rise, divided we fall….