There’s an old sailor’s expression that “anyone can man the helm when the seas are calm.” More than just in boating, this observation describes so many aspects of our work and personal lives. When everything is going along as planned, when we’re not thrown any curve balls, when G-d doesn’t decide to laugh in our faces, then many to most of us are quite able to function in a reasonable way. But when all hell breaks loose, that’s when you see what people are made of and, when it breaks loose for a business, the difference between ordinary HRM and excellent HRM really shows. This wonderful vacation has called for great HRM at The Ritz Carlton Istanbul and aboard our AMAWaterways ship AmaCerto, and both of these organizations rose to the occasion. But let’s start at the beginning.
How do all adventures begin? Not with an announcement, but the traffic congestion in from the Istanbul airport should have been a clue. However, little did we suspect on Wednesday, 5/29, that our traffic delays getting to the Ritz Carlton (which just happened to be located near Taksim Park) were related to a small protest over the future of that park. We had come a day early to Istanbul, a day before the start of our planned touring with AMAWaterways (which had booked us into the Ritz Carlton as part of that touring), in order to spend Thursday, 5/30, doing a full day of private touring of the Jewish heritage sights of Istanbul.
Orguz, our amazing guide secured through Society of Travel, was the best. We saw everything, learned about every phase of Istanbul history, and were welcomed by several synagogues and Jewish museums on visits approved in advance with the Chief Rabbi. We also visited Süleymaniye Mosque, which is gorgeous, and we were so encouraged to see the great multiculturalism of this vibrant world city. It is common here to see a mosque, church and synagogue within the same small neighborhood, which makes sense since we’re all sharing the same G-d.
Friday morning, 5/31, Ron and my brother-in-law Irwin did the five mile walking tour of Topkapi Palace while I did some writing and Marsha some reading. In the afternoon, again as a private tour with Orguz, we boarded a wonderful cruiser, about the size of our own boat, and toured all of Istanbul from the Bosphorus. What an amazing way to see both the European and Asian sides of this city, and we all picked out the waterfront houses we wanted should we win the lottery. The boat’s captain, with a mildly concerned look on his face, gave me the wheel and then relaxed visibly when he saw that this was not my first time as helmsman. Still, I was very glad to relinquish command when ferries, tankers, and container ships etc. all converged on our course. Truly the calm before the storm.
All travel is adventure travel. May Day riots in Paris? Been there. Anti-austerity take over of the main square in Athens? Yup! Save Istanbul’s Taksim Park from rapacious developers and heavy handed government? It was all happening just a short walk from our hotel. The outside terrace where we dined our first night in Istanbul was a new experience for Ron, my sister Marsha and Irwin, none of whom had ever experienced tear gas before, when it drifted our way. We never missed a beat and just kept on with our dinner. For me, this brought back memories of my anti-war marches of the 60’s, but there’s nothing I wanted to remember about police in riot gear firing tear gas and using water cannons on their own citizens. All evening and well into the night we could hear the sounds of the clashes between police and protestors, but Saturday morning dawned nice and quiet.
And with Saturday came our planned expedition to the Grand Bazaar. I led that tour, for which my only goal was to get everyone out without having bought everything in sight. There are a reported 3300 shops under one roof, so that was quite a challenge. There were lots of police checkpoints around our hotel, because of the nearby protests, including one right outside, but we’re not easily deterred when there’s shopping to do. And the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is like Aladdin’s Cave, complete with the most interesting shopkeepers you’ll ever meet. We all had a great time.
But when it was time to take a taxi back to our hotel, things got interesting. Our first taxi driver ran out of gas. Our second taxi driver ran out of nerve (as in became truly hysterical) when, headed to our hotel which was located very close to the center of the demonstrations, we suddenly found ourselves trapped between police shooting tear gas grenades and protesters putting up barricades of rubble across the road in front of us — literally in front of us. When they saw that we were befuddled Americans, the protesters helped our driver to back up and take another alley, but he was so unnerved that he refused to go any farther and just wanted us out of his cab. Now this might not have been so scary in a country whose language we speak, but we don’t know squat in Turkish, especially when everyone is screaming. So, we got out of his taxi, and with help from a businessman who spoke some English, we found another taxi who would take us back to the old city, away from the protests (and our hotel), and we took refuge in the Four Seasons.
I asked (tipping everyone in sight) the Four Seasons concierge to arrange a way for us to get back to our hotel while we had lunch, and he did. Between the concierge at the Ritz Carlton, and the concierge at the Four Seasons, they arranged a rescue mission with private car and driver. Suddenly, we were told we needed to go — NOW! So we left in a hurry, and our driver got us back to the Ritz through assembling protestors, mustering police, etc. Another few minutes, and we could never have reached our hotel. From our room we could see literally a sea of humanity marching up the hill on which sits the Ritz, police pulling back, barricades being built and fires set by the protestors. What a night. And nothing we’ll forget any time soon.
But the Ritz Carlton, and especially their young female concierge, deserve a major shout-out for rescuing not only us but many others from our tour group and not charging any of us for that service. That’s right; no charge. Yeah Ritz Carlton! And let’s hear it for great HRM at the Ritz Carlton for nurturing an empowered and very capable concierge who handled everything quickly and calmly. HRM is everywhere, and the best evidence of great vs okay vs lousy HRM is in the behavior of front-line employees. I’m sure some tech was involved, but the heart of HRM isn’t automation or procedure; it’s capable people, who know their jobs, and are trusted by their leaders to do those jobs well.
Next up: flooding on the Danube, disrupted river cruise operations, and the superb HRM at AMAWaterways.