Friday, September 11

Remembering 9-11: Retrospective


In remembrance of 9-11, we thought it fitting to republish an experimental cover story about the atrocity from the perspective of concierges in Las Vegas, New York, and Washington D.C. The piece ran in a global hospitality executive and concierge trade publication the month following the attacks.

It was considered experimental in that some of the story telling was intentionally chaotic, weaving back and forth between people and locations, as a metaphor to the events that took place. What struck me about digging up the piece was that most of the communication we could employ today — message services, social networks, blogs, and front line e-mail access — didn't exist.

***

Just before 9 a.m. (EST), Michael McCleary, chef concierge at the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel in Washington D.C., was told a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York.

Had it been any other day, the report could have ben dismissed as a bad joke from the bell captain. It was not any other day.

"We didn't believe it," said McCleary. "So we looked on the Web and turned on CNN just in time to learn a second plane had hit the World Trade Center."

At the Four Seasons Hotel in New York, located on 57th Street between Park Avenue and Madison Avenue, concierges tried to retain their composure and calm guests.

In Las Vegas, concierges getting ready for work fixated on the atrocity as it unfolded.

"Having worked in hospitality for 17 years, I knew I had to get to work immediately," said Lorley Musiol, chef concierge at the Four Season Hotel in Las Vegas. "Details don't matter right away. Anytime there is a disaster, guests will immediately turn to concierges for reassurance and information."

As Musiol made her way to work, the details became self-evident: America was under attack.

Judith Becker called Copywrite, Ink. president and then Key News * Las Vegas editor Richard Becker, who had learned about the attack minutes before, to tell him his father had just called: McCarran International Airport has just been locked down, no one in or out.

Back in Washington D.C., the bell captain came running back into the hotel to report "The Pentagon's been hit!"

"There was a genuine concern because planes had been seen overhead," said McCleary, noting the hotel is half a block away from the White House and less than two miles from the Pentagon. "Guests were worried and confused. We remained calm under stress, got as much information as possible, and took turns running to the telephone."

Jaci Zweig, corporate concierge for The Howard Hughes Corporation, called her mom in Indiana before leaving for Las Vegas' major financial district.

Concierge Sunny Marsicano walked through the front doors of the Stratosphere, the tallest free-standing structure west of the Mississippi.

Margo Tully, who works on McCleary's team in Washington, tried to get a phone line out of the hotel.

Leslie Lefkowitz, director of public relations for the Four Seasons in New York, said her concierges did what everyone in Manhattan tried to do — comfort each other as one disaster led to the next.

Another crisis was in the works. Transportation was quickly grinding to a halt. Millions of people were suddenly stranded. And the front line for many hotels and resorts quickly became the concierge desk.

In Washington D.C., Willard Inter-Continental management made a decision to temporarily move more than 200 guests into the ballroom where they had set up a big screen television and message boards. Concierges remained at the desk, fielding as many incoming calls as possible.

"The phone lines were jammed with people trying to call and see if loved ones were okay," said McCleary. "We took calls and posted all the messages."

Outside, the Secret Service closed all vehicular access because of the Willard Inter-Continental's proximity to the White House. The hotel had implemented security measures, including guest-only access. As concierges, Tully said "Our priority was making sure our guests were accommodated by trying to keep some semblance of 'business as usual.'"

But business was not as usual.

In New York, concierges worked round the clock as dinner and theater reservations shifted to transportation inquiries. It would be days before concierges could help stranded guests leave, so they tried to help them make the most of it.

"One guest wanted to leave Manhattan as soon as possible," said Lefkowitz. "It wasn't easy, but the concierges somehow found a car that could take him to a luxury inn in Connecticut and then drive him to Atlanta the next day."

In Las Vegas, Musiol made the decision to provide as much information to guests as possible. A television was immediately brought over to the concierge desk and a flip chart with containing all pertinent information was posted as it happened. Within hours, management delivered a letter to every room advising guests to stay and turn to concierges as a primary resource.

"We had a guest receive a call right after the attacks to find out his son had been in a go-cart accident and could lose his hand," said Musiol. "We found him a car and helped guide him across the country. As soon as the first flights resumed, we helped him find an airport so he could fly the rest of the way."

Without air travel or Amtrak (there is no station in Las Vegas) and only limited Greyhound routes, car rentals became rare and then impossible: most companies imposed a Nevada resident-only and no one-way travel restrictions on the few remaining vehicles. It would be days before such restrictions relaxed. When they did, the Four Seasons and Bellagio Las Vegas teamed together, proving guests an opportunity to drive home with someone. Similarly, when Stratosphere guests had family from other cities arrive to pick them up, extra seats were extended to others headed toward the same destination.

"At first, everyone was in disbelief," said Marsicano. "We didn't have time for anything except caring for guests; some needed prescriptions, everyone needed information. We had to get it."

As Southern Nevada Hotel Concierge Association (SNHCA) members established a phone tree, Becker suspended all commercial assignments in favor of developing a centralized crisis communication center for concierges, with blast faxes released every two hours.

The information included reports from inside sources, unreported wire news, sales associate-turned-reporter updates, and most importantly, SNHCA members news: the Hyatt Regency reduced rates before the citywide hotline was established; Bellagio Las Vegas became a consistent and reliable source for show updates; Stratosphere and Northwest Airlines became the first to offer specific flight information; and dozens of members contributed something anytime they could.

"I have never met a more dedicated group willing to make personal sacrifices to help others ... hundreds of thousands of visitors," said Becker. "The ability to establish a week-long communication network linking more than 30 properties with shared information in less than one hour is a confirmation that this profession works for Las Vegas. I can only hope that properties recognize the value and that properties without concierges reconsider their importance ... not only as professionals dedicated to serving guests but also as an important component in any strategic communication plan. These professionals are the best suited to serve on the front line of any crisis, regardless of the size, scope, or circumstance."

Since September 11, concierges have continued to show resolve, assisting in everything from fundraisers to grassroots letter writing campaigns to encourage travel to Las Vegas. Zweig has even taken to selling patriotic buttons made by acting head of security Jerry St. Vincent. All proceeds are donated to the American Red Cross.

"We sold 20 or 30 the day after and have since raised more than $750," says Zweig, who serves tenants that include companies that suffered the greatest losses on September 11. "It is not a lot, but it seems to lift spirits."

It is everything. It is another ray of light shining out of the darkness; one of many efforts Zweig has supported. And for every person touched by similar seemingly simple acts that truly represent courage, hope, and clarity by concierges, more will benefit. In service through friendship.

***

Never forget, not only for those lost but for all those who showed resolve for a brief moment in history when the country, and the world, was unified. Remember it, because we haven't seen such much unification on any issue since. And many fail to remember the simplest details, such as that 9-11 wasn't a tragedy, it was an atrocity. Good night and good luck.

6 comments:

Charlie on 9/11/09, 12:56 PM said...

That was such a tragic day and the turning point in which resulted in so many changes for America.
I have a hard time keeping the memory of those events and the heroes that rose to meet the challenges of that day separated from all the people that capitalized off scams or the politcs that was played or came about in the aftermath of that terrible tragedy.

Rich on 9/14/09, 10:37 AM said...

Charlie,

I think many people share your feelings. 9-11 has become many things it was never intended to be.

It is amazing how something that was so unifying has since become so divisive.

Best,
Rich

Charlie on 9/14/09, 7:43 PM said...

I have some pretty strong feelings on the politics that was played on what came after. For the most part I'm saddened, frustrated and a bit scared but at the same time I see that alot of peoples eyes were opened up about some of the ways politicians play the people.


Mark
Neptune Rising

Rich on 9/15/09, 10:00 AM said...

Mark,

Do you think so? I sometimes think open eyes tends to be selective to the politician or party, which is how we became trapped in pendulum swinging polarization.

You know ... my team does no wrong and your team does no right. I think that's why I stick mostly to the constitution.

Best,
Rich

Charlie on 9/15/09, 7:36 PM said...

I see quite a bit of what you are refering too but I'm also seeing alot more people searching outside the norms which usually tends to be someone a bit eccentric or with a conspiracy theory and all of the the above, Repulicans and Democrats included seems much more polorized with the current state of our government.
I believe what it all means is people are unhappy with things and have been looking for other answers and that is reassuring to me.
I don't think most people realize that themselves but that is how I am taking it.
I'm scared because I think our system has to much corruption from politicians to judges and other law enforcement.
I've come to be a big supporter of our constitution myself and wish it didn't have the loopholes that have been put into it that have seriously eroded our civil liberties.

Rich on 9/17/09, 7:24 AM said...

Well said Mark.

The complexity of the bi-polar political system may eventually run its course. We can hope.

However, to make another party nowadays would probably require a state-by-state movement as opposed to placing pockets in all states. And even then, parties predispose people to policy that may or may not be in the representative of the people they represent.

Constitutional education seems the best measure.

Best,
Rich

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