October 19, 2013

Behind the front desk at Kansas City’s high-end hotels

Pamela McClain of Merriam is comptroller at the Raphael Hotel on the Country Club Plaza. McClain has been in the hotel business for 41 years, starting as a front desk clerk at the Alameda Plaza (now the InterContinental Kansas City) when the hotel opened in 1972. She moved to the Raphael, where this conversation took place, in 1975.
Pamela McClain of Merriam is comptroller at the Raphael Hotel on the Country Club Plaza. McClain has been in the hotel business for 41 years, starting as a front desk clerk at the Alameda Plaza (now the InterContinental Kansas City) when the hotel opened in 1972. She moved to the Raphael, where this conversation took place, in 1975.

The Alameda Plaza and the Raphael were both founded by the Pistilli family. How were they alike and how were they different?

They were both wonderful because the Pistillis were so great to work for. They treated everyone from managers to bellhops with the greatest respect. They took such pride in both buildings. They never cut corners. But the properties were very different. The Alameda was this new, very modern, sparkly place where everyone wanted to be. It had all the amenities: ballrooms, swimming pools, rooftop dining, you name it. And it represented Kansas City, it wasn’t a chain.

The Raphael was a beautiful old building built in 1927 that had been apartments. It opened as a boutique hotel.

What was your first job at the Raphael?

For the first three months I was in charge of the continental breakfast, which used to be included in the room rate, and then I moved to the front desk.

What was a continental breakfast like in 1975?

We had a huge machine that we pushed onto the service elevator. We made the coffee on the elevator. We poured orange juice, grapefruit juice and tomato juice into little glasses, and we got croissants every day from La Bonne Bouchée, a French bakery that used to be on the Plaza.

The breakfast went to every room, and you got to tell us what time you wanted it by a little card you hung on the door. We rode up and down the elevator all morning. One person made the coffee, and the other person delivered the trays.

What was the décor like in the Raphael when it opened?

It was amazing Spanish revival, with a lot of dark wood and wonderful rich oranges. There was a fine-nap orange carpeting on the walls. It was very calming when the cleaning crews would vacuum the walls late at night while I did my homework for my criminology degree.

Why did you get a criminology degree?

I thought the whole science part was fascinating, that hair follicles and fingerprinting and ballistics could catch somebody. After I graduated I realized I could work at a forensics lab, but it would be 8-to-4 and not a huge amount more money, and I would lose the flexibility of working in a hotel. So I stayed at the hotel, and I never had to get a baby sitter.

Were you ever able to apply what you learned in criminology classes at the hotel?

There are traits you pick up on when people are trying to cover something up. Sometimes someone would come in who was just rambling on and on and on. So I would ask the clerk if they had checked the person’s ID, and sure enough it didn’t match the credit card.

I bet working in a hotel as long as you have is as good as a graduate degree in human behavior.

Oh, definitely. When I retire I’m going to write a book or a screenplay. My favorite TV show is “Fawlty Towers.”

Will you tell us one story?

One of the best was when we switched over to key cards for door locks. There are always bugs in any new system. Early one morning, the maintenance man isn’t on duty yet, and a man calls me from his room and says, “I can’t get my door to open.”

So I go up and try my pass key, and I can’t get it open. So I come back to the front desk and call him and tell him, “At this point I’m not able to open your door either, but I have a couple of things I can try. I’m going to switch out the batteries on your door lock and see if that works.”

And he says, “OK. There are some people in the lobby waiting for me.” So I ask him the names and I find them and explain that we have a mechanical issue with his door and he can’t leave the room but we will get him out any minute.

I go and change the batteries and that doesn’t work. So I go back to the desk and call him again and I ask him what age range he is. And he says he is 28 or something like that. So I ask him if he is pretty agile. He says, “Well, I’m not in a wheelchair.”

His room was on the first floor, so I went around with the bellman, and we moved a picnic table underneath his window. The bellman climbed in and got his luggage and brought it out and helped the guest climb out. Needless to say, we didn’t charge him for that night’s stay.

What have you learned about dealing with the impossible-to-please guest?

You have to look at it as a challenge, like, “I am going to win this one. I am going to make this person so happy.” And it is a satisfying win when you do.

Now in 41 years, I have lost some. And if there weren’t a counter between me and them, I wouldn’t be here today (laughs).

But 95 percent of the time, I win them over. One tool is, a lot of people might not know when I am being sarcastic. And that’s good. Like when a lady called to tell me there was a ladybug in her room.

I said, “Oh! Just one? Well, I am so sorry this has happened to you, Ms. Smith. We have another room identical to yours on another floor, and I’m going to send the bellman up right now to move you to it.”

That sort of opened her eyes, and she said maybe it would be good enough if the bellman just came and removed the ladybug, so that’s what we did.

Have you ever had a celebrity like the kind you read about that wants 50 pounds of green M in a crystal bowl or something?

Some of them have situations.

Describe a situation.

Well, at the Alameda, a very well-known lady performer was in town, and a local barbecue place delivered four slabs of ribs as a gift. So I called her room and told her, and she said, “Throw them in the trash.” I instantly lost all respect for that person.

On the other hand, Bob Hope and his wife were at the Alameda once and were exactly the opposite.

Mrs. Hope asked that a bellman walk her little dog every morning and feed it, and when I went to discuss the dog’s schedule with her, she handed me a $100 bill and said, “Tell the bellman to find the cheapest brand of dog food he can — the dog will eat it — and keep the rest for himself.”

Who owns the Raphael now?

The Walker family of Salina, so it’s still family-owned. They put a ton of money into the renovation. The rooms are just stunning now.

How far in advance do people book rooms with a Plaza-facing view for Thanksgiving night so they can watch the lighting ceremony?

We only let people book one year in advance. So you have to call starting Friday morning after Thanksgiving.

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