#TBT: My toughest assignment

In 2002, HOTELS launched a feature called My Toughest Assignment, with first-person accounts of some of the amazing feats that hoteliers are called on to perform throughout their careers. This one is from HOTELS’ November 2002 issue. It was written by Patrick Ghielmetti, at the time general manager of the Four Seasons Resort Sharm El Sheikh:


So much for a soft opening

When I tell you that my toughest assignment involved royalty, a political summit and a grand opening celebration fit for a prince, you might assume I’d dreamt it. In fact, I lived it and loved every minute of it.

May 1, 2002, marked the opening of Four Seasons Resort Sharm El Sheikh. It was to be a soft opening, as we were prepared to launch only 30 of our 200 guestrooms. That is, until I got the phone call.

Approximately five days after opening, I learned that our resort would host the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and his entourage of 170 people, and they were arriving the following week. They were to participate in the formal opening of the resort – a celebration we had not yet planned. Over and above the festivities, President Mubarak of Egypt and President Assad of Syria would join the crown prince for a mini-summit on peace in the Middle East. So much for a soft opening. We needed to become a full-blown operation – and fast. There was no question the resort looked beautiful. But we needed more than a picture perfect setting for our special guests. We needed a workforce.


Four Seasons Resort Sharm El Sheikh / Photo: Supermac1961 via Flickr
Four Seasons Resort Sharm El Sheikh / Photo: Supermac1961 via Flickr

The staff we had at the time, was skeleton, at best. So we looked to our faithful colleagues from around the world for assistance. Within hours and with the assistance of Four Seasons’ corporate office, 200 “helping hands” were recruited. They came from Cairo, Lisbon, Dublin, Berlin and London. They were housekeepers, concierges, cooks, valets, spa attendants and managers. We chartered an airplane to get them here. Along with their luggage, they carried crucial supplies we didn’t yet have in stock. When they arrived, we introduced them to the property and then got to work.

Given the diversity of our temporary staff, there were language issues. We appointed English-speaking team leaders from each country to be spokespeople for their group. We identified experts in their fields to lead training sessions. The resort became a virtual boot camp, where small armies of staff feverishly learned new skills.

Royals don’t travel lightly, so I knew from the outset one of our biggest challenges would be luggage delivery. We assembled a throng of luggage handlers and taught them the finer points of handling precious baggage. Our resort is spread out, so we use golf carts to get from A to B. Unfortunately, most of the local staff didn’t know how to drive – at least not these carts – and in a matter of days they would have to navigate the narrow pathways that snake through the resort. Let’s just say we had our share of comical moments, but thankfully, all went well.

Another issue was laundry. Unbefitting of a guest to sport wrinkled clothing, we knew that our one-hour pressing service would be in high demand. On the day of arrival we blocked off a corridor of the resort and turned it into an ironing nerve center. As guests checked in, they checked their galabeyyas and caftans for pressing. It seemed as though all of our staff wielded an iron at some point during the visit. Even my wife heeded the call to action.

Room service was another flashpoint. One could never guess when hunger would strike, but it seemed to happen all at once and in the middle of the night. We assembled a crew of about 50 cook and wait staff to tend to every craving.

Preparing for this momentous event brought nerves sweat and tears, but I can honestly say it went off without a hitch. It was remarkable to watch our makeshift multinational workforce pull together like a well-oiled machine. In typical Four Seasons style, there were no complaints or regrets, just teamwork. On departure day, all 500 staff lined up along the boulevard in front of the resort, waving and cheering as a long line of limousines pulled away. The passengers, accustomed to concealing their identities behind blackened windows, peered out to wave back and bid farewell. It was a simple, yet touching gesture. To me, it was acknowledgment of a job well done and a gratifying conclusion to my toughest assignment.


#TBT — #ThrowbackThursday — is a weekly feature that flips through the issues of HOTELS’ to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Thanks for reading!