Concierge confidential

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A mother and daughter – regular guests at a prestigious Paris hotel – are caught on video camera trying to steal a large vase from one of the hallways. A man punches a hole through his hotel room wall after a particularly troubling phone conversation. On a flight about to take off, a passenger tells the flight attendant that he’ll continue using his cell phone until he’s finished his conversation, regardless of federal regulations.

For those who work in the travel industry, meeting the needs of a demanding clientele is an important part of the job, and dealing with occasional problem behavior is all in a day’s work. But sometimes travelers pull stunts so ridiculous, rude, or dangerous that it amazes even the most seasoned hotel and airline staff.

Perhaps because they encourage guests to kick back and make themselves at home, hotels seem to serve as a hotbed for eccentric behavior. One hotel manager recalls a guest who checked in with her dog and an extremely heavy piece of luggage. Turns out the bag was filled with foot-square pieces of turf that she laid out in her room – a fresh piece for each day of her stay – so that the dog would feel more comfortable.

Another manager recalls the night he was overwhelmed by the strong smell of fish while walking one of his hotel’s hallways. He eventually located the source of the offensive aroma: a side of salmon resting inside of one of the ice machines. “A guest wanted to make sure it stayed cool overnight,” recalls the manager, who had to drain and clean the ice machine after moving the stinky salmon to the hotel’s refrigerator.

Daniel Craig, general manager of the Opus Hotel in Vancouver, maintains a blog about all things Opus-related, and he’s unusually candid about guests he tags as “UD” (that’s undesirable, of course). “We respect the people who stay with us, but we also like to provide an inside view of what happens at our hotel,” he says. Craig has drawn on his experience in the industry to write a mystery called “Murder at the Universe,” which will be published this fall.

He writes in the Opus blog about one hotel guest who invited a stream of prostitutes up to his room over the course of the night, insisting that they were his “nieces” when questioned by hotel staff. He might have gotten away with it, had one of the women not gotten off the elevator on the wrong floor, knocked on a door, and offered her adult services to several unsuspecting guests.

“It was cool having a drag queen in residence,” writes Craig of another guest. “I thought at the time (she) added some color to Opus.” And she did, literally. After checkout, the housekeeping staff discovered that the drag queen’s room had been blanketed in makeup – the carpets and bedding, walls, and doors were covered. The result was an enormous cleaning bill and a chiding rebuke on Craig’s blog: “Bad drag queen, bad.”

But it’s not just hotels that contend with travelers behaving badly – airline employees have stories of their own. After smelling smoke coming from a lavatory during one flight and forcing open the door, Tyler, a flight attendant with a major U.S. airline, found a passenger standing on top of the toilet, puffing furiously on a cigarette and exhaling into the air vents. “Did he really think that would work?” he asks incredulously.

William, a flight attendant at a regional carrier, once had to extinguish a fire that broke out in a lavatory during a flight to Fargo. “After the emergency landing, we found the cigarette butt that started the fire, but we never did figure out who was responsible.”

And airplane lavatories aren’t just for smoking. Tyler says that the mile-high club – where passengers use the bathroom as a place for some quick in-flight intimacy – is still alive and well, especially on popular honeymoon routes. He adds that flight attendants generally turn a blind eye. “If there’s not a line of people waiting to pee, what’s the harm?” he asks.

Tyler says that the average person would be “shocked” by the amount of groping that happens under blankets during overnight flights, and surprised at how often flight attendants are hit on by passengers. “The pick-up lines are usually so bad that you end up trying not to laugh,” adds Barb, a flight attendant based in the Midwest.

Certain routes seem to breed more bad behavior than others. “I hate working Vegas flights,” complains Tyler. “They’re like giant flying frat parties.”

“The passengers who aren’t wasted when we board certainly are by the time we land,” adds Barb of flights into and out of the City of Sin.

International flights can also be tough. “Coach passengers will stroll right into the galley during pre-boarding and help themselves to the champagne we’re serving in first class,”

Tyler says. “If it’s in their line of vision, they assume they’re entitled to it.”

William recounts one especially obnoxious story that’s made the rounds at his airline. “A flight attendant told passengers sitting in the exit row that they’d need to verbally verify that they understood the emergency instructions,” he says. “One of the passengers refused to respond, and wouldn’t even make eye contact.” The silent traveler’s seatmate finally explained that this particular passenger preferred not to speak to hired help. The flight attendant was horrified, but held her ground until finally acknowledged by the unpleasant passenger.

Then there are the stories so offensive that they can’t even be laughed about later. Several flight attendants mentioned experiencing racism or homophobia in the course of their work. “Sadly, it still happens,” says one. “And sometimes from people you wouldn’t expect.”

Celebrities bring their own unique brand of bad behavior to the world of travel. Barry, a travel agent to the stars, recalls the famous musician who refused to step out of her limo at the airport because the first-class departure lounge did not carry the right brand of bottled water. “She nearly missed the flight,” he says. Then there was the celebrity who was booked in first class on British Airways, but wasn’t happy with the particular seat she’d been assigned. “She stood at the door of the plane and refused to board until the person sitting in her preferred seat (1A) agreed to move,” Barry recalls.

Some stories are more silly than shocking. A famous musician so obsessed with ensuring that her hotel room was heated to precisely 72 degrees would pay for it to remain empty the night before her arrival, so that it could be set to the proper temperature a full 24 hours in advance.

Nicole, a former concierge at a hotel near Harvard University, recalls an eccentric-professor type who insisted on inspecting his room from floor to ceiling before checking in. “If he found so much as a speck of dust or a random hair somewhere, he’d demand another,” she says of this semi-regular guest. “Sometimes he’d go through four or five of them.”

On another occasion, Nicole received an urgent request from a guest just hours before he was scheduled to check out. “This guy asked me to drop everything to help him,” she says. So what was the big emergency? Peanut butter, lots of peanut butter. “I had to arrange for a supermarket to have a case of it ready for him so that he could pick it up on the way to the airport,” she explains. “And it had to be Jif Creamy. He was very specific about that.”

Flight attendants have their share of innocuous but ridiculous stories, too. Barb remembers a woman who asked for reseating on a DC-9 from Memphis – she had just had her hair done and was afraid it would get messed up in the wind if she sat near a window. In the middle of a late-night flight from Minneapolis to Montana, a passenger approached William concerned that the plane was no longer moving. “We were at 30,000 feet, but she was utterly convinced that we had just stalled or something,” he says. “You should have seen the confused look on her face when we landed a half hour later.” On one overseas flight, a passenger approached Tyler completely distraught that there was no McDonald’s cuisine available for purchase, and another time, he had to explain to a passenger that unfortunately the plane did not come equipped with a milkshake machine. “They think we have a full kitchen back there,” he says, laughing.

The Opus’s Daniel Craig says that the vast majority of the guests he deals with are courteous and respectful, a view that seems to be shared by others who work in the travel industry. But he jokes that he would love to develop a Web site where hotel managers are able to comment on guests. “Travelers use sites like TripAdvisor to rate properties and give very specific feedback,” he says. “When it comes to certain guests, I’d love the opportunity to do the same.”

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