Thursday, 16 December 2010

Beware the bearded Scotsman – SPA Dinners

In my long and varied travel career I have been fortunate and unfortunate enough to have attended many an industry dinner. Some have been smug, self congratulatory affairs; others thinly veiled sales promotion and others downright boring. There have been times of the year when I think if I see another lamb chop I will start baah-ing and others when there is so much salmon around I fear an outbreak of spawning.

But there is one annual event that stands out in the crowd. Surprisingly so as it never changes its format, menu or entertainment yet it has not once failed to deliver a surprise. I am of course talking about the Scottish Passenger Agents Annual Dinner which takes place close to Burns night in Glasgow every year. If you ever want to experience a mixture of Scottishness, comedy, eccentricity and life in the raw this is the place to be.

If I was a blackmailer this particular evening would be a must to attend because never do you see so many prominent industry names let their guards slip anywhere else. In fact all one would have had to do is position oneself outside the lifts of the 10th floor (where the ‘hospitality’ rooms where) of the Albany Hotel and watch the great and the good fall in and out. It was at this very place that I experience the ‘Bearded Scotsman’ of my title but more of that later.

The invitations and allocation of tickets come out a few weeks in advance and it is here that you get your first inkling of how the association or your Scottish regional staff view you. Between them they decide who outside Scotland is to be invited, where you are going to sit and what hospitality you are to be offered by the sponsoring suppliers. It can be quite informative. For example when I first attended the dinner I was placed somewhere like seat 36 in row Z where the top table was like a tiny peck in the corner of one’s vision and the food was blood temperature by the time it got to you. Strangely I got invitations to all the hospitality so somebody clearly wanted me to get drunk. In some cases the invitations were photocopies which highlighted the afterthought or counterfeit of their availability

As I said earlier the format never changed. One would fly into Glasgow airport the afternoon of the event along with all the other Sassenachs where there would be a bizarre dance around the taxi rank as people tried to secure or avoid shared taxis with each other. Arrival at the then Albany Hotel would be equally fascinating as people jockeyed for position at check-in whilst hailing friends and associates across an already crowded bar. It was also here that you would have your first encounter with various supplier sales reps that saw it as the best opportunity to make friends with you as, once in the queue you could not really escape.

Once in you room (which again highlighted your status or lack of it) you changed into your dinner jacket, sorted out your invitations and observed the complimentary mouth freshener, Alka-Seltzer and miniature whiskey on your bed and prepared for the onslaught. My preparation included a ham sandwich, glass of milk and two aspirins in anticipation of their need. Then it was into the fray!

Arriving back at the ground floor was like walking into a vast bear pit. By this time the place was packed and many looked and behaved like it was the end rather than the beginning of a long and boozy evening. The noise level is immense as people jostled for drinks, introductions and access to the various sponsored rooms. It is the only event I remember where the sponsors had to provide bouncers to keep uninvited customers out. Even at this stage one could not be but impressed by the hotel management and staff who somehow managed to control this seething mass of black and tartan that seemed to be everywhere they should, and should not, be. Their ability to turn out so many drinks so quickly to so many guests is also a testament to their skills and desire to avoid abuse.

The first moment of crisis arrives. Somehow they have to get these hundreds of partying folk into the vast banqueting hall ready for dinner. It is not easy. They do it in a way similar to airports. It starts by making a statement that dinner is served and they do this 15/20 minutes before. They then go through the repertoire of second call, final call, ‘gate closing’ and finally the threats start and the team reminiscent of Tokyo train pushers move in. Eventually the vast herd is in, the doors shut and the next phase of getting everybody to sit down and shut up starts.

It is then that you look around to see who you are going to spend the next few hours with. And I do mean hours as this has to be the longest dinner in the travel calendar involving mainly interesting and funny speeches…but not always. All the time the tables are plied with sponsored drink and pre-ordered bottles of wine. Your table guests are a mixed bunch as you were not then allowed to choose them yourself. Sometimes this was good and others catastrophic.

I soon discovered that as ones status increased and the move up the table plan starts the quality of the guests and the evening diminished rather than increased. But not always as there were always ways to make your own entertainment during any boring bits. I remember one particular occasion when the guy opposite me fell asleep during the speeches. As time progressed his eyes closed, his head started falling back and his mouth opened like a stranded fish. The snoring then began and the rest of us collapsed in giggles like a bunch of school kids. In the end we devised an impromptu game which involved throwing peas scavanged from our main course at his gaping mouth until one made him choke and he woke up.He then glared at us saying he could not hear the speeches for our giggling.

The food was always great. They had a brilliant chef who somehow turned out hot and tasty food for the massed ranks of guests and he never failed at any of the dinners I attended. I was always a little worried as his name was something like ‘Bogey’(sp) which I have to admit put me off eating any desert with currents in ‘just in case’.

After the dinner the pipes started up again which heralded the beginning of the serious drinking on the infamous 10th floor. Just time to check my invitations, swig down another couple of Aspirins and up in the lift I went to meet whatever fate was going to dish out on this occasion. Like everywhere else the place was a seething mass of humanity with guests, hosts, bouncers and barmen all vying to make themselves heard. Being hard of hearing I just grinned inanely at everyone and it seemed to work.

The rest was just a blur until my meeting with the bearded Scotsman. I had just slunk off from bumping into one of my first bosses. He was a very proper, well spoken chap who marched up to me and said “Ah Platt isn’t it”? I replied in the affirmative and he gave me a withering look. “You’re MD of Hogg Robinson now aren’t you”. Again I answered in the affirmative. "Good God” he uttered “None of us thought you would get anywhere” he said and stalked off. Time for bed my bruised mind told me, especially as my flight was due to leave Glasgow in four hours time.

It was three in the morning and the evening had started at five the previous evening and I was not in my full flush of health and strength. Is it time for another Asprin I thought as I walked towards the 10th floor lift. Before me a door crashed open and the biggest ginger bearded man in a kilt fell out. He made that big guy in the ‘Brave heart’ film look like a midget. He stood there and I cowered dwarfed before him. He then collapsed on me and passed out.

A wrestler could not have done it better. I was pinned flat underneath him and could not move. My lungs were squashed under his bulk and I could barely breathe let alone cry for help. I then lay there for what felt like hours but was probably minutes. During this time people stepped over us to go to the lift like it was the normal thing to encounter in a Glasgow hotel corridor. Eventually the bouncer from the British Midland lounge took pity on me and managed to drag the giant off me. Unfortunately not before ‘Brave heart’ was sick.

I missed my morning flight and got chucked out of my room at midday with a bruised face and sore ego. I was sitting on the plane going home when I noticed something. It was a long, curly ginger hair on my handkerchief. A fine memento of a pretty typical SPAA Dinner. How the hell did it get there I mused!

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