Guest story: Discretionary Effort

The Ritz-Carlton could not provide unique, memorable and personal experiences for their guests without the efforts of their dedicated employees, known as the Ladies and Gentlemen of The Ritz-Carlton. When the Ladies and Gentlemen of The Ritz-Carlton apply discretionary effort—when they go above and beyond for guests—then true “wow” moments are created. The following guest story from The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai shows the exceptional diligence and consideration of the Director of Guest Services to provide genuine care to the guests.

Detecting a Guest in Need

One quiet morning, the Director of Guest Services at The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai recognized a guest who had visited the hotel many times sitting alone in the lobby lounge. They often exchanged pleasantries during his visits, and the Director of Guest Services looked forward to their brief conversations about his travels.

On this occasion, he had his head buried in a thick, worn album, which sat among a large pile of books on the table. But the Director of Guest Services also noticed he had an unusual expression. He seemed puzzled and confused. She decided to approach him.

“Good Morning. How are you this morning?”

The guest was so preoccupied that the greeting startled him. Some old black and white photos and wrinkled papers fell to the floor from his album, and the Director of Guest Services knelt down to pick up the papers and photos. As she collected the photos, she could see they were mostly of an elegantly dressed, old, distinguished Chinese man. The mountain of books on the table all appeared to be historical books on Shanghai that looked recently purchased.

“Oh. Good Morning! Can’t complain, how are you today?” he replied. The Director of Guest Services apologized for startling him and helped him clear some space for his order of tea and scones.

“Do you have a moment to join me for morning tea?” the guest asked. “I want to tell you a story, a very long story about my family. Are you sure you have time?”

“Of course, I do for you. I would be delighted to hear your story.” The Director of Guest Services was a little intrigued because this guest had never asked for anything before.

Searching for Family Roots

He sipped his tea slowly. However, his eyes came to life as he began telling the amazing story of his life, his family and the search for his grandfather. The Director of Guest Services had no idea that the man she regularly saw pass by her desk over the last few years was piecing together his family history. He was searching for the location of his grandfather in order to pay his last respects to a man that he looked up to and honored. He opened the album to a photo of a young boy – “That’s me and this old man is my father.” The elegantly dressed, old, distinguished Chinese man in the photos the Director of Guest Services had picked up turned out to be his grandfather.

“Both my father and grandfather are Chinese. My father immigrated to the U.S. prior to Chinese Liberation in the early 1940s. I was born in the U.S., but I am very ashamed to say that I speak no Chinese. When you first met me many years ago, I was coming to Shanghai because I was entrusted by my father to discover the roots of our family.” He paused for a long moment and seemed distant. “And to find the resting place of my grandfather and pay my respects to him and honor him for the wonderful life he has given to my father and me.” His eyes were moist, but his voice was steady. He continued, “My grandfather was a well-known financier, entrepreneur and social activist in China. But I never had the chance to meet my grandfather before he died. I have very limited information about him. What I do know is that he died in Shanghai and was buried here sometime after the liberation. But this is where I get stuck. I have no idea where he is buried. You see—I have bought lots of books about Shanghai’s history, but I’m totally lost. I feel very sad and confused now. I have let my father down and dishonored my grandfather. I miss my grandfather so much! I need to find him! What shall I do?” The guest became very silent.

“All things are connected like the blood that unites you,” the Director of Guest Services answered him. “I am deeply touched by your story. Let me help you to search for more information on your grandfather, we can find him together!”

“Awesome! You are so sweet!” the guest said excitedly.

“All right. Let’s work together! Could you tell me more about your grandfather? What was his full name?” the Director of Guest Services asked.

The guest shared the grandfather’s full name and added, “he was born in 1884 and died in 1955. If possible, I want to find his cemetery since he was buried here in Shanghai. ”

The Director of Guest Services felt a little bit anxious and uncertain once she heard the year he died. The guest understood that the chance of finding something about his grandfather was slim, but he still wanted to try every possible way.

The Director of Guest Services had concerns, but there was a voice inside of her that kept telling her: “You have to help this guest find his grandfather’s grave. You can do it.” This voice gave her the determination to fulfill the task. But she kept asking herself, “Where should I start?” After giving it some thought, she decided to try her luck and do some research on the grandfather’s life since the guest mentioned his grandfather was a famous financier. After days of researching on the Internet and after numerous phone calls, she confirmed that the grandfather was buried in IWC Cemetery before the Chinese Liberation. This was a place for all the well-known people from all nationalities to rest in peace after life. Unfortunately, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, almost all of the tombs in the cemetery were destroyed and headstones smashed. Nothing was spared—not even the flowers, trees or buildings. Eventually, it was turned into a factory and vegetable garden.

Pursuing New Resources

When the Director of Guest Services learned this, she was full of despair. She was so close to helping the guest—only to reach this devastating dead end. She kept researching—hoping that there was a chance some of the graves had survived or were possibly relocated.

She reached out to her old history professor from college and explained the story to him. He knew a lot about the Cultural Revolution and he promised to look into it. A few days later, he called her back with some great news. While the tombs were all smashed at IWC Cemetery, all the tombs and records were relocated to another place and not lost forever. This place is now known as Song Qingling Mausoleum. With renewed vigor, the Director of Guest Services tracked down the record keeper and unbelievably found that the grandfather was indeed a guest there. She couldn’t wait to see the guest’s face when she was able to tell him that his quest was about to be completed.

Witnessing a Family Reunion

She left a message in the guest’s room to meet her the next morning at 10 a.m. and mentioned she had a special surprise for him. At 10 a.m. the next morning, the guest was in the lobby looking distinguished in a dark suit and tie—not unlike the photos she had seen of his grandfather. He seemed to know what the Director of Guest Services was about to say, but he waited patiently for her words.

“The gods are looking down on us today,” she announced. “And we have good news. You can finally honor your family today and meet your grandfather.”

“Thank you! Thank you so much.” It’s all he was able to say before tears rolled down his cheeks. The Director of Guest Services hugged him. She was grateful to know she had made a difference to this guest’s day.

“There is a hotel car out front waiting for you that will take you to Song Qingling Cemetery now and wait to bring you back. Inside the car, there are some flowers you can leave on your grandfather’s tomb.”

“Please come with me,” the guest said. “I can’t thank you enough for what you have done for me and my family. Please come and see the end of this story with me.”

They drove to the cemetery and the guest walked down the path flanked by headstones and fresh green grass. He carried the fresh-cut flowers and a single black and white photo of his grandfather. The day was cool and gray and there was a hint of a breeze blowing through the trees. It was a peaceful day. There was no sound of traffic or construction — unusual for Shanghai.

The Director of Guest Services saw the guest arrive at his grandfather’s grave, where he stopped and slowly knelt down. He placed the photograph against the headstone and laid the flowers in front. He placed his hand on the stone and the Director of Guest Services could see his head bowed low. This was the moment that had taken him almost four years to reach—finally honoring his father’s wish and meeting his grandfather for the first time. After a few moments he stood, and silently they walked back to the car and drove back to the hotel.

The Fond Farewell

The next morning the Director of Guest Services saw the guest in the lobby with his luggage. He was checking out, and she ordered him a taxi to the airport. He came over to the concierge desk before he left to say goodbye. “Today I will go back home to the U.S. I will miss my visits here to The Ritz-Carlton where you have all made me feel like it was my home for the past four years. I have finished my search, and it was only with your help that I was able to achieve that. I will be forever grateful. You have helped me to discover the roots of my family—something that I wasn’t able to do. Thank you.” The homesick guest was going home, but he wasn’t homesick anymore.

The Director of Guest Services for The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai received the J. Willard Marriott Award of Excellence in 2015. This award recognizes the “best of the best” from around the world and is given to staff members who truly embody a commitment to excellence, teamwork and a “spirit to serve.”