December 18, 1999. 9pm. Zero degrees. A light snow was falling. My birthday dinner in Kansas City, Missouri, USA with friends was interrupted by the buzz of my pager (remember those?), it was my hotel at the time, NOT a Ritz-Carlton. Annoyed by the interruption I flipped open my mobile phone and dialed the hotel, uttering to the entire table "paging me on my birthday at 9pm... the hotel had BETTER be on fire".
Gloria from the front desk answered in one ring, and with her charming Filipina accent said "Good evening meester Cokkinias, I'm sorry, I cannot speak right now, dee hotel is on fire". Click, end of conversation. End of birthday dinner.
I arrived at the hotel at the same time as the flashing Fire Department trucks, and met Dave the evening Duty Manager. Dave was soaked head to toe as if he had just emerged from the shower. He also looked like he had just endured a week in a Welsh coal mine, his face, shirt, hands blackened. "Dave? What happened to you?"
"Made it inside the room boss... just as the sprinkler system went off" was the reply. Seems a guest on the 20th floor had lit some candles in the room, left them burning on the bedside table, and then went for dinner. This allowed one of them to burn through the wooden bedside table and drop onto the king-sized bed, setting the bed and the entire room on fire. Dave entered the room just as the hotel sprinkler system turned on, dumping at least 8 cm of water into the room in less than 30 seconds, a blackened water that had been resting in the sprinkler pipes for years. Fire: extinguished. Dave: wet and black.
Amidst the fire alarms, our guests had all been evacuated to the outdoor pool deck. They huddled together in freezing masses, some in only bathrobes. Two fireman, myself and Dave reached the 20th floor and entered the room. The firemen slid open the room's balcony door allowing the smoke to escape, clearing the room so that we could survey the damage.
The room was a charred mess, and the mattress was still glowing with burning embers. "Sir our procedures are that a smouldering mattress cannot be brought out of a building via the elevators or down the stairs" barked the fireman.
"Then how do we get it out of the build..." and before I could finish, the two fireman grabbed the king sized mattress and with one hefty heave, threw it out the open sliding door and off the 20th floor balcony, spinning into the night. I looked at Dave and he looked at me and we both ran to the balcony railing, gazing down in horror as we came to the joint realization that the room overlooked the pool deck, and the 300+ evacuated guests were directly below the balcony, 15 floors below.
As the mattress fell, the cold, dry winter air re-ignited the smouldering embers and the mattress turned into a spinning, roaring, flaming fireball hurtling down towards the 300+ evacuated guests shivering below. As we watched helpless from above, the guests collectively looked up and realized what was happening, and scattered, as the flaming whirling mattress crashed onto the pool deck with a thundering "whoomp" and burst into a thousand pieces.
Needless to say, most guests had a few choice words for me and my team during checkout the next morning. And even now 12 years later, if you ask me to pre-light candles in your room as part of your "romantic plan for the evening", forgive me if I hesitate...
About Steve Cokkinias
Steve Cokkinias is the Founder & CEO of InnSense Leadership (www.innsense.com) which he established in 2012 after a successful 17-year career in the hospitality industry that included senior positions with Ritz-Carlton, Westin, and Sheraton in the U.S.A, Caribbean, and Asia. An inspiring and sought-after speaker and executive coach, Steve has delivered energizing programs on service, leadership, and talent management to a wide range of international companies. During his 9 years as General Manager in Kuala Lumpur, his hotel was named "Best Employer in Malaysia" 4 times consecutively by Hewitt & Associates, earning him a place on Human Capital Asia's "Hot 40 - Asia's H.R. Superstars". In 2010, Steve was named Malaysia's "General Manager of the Year" by the Hospitality Asia Platinum Awards. His new book, "InnSanity - Leadership Lessons from a Lifetime in Luxury Lodging", is due for release in early 2013. Steve can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow Steve on Twitter: @stevecokkinias.