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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Suitophobia

“I’m Doctor Oppenheim….”

“Welcome to the Intercontinental, Doctor Oppenheim. Are you checking in?”

Damn. Another employee who doesn’t recognize me. This happens in hotels that have called for decades. Who knows what she’ll tell a guest who asks for help?

No American hotel employs a “house doctor.” Some general managers designate a local practitioner. Some (under the impression that it protects them from liability) make up a list of physicians, but many pay no attention, leaving it up to guest service personnel. This gives the advantage to entrepreneurial doctors who tour hotels and extol their services to the staff, perhaps with the hint of material gain for a referral.

I can’t stomach delivering a sales pitch, but years ago I decided to hand a copy of my latest book to each general manager and explain modestly that writing allowed me free time to serve their guests. The managers listened politely, made flattering comments, and went back to work. It was clear many had no idea who I was. My tenth visit, to the downtown Hilton, was my last. “What do you mean ‘serve our guests?’” snapped the GM. “We don’t have a hotel doctor. We don’t want a hotel doctor. You’re going to get a letter from our lawyer!” He snatched my book and marched off. I was a familiar figure to Hilton staff, having made over 100 visits, but I never made another.

That was my first encounter with the epidemic of suitophobia that rages among hotel managers, compelling them to forbid staff from helping sick guests except by getting them off the premises. At any given time, about ten percent are affected. Most recover after a few years. I made over 600 visits to the J.W. Marriott in Century City before calls abruptly stopped. I learned the reason from concierges who swore me to secrecy when they snuck me in to see a particularly demanding guest.

Here’s a scenario that should give these managers pause. A guest asks for a doctor. The employee explains that, for liability reasons, he cannot comply but will happily provide directions to the nearest hospital. The guest declines to go. The employee offers to call paramedics. The guest refuses, returns to his room, and dies. Lawyers will fall over themselves to take this case: the guest asked for help and didn’t get it. I’ve dealt with similar cases, often over the phone. Most sick guests don’t need an emergency room or the paramedics, but when they do I don’t take no for an answer. I’ve delivered this argument to half a dozen general managers and persuaded none. The disease must run its course.

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