After nearly twelve hours of holiday travel—two planes, three airports, tasteless meals, crying babies, vomiting passengers, and incessant announcements in two languages—I can get crotchety.
So it was when I nearly came to blows with a rental car agent in Lisbon last summer, over his refusal to hand over the keys unless I purchase local car insurance. And so it was again when I was refused my Welcome Drink at a fancy resort in Cartagena over Christmas break.
(The name of the fancy resort will remain anonymous in this post because I really like it, and I don’t want this story to reflect poorly on its service.)
During orientation, the hotel manager gave us a coupon for five “Welcome Drinks” by the pool, as a reflection of the hotel’s gratitude for my gold status. A bellhop showed us to our rooms. I was anxious to redeem my coupon, so I left my bilingual but slow-to-unpack-her-bags wife and raced to the pool with the kids.
In addition to a handful of waiters, the hotel employs several men to stand around the pool. They wear a sign on their shirts that reads “Guardia,” which means what it sounds like. It’s Colombia! One of the guards is tasked with entertaining children. And he’s really good at that: His favorite game involves throwing his keys in the pool while the kids face him, eyes covered, and then making the kids search for the keys.
Of course, I interpreted “Guardia” to mean Man Servant and I proceeded to order my Welcome Drink from him.
“Puedo tener cinco bebidas de bienvenidas?” I asked the key thrower. “Dos con alcohol y tres sin alchohol, para los ninos.” Not too shabby for someone who last studied Spanish in El Centro Bilingue in Cuernavaca in the late 1980s.
To remove any ambiguity, I handed the guard my Welcome Drink coupon, he nodded his head, and disappeared. My twelve hours of travel hell was about to be washed away with a yummy mixed drink. Perhaps infused with a local fruit, like guava or papaya or dragon fruit.
Or so I thought.
Ten minutes passed and no one returned with my God Damn Welcome Drinks. I flagged another Guardia and asked about my drinks. He was clearly confused and promised to fetch an English-speaking waiter. Fifteen minutes in and I could feel my blood pressure rising. Keep it together, Hal. The kids are watching.
“What would you like to drink?” the waiter asked.
“My God. I ordered a Welcome Drink fifteen minutes ago. Surprise me!”
“Can you give me your coupon, sir?”
“No, I can’t. I gave it to the Guardia,” I insisted.
“Well, I can’t give you a free drink without the coupon,” the waiter retorted.
That was not the right answer. Not after twelve hours of travel. Not after the vomiting passenger who refused to vomit in the bathroom like a civilized vomiter. “Do I look like I crawled in off the street?” I asked. My seventeen year old moved to another section of the pool.
Taken aback by my temper, the waiter retreated and huddled with the guards. He came back to my chaise lounge. “I can order you a drink, sir. But without the coupon, I must charge you for them.”
“Send me your manager!” I declared. When a good fifteen seconds passed without the manager, I left my two remaining kids and stormed back to the lobby—shoeless but wearing some fresh Tommy Bahamas Bermuda shorts—to confront the manager myself. “Can you please give me another coupon for five Welcome Drinks?,” I asked the manager. “Your wait staff at the pool won’t serve me unless I present a coupon. Apparently, they think I’m lying about the coupon.”
I took a picture of the coupon in the event the staff misplaced it a second time.
When I returned to the scene of the crime, I found my wife speaking in Spanish to the staff. She had ordered herself a drink. Then broke the news to me: “The Welcome Drink is not a drink.”
“Of course it’s a drink!” I was still hot. “We are greeted with Welcome Drinks all the time. They typically have umbrellas. I can’t believe this place!”
“But the welcome drink here is just a coupon.” She dispassionately explained. “You were supposed to order yourself a drink. And when the waiter presents the bill, you present your coupon. Weren’t you listening during our orientation?”
Got me there. I figured it was best to let things die down. I told her, however, that I didn’t want to interface with any staff at this shithole for the rest of our stay. And maybe not at the next hotel either.
I tried to defend myself at the next few meals, but my family showed no sympathy. After a few restful days, some quality Twitter time, and a John Grisham true-crime book, I realized that the problem was not with the staff–and certainly not with me–but instead was with the coupon.
In a low blood-pressure state, I explained to the hotel manager on day three that, in the year 2018, there should be no physical coupons. If you want to reward a loyal customer with a free drink or a free meal, program that credit into the billing system; when the customer checks out, the credit should be applied automatically. I recounted a similar experience at the Grand Hyatt Kauai, which required (at least a few years ago) customers to present a coupon for a free breakfast. I left the coupon in my room, and when the hostess insisted on the coupon as a condition of eating breakfast, I walked back across the property, cursing the Grand Hyatt Kauai, to retrieve it from my room.
The next time a hotel presents you a coupon during orientation, I suggest you tear it into little pieces. Tell the manager that if they want to reward you for your loyalty, they should add a credit to your bill. And maybe listen to what they say during the orientation.
Two final lessons: A Welcome Drink is not always a welcome drink. And bebida de bienvenidas does not mean Welcome Drink. It means you’re an idiot gringo.