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 Do Not Disturb

michael STEAL THIS COLUMN

BY MICHAEL MATTHEWS

September 28, 2006 -- I had a wonderfully eccentric maiden great aunt who used to travel to London by steam train. It was an eight-hour ride on what was then The Great Western Railway. The Great Western logo was not far distant to that of the Royal Family and the railroad had its own dining cars with the best linens, fine china and real silver flatware.

Over a period of about 30 years, Great Aunt Mabel managed to steal enough of the Great Western's tableware for 12 place settings. She even managed to get away with the cloches, vegetable dishes, salvers and tureens. She said that she liked the GWR logo on everything. As a boy, I thought that she was pretty cool and her passion for pinching far surpassed my penchant for stealing ornate hotel room keys.

But I am not unaware of the toll of theft and pilferage in the economy at large and hotels in particular. Perhaps as much as one percent of hotels' total revenues walk out the door. And we're not talking the odd towel or ashtray, either.

I was working at the front desk of a hotel in Toronto in the early 1960s when I received a call from housekeeping. A brand new color television--we were the first hotel in Canada to have color TVs--had gone missing from a suite. At that very moment, the guest in that suite presented himself for checkout. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the bellman seemed to be struggling with a very large suitcase.

Not wanting to cause a scene, I casually and silently added $750 to the bill and passed it across the counter to the guest. He looked at the bill, looked at me, then back at the bill and once again at me. Then he passed me his credit card and said softly, "That was rather an expensive TV." My general manager, Leslie White, later complimented me on making a profit from the sale of the television.

Many of my hotel-industry compatriots have had similar experiences.

Michael Hobson, now a top executive of Mandarin Oriental Hotels, recalls that the public rooms of the Island Shangri-La in Hong Kong once boasted amazing crystal chandeliers made by Baccarat. They sparkled with hundreds of crystal droplets. As time progressed, however, the droplets disappeared and the chandeliers looked like skeletons. The droplets were eventually replaced with glass--and there is many a lady with Baccarat earrings walking the streets of Hong Kong.

Legendary hotelier Atef Mankarios was working in Amsterdam in the early 1980s and remembers a guest who ordered room service three times a day for a week. Each time an order was delivered, she swiped the silverware and even the bud vase. When she checked out, the clanging from inside her suitcase caused suspicion. Rather than go to jail, she paid up and even tipped the bellman. She left, clanging her way across the canals.

Of course, hotel "shrinkage" is not the sole province of visitors.

Michael Littler, who runs The Sherry-Netherland on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, tells a story of a hotel construction site where the security chief would regularly check one particular workman's wheelbarrow for stolen tools. The security chief knew that the guy was stealing something, but he could never find out what. At the grand party for the construction team when the hotel was completed, the security chief finally confronted the worker.

"Come on," Littler recalls the security chief saying, "we know you were stealing something. What was it?"

"Wheelbarrows," replied the worker.

In the same vein, Hugh Stevens, the recently retired Mayor of Carefree, Arizona, and one of the hotel industry's legendary marketing executives, tells of the construction of the Discovery Bay Hotel in Barbados. Every delivery arrived one item short: 109 toilets when there should have been 110; 109 bath tubs; 109 beds; 109 sofas; 109 lamps; and so on. When the hotel was completed, the chief of security proudly invited the owner, general manager and executive staff to see his home. That's where they found the fittings for the 110th room.

The so-called Pretty Woman Hotel, recently renamed the Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire, has one of the world's most beautiful Presidential suites. When it was originally outfitted, a 35-foot-long, handmade Turkish carpet led to the suite's double doors. It cost almost $100,000--and it lasted about a week. The security cameras showed two men in overalls carrying the carpet out of the hotel and loading it into a truck. The doorman unwittingly helped in the theft because he was so anxious to get the ugly delivery truck out of "his" driveway.

But I would be remiss if I didn't mention the hospitality heist of all times.

A famous five-star hotel, a branch of the chain with fake British hunting pictures, had just celebrated its grand opening with a lavish party attended by all of the local politicos and business leaders. The party ended at about 2.30 a.m. and the place was cleaned up and shipshape by 6.00 a.m. Top management then retired and left the hotel in the hands of the exhausted night staff, which was eagerly awaiting its relief.

That's when a Bekins moving truck pulled up outside the hotel and four uniformed men entered the lobby and strolled to the front desk.

We're here to pick up the furniture you guys borrowed for last night's party, one of the uniformed men said as he showed the groggy, slightly bewildered clerk a clipboard with a typewritten list on Bekins stationary. The list called for the pickup of four leather sofas, six leather chairs, six coffee tables and so on.

We'll have them out in no time and the truck with your furniture is right behind us. The boys will know where to place it. They have a plan from the decorators.

The night clerk checked with the very junior manager on duty. He gave the nod. So with the help of a couple of bellmen, who held the lobby doors open, out went the lobby furniture, the carpets and a pile of artwork, along with the sofas, chairs, tables, etc.

The very junior manager on duty signed the Bekins form, attesting that all the appropriate items had been correctly collected and loaded onto the moving truck. Then the night clerk, very junior manager on duty and the bellmen waited for the truck full of replacement furniture. As far as I know, they are still waiting.

Needless to say, I don't encourage hotel pilfering, but, if you must, start with something small, like my eccentric maiden grand aunt. Come to think of it, though, there is a very nice grandfather clock in the lobby of the Four Seasons in Chicago…

This column originally appeared at joesentme.com.

Copyright © 1993-2006 by Michael Matthews. All rights reserved.