On September 11, 2001, I was working behind the concierge desk at SoHo’s Mercer Hotel. To most, that day made up of press images stored deep in the memory bank. But, for those in New York, there’s a library of images that no one else will ever truly see.
The job of front desk staff at a hotel is to represent the business at its best. As the faces that guests see most frequently, it is our duty is to solve problems in a calm and friendly manner. We can often be the main facilitators of a client’s experience during their time away from home.
On September 11, we were fully occupied and when we first heard the news that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, it was from our operator who had been listening to the radio. At the time, we thought it might just be a small plane. We only realised the enormity of the situation when a guest came down and asked each one of us to go with him outside to see what was going on for ourselves. We took turns to leave the desk, and saw that we were about to deal with a situation that none of us had been trained for.
We had no intercom system in place, and the only skills we had in terms of emergency training were to remain calm, polite, and to stay confidently in charge. While we stood on the corner of Prince and Mercer, the first tower fell. We decided to work in pairs, one of us took calls while the other gathered information. Guests began to come down, some to walk outside, some to ask for more information. One guest, an actor, arrived with a backpack on. He asked us to tell anyone who called for him that he was going down there to help.
By the time the second tower fell, SoHo was awash in dust and debris. The lobby was full. Guests were mingling with office workers from the World Trade Center who had walked up to the hotel, not realising what part of the city they were in. In the days following the terrorist attacks, the bravery and commitment exhibited by both staff and guests was humbling. The actor who went downtown with the backpack came back and filled his bag with toiletries from our supply to take to the police officers and firemen working on site.
As guests were able to leave the city, we filled their rooms with displaced families from lower Manhattan. And many of those families continue to get together at the hotel every year on the anniversary. In a big city like New York, even neighbourhoods like SoHo came together. Restaurants gave us food to feed the guests when delivery trucks couldn’t make it to our area and neighbours stopped by to chat over pints at Fanelli’s pub across the street.
A few weeks ago, when Hurricane Irene was on track to unleash havoc on New York City, I was staying in a hotel in Times Square. Guidelines for what to do in an emergency were provided in each room – it was clear that more planning was in place. Mayor Bloomberg prepared the city, and post-2001, New York has emergency plans for everything. Thankfully, the storm passed with little damage on the city. But what was familiar was the calm friendliness of the front desk staff. I told them that their positive attitudes would hold the building together, even in the strongest of winds.