Security in the lobby. Sounds like the title of an international espionage bestseller. The truth is, it’s the daily grind of living in a city obsessed with outsourcing security. It seems you can’t run a business these days without having bouncers and trained dogs standing outside your door.
At first I thought I was becoming too feisty with the issue until some friends from overseas came to town and wanted to look at different hotel options in Bogotá. I decided that a walkabout would be in order and that the only way to ask about rates and services would be the old fashioned way – a walk up to the reception to ask for room availability. In the four hotels that we tackled, the experience was the same: we had to amicably justify why we wanted to go into the hotel, jostling past guards who did their “de rigueur” bag check and called on canines for a sniff.
My friends found the whole experience of visiting hotels rather stressful and decided to change their plans. Their image of Bogotá became associated with paranoia and surreptitious security. It seems that despite the efforts Bogotá takes in trying to promote itself as a safe and livable place, this image is often shattered by “suspicion” on the ground.
I ask myself, what city in the world doesn’t allow you to walk into a hotel lobby? I have strolled on many occasions into the Pierre on Fifth Ave and the Plaza on 59th Street. I have had the door opened for me by men in black velvet hats at the Place Vendôme and even modern Maharajahs at the Taj in Mumbai. Never questions asked. It’s a thankful nod of the head and voilá, you’re in the Ritz, a Relais Chateau or the Oak Bar overlooking Central Park.
I am someone who believes that small details mean more than mass mailings. Hire the best public relations gurus to help promote your hotel, restaurant or spa, but if you can’t return a phone call or deal with the attitude of the man at the door with his walkie-talkie and handheld scanner, I predict your business is on shaky ground. Maybe it’s a sign of our times, but increasingly I find people complaining of snobbish customer service in our capital. One insurance executive who regularly passes through Bogotá told me on his last trip that he would rather spend time in Montevideo and Buenos Aires than here, given the fact that his stays are more relaxed and less guard conscious.
These observations catch me by surprise as I find Bogotá to be inhabited by friendly men and women, from all walks of life, who go through the effort to open doors, give directions to those who may be lost and not run you over when crossing a sidewalk.
But I have seen this city change and I agree, not always for the better. During the worst days of the security issue in Colombia – at the turn of this century – tourism dried up and the few foreigners who came were foreign correspondents. Life in the city seemed to flow at an easier pace despite the real security threats. You weren’t judged by a dress code but a higher standard: the fact that you came to Colombia made you unique, that ‘special’ someone, made most welcome. You might have stood out like a sore thumb, but you weren’t pushed and shoved by a camouflage-clad bouncer “working” the door of a salsa joint on the Parque 93.
Some topics are contentious and even though one would like to praise the positive aspects of the city, there are times when words are recourse to question the direction of things. I hope for a turn for the better in our treatment of others. I don’t expect poodles to replace rottweilers in parking lots and hotel lobbies. But it’s a tough call. How does one walk a fine line between obligatory safety procedures and a “perception” of fear? Bogotá isn’t a resort town. Thankfully. It’s everyone’s town. Hence, we should send a message to those who visit us that we rely more on common courtesy than canines.