At your service: working at the Shelbourne
It’s not glamorous, and it’s hard work, but at least Conor Pope discovers how to get an upgrade when he goes behind the scenes, and front of house, at the Shelbourne Hotel
Dealing with bags and valet cars is straightforward and I grow in confidence until I develop an unfortunate verbal tick. There is a 15/5 rule here. If I am between 15 and five feet from a guest I’m supposed to greet them and if I’m five feet away I’m supposed to offer them assistance. Instead of saying “Good morning” I start saying “Howaya”.
When JD hears this, he has conniptions. I promise it won’t happen again, but it does, over and over again. I can’t stop with the howayas and every time I hear myself say it, I do a JD flinch and follow the flinch with an audible “damn it”. Then I flinch more. The only thing missing from this Homer Simpsonesque tableau is a “Doh”.
There’s dough in the kitchen though and that’s where I am sent next. I’m shown to the dessert station where head pastry chef Kate McLoughlin is waiting. She creates hundreds of little works of art every day. I marvel at her finesse as I struggle to put tiny pieces of fruit onto creamy fancies and she tells me: “It is not that hard really. All it takes is practice. It’s hard to recover when things go wrong though.”
Tell me about it.
When our desserts are done, I wheel the ornate sweet cart into the hotel bar. All eyes turn to me. I have never been looked at with quite so much longing in a bar before. It is amazing. When I abandon the cart I become depressingly invisible.
This hotel has a storied past, although its golden age, when James Cagney, Maureen O’Hara, John Wayne, Grace Kelly, Laurel and Hardy, Taylor and Burton, Jack and Jackie, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth routinely came through its revolving doors, is most likely behind it.
Hitler’s brother Alois worked here too, incidentally. The hotel is less boastful about that.
My kitchen duties are done and I’m off to the flower shop. Three months ago Mary O’Reilly started work as the Shelbourne’s first in-house florist and in week one she had to arrange all the bouquets for Flotus. Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama stayed in the Princess Grace suite while Barack was up at the G8 in Lough Erne in June. That must have been exciting? “Well, we saw her legs at the top of the stairs once,” O’Reilly says. Right.
She gets some unusual floral requests from demanding guests but there are none today. The most extravagant order comes from a chap who wants rose petals spread all over his duvet – to impress someone else, I hope. This is a new service the hotel offers and while a bed of romantic roses is well and good, it’s also kind of messy. I can’t help wondering what happens after the duvet’s deflowered. Will the loved-up couple sleep on the foliage or will they sweep the petals under the carpet? These are thorny questions that I need answered. O’Reilly can’t help me though.
It is past noon and I’m starving. Luckily there are cookies at reception. I eat one. They are great. JD thinks it’s far from great that I am eating them. We are not allowed to eat the cookies. We are not allowed to use our mobile phones. We can’t chew gum. Or lounge. We have to be always on, always smiling and always willing to help. It is tiring. And it is not me.
I have a rest at the staff briefing given by the hotel’s general manager Stephen Hanley. The Shelbourne is now part of the Marriot chain which employs more than 10,000 people in countries all over the world, so understanding cultural distinctions is clearly important. The briefing is unintentionally hilarious. The 40 of us are taken on a whistle stop tour of the world’s faiths and we are told that Christian houses of worship are called churches and Christmas is a big deal with those people. Muslims frown on alcohol consumption, while Jews don’t eat pork and Hindus don’t care for beef. The briefing ends with atheists. We learn that their “eating habits vary greatly based on their personal preferences”. Who knew?
For nearly three years Hanley has been at the helm of what Terence de Vere White once described as “the archetypal hotel, built at a time when people understood the souls of hotels and theatres and public houses”, and he has worked hard to save the Shelbourne’s soul. His aim is to restore this hotel to preeminence in Ireland. “Being able to add 100 staff in times like this is great,” he tells me on our lunch break. “Occupancy has grown by 20 per cent in three years and is now around 90 per cent year round, while our rates have gone up by the same amount.”
A €100 million refurbishment is now complete and the Grand Old Lady of the Green hasn’t looked as sprightly in more than a century. It’s not all plain sailing though, and the hotel is more deeply in debt than Downton Abbey. I ask if it is in Nama, as I have heard repeatedly that the hotel is tied up with the property agency. He couldn’t be more adamant. “No, never” he says and we move on.