Monday, 20 July 2015

Hotel in the Clouds

Looking up at The Shard which houses the Shangri-La London
The last documentary I watched on the way back to Hong Kong from Paris was The Shard -- Hotel in the Clouds, which followed the opening of the Shangri-La London in February 2014.

While the building itself looks totally amazing -- and it reminds me to visit London sometime soon! -- the documentary focuses more on how the hotel hires the staff, trains them and how they fare in the first few weeks after opening.

Construction was delayed for about a year, and when things were finally moving ahead, the management decided to up the ante and set an opening date so that there was a definite deadline.

Looking at the view of London from the tallest hotel in Europe
The Shard is not located in the city centre, making it a bit of a trek for guests to stay in, but the floor-to-ceiling views seem to be well worth it, as the hotel floors are from 34 to 52. There are stunning views of Tower Bridge, Canary Wharf, St Paul's Cathedral, Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament and Tate Modern.

Apparently the Shangri-La's policy is to hire local staff, and for many of them who come in for interviews have never stepped inside a five-star hotel, let alone worked in one. There are two men who have been friends for a long time and apply to be bellboys. They are gobsmacked by the place.

It's funny watching them hold plans of the building and see how many elevators they have to go to because the building gets narrower and narrower towards the top.

There's also a server called Angela who previously worked in pubs but is now being trained to be one of the wait staff in the fine dining restaurant. She thinks she isn't cut out for it, but her attitude -- that she loves serving people and it makes her happy to do so -- is the reason why she was hired.

The wine sommelier explains that logistically wine needs to be constantly moved from the basement of the building to the top otherwise it's embarrassing for guests to have to wait so long for their favourite bottle to arrive, similarly clean glasses need to be constantly ready.

Luxurious rooms at the five-star hotel
Staff get a quick lesson in Chinese hospitality -- how to hold chopsticks, and that Asian guests may slurp their soup, which is not a sign of rudeness like it is in Western culture, but that of satisfaction. The staff are also taught a few words in Mandarin, like the name of the hotel. But are they really going to remember that?

A 19-year-old straight from culinary school who was the top student, gets a job in the restaurant as the lowliest member of the kitchen staff. He has to pick out all the leaves for decoration, but he learns fast  and soon moves on to sauces.

Just before the hotel opens, they have a trial run with some staff acting as guests in the hotel. The two bellboys get to stay in the hotel and are chuffed at being treated like VIPs.

But when it comes to dinner, they waited a very long time for their dishes to arrive, though they weren't complaining with the free drinks they got in return for their patience.

The next day the general manager holds an emergency meeting and criticizes his managers for the poor performance overall -- it's very interesting that the Hong Kong-based hotel group allowed this scene to be shot, but it is a crucial part of the story.

Finally the hotel opens to much fanfare, with Mayor Boris Johnson giving a speech and looking puzzled as the lion dance seems to go on forever. The actual banquet that day seems to go off without much of a hitch and then the guests start checking in.

Soon after the opening, the communications team has to deal with the fact there are design flaws in the hotel -- some guests can look directly into the bathroom of adjacent ones, and so blinds have to be quickly installed. They also try to spin it, saying the English aren't prudes either...

It's because of this major design fault that members of Luxury Travel Intelligence voted the Shangri-La London as the worst hotel opening in 2014.

Nevertheless, other guests seem not only impressed by the amenities, but service too, with one wealthy couple so charmed by Angela's service that they are willing to pay for her to stay one night so that she realizes she deserves to be working in the five-star hotel.

The young culinary graduate invites his parents to lunch and he gets to plate their dishes. It's obvious they are beaming with pride and tell him so, which is touching. One would probably not get the same reaction from parents in Hong Kong...

At the end, a Frenchman enters the hotel room and is in awe of the view. Then he looks over to his right and observes with amusement he can look into the next door's bathroom...

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