I can only recall three or four Christmases in the last 50 years being involved in tourism that I have not been working. It goes with the job and around this time, those who are not meaningfully employed in the industry should spare a thought for all the persons who cannot celebrate, what in many cases is a very special family time.
As a tour operator in the United Kingdom for over a decade, I was always busy at Christmas and New Year and the choice of hotel and location was a critical factors in the holidays being successful or not.
As most of our clients were British you learnt very early in our business that you should never try to replicate a typical Christmas overseas. Paris was always our best selling destination and over a particular Christmas, we chose one of several hotels that our company used in the French capital, a property in a lovely suburb to the west of the city at Bougival.
The owner was a big tennis fan and friend of the famous Ivan Lendl, so he named this singular hotel and several others after the world renowned club located in California at Forest Hills.
A few weeks before the arrival of the group, we sat down with the hotel’s general manager and head chef to discuss a suitable menu for Christmas Day. The French probably eat as much turkey as the Brits do, so there was not a problem there. Shrimp cocktail as a starter seemed an impartial choice and then we came to dessert. We suggested Christmas pudding and immediately the clearly quizzically chef stated: ‘Qu’est ce que (what is) Christmas pudding?’
After spending what seemed like an eternity trying to explain the contents and appearance, we finally gave up and instead suggested that we purchase in the UK and transport a few suitable puddings to the hotel with another group the week before.
The starter and main course soon were served and quickly devoured, lubricated by excellent French wines. Then, in came the dessert which was amazingly served to almost everyone at once. The resulting sound was almost overwhelming and the head chef ran from the kitchen to see exactly what was going on. It was stone cold and I will always remember the chef’s response: “Well, you didn’t tell us that you had to cook them.”
Of course, he was right, we had not told them.
Fortunately, everyone took it in good heart, perhaps helped by the flowing wine and it became the talking point of the day, repeating it time after time as if it was a scene out of the famous, but sadly short-lived television series, Fawlty Towers.
We never made the same mistake again and went on to build what many still regard as one of the best English small tour operators of modern history.
If, while reading this column, you are working, sustaining our tourism industry over the peak and economically critical holiday season, thank you for your sacrifice. We all owe you a debt of gratitude.