Attractive alternatives to lobby and outlet flowers

I knew a paradigm shift would be required in the way my new hotel in Karachi was to operate from the moment I stepped into my rather dated suite on a damp and gloomy evening six years ago, at which time I discovered a thorny, slightly damp and wilting red rose on my pillow, and next to it, a mint chocolate wrapped in bright green-silver paper, which tasted like old cardboard.

I also encountered and later swatted several hungry mosquitoes that were dive-bombing my head after they had emerged from their hiding place in a large brass plant pot, which had also seen better days.

I had been hired by the owners specifically to reposition the 20-year-old property as soon as the extensive multimillion-dollar renovation was completed, if not before, and once that was done, to drive new revenue streams, dramatically reduce operating costs and thereby increase profits.

One of the first things jotted down on my “small stuff” list was the issue of the high-cost, high-maintenance indoor flowers and potted plants, as I saw that as a way to neatly introduce and illustrate clearly my (uniquely Scottish) approach to the business, which was — and still is — “if we don’t need it, don’t buy it,” and, “if we do need it, get a better price and/or make a good case for a quick and solid return on our investment.”

During my first tour around the hotel next morning, I also noticed locally purchased flowers in the lobby, function rooms, restaurants, suites, washrooms and even in my office, which was nice, but in my opinion totally unnecessary. 

Determined to reduce if not eliminate what I considered to be an unnecessary and unaffordable operating cost in this extremely volatile environment, I set about sourcing, purchasing and carrying back from my travels, attractive, environmentally friendly, low-cost alternatives to the hundreds of thirsty, high-cost, high-maintenance flowers and plants scattered around the property.

After the renovation had been completed, the first outlet to fall under the floral ban was the Cinnamon Coffee Lounge in our main lobby, which received as its magnificent new centerpiece a giant goldfish bowl sourced from a local Karachi market, filled not with goldfish, but with several varieties and sizes of fragrant cinnamon sticks sourced inexpensively and hand-carried by me from exotic spice markets throughout the Middle East and Asia.

Next to go were the small single rosebud vases on all the tables in that outlet, which were replaced by small, square glass candle holders sourced and hand-carried from Chatuchak market in Bangkok. These were filled with tightly packed, fragrant cinnamon sticks purely for visual appeal, although several curious guests and more than a few naughty kids have been known to squeeze one out and then chew upon it.

After we introduced a smoking ban in our restaurants, public areas and 90% of our rooms and suites, the old Cinnamon Lounge ashtrays were replaced with locally sourced glass bowls, which we then filled with freshly roasted coffee beans, topped up daily, providing a delicious aroma in the outlet and in the lobby throughout the day.

I then replaced another lobby flower vase with an even larger bronze pineapple sculpture, also sourced inexpensively from a local Thai artist at Chatuchak market, and again hand-carried by me from Bangkok, which resulted in a few curious questions from the airport security people as my rather bulky carry-on baggage passed through the x-ray machines.

For the lobby and outlet washrooms, as well as our suites and penthouses, I replaced the flower vases with locally sourced colored glass bowls, which are filled daily with scented water and fallen flower petals gathered from our extensive gardens.

For our all-day-dining restaurant, I replaced the large central buffet plants and flowers with exquisite and yet relatively inexpensive lacquered water lilies created by a very talented young artist in Saigon, all of which I hand-carried from Vietnam using lots of bubble wrap, as they were just too fragile to ship by air or sea.

For the elevator landing area near our Japanese restaurant I replaced a large vase filled with expensive imported orchids with an antique Samurai warrior doll, which had been gathering dust in my Bangkok home for many years, a relocation that my dust-allergic family fully supported.

The final interior floral alternative was the positioning of a large antique brass tea pot (1 m/3.3 ft tall) salvaged from the darkest recesses of our chief steward’s cavernous store, and after the application of a little brass polish and much elbow grease, was relocated to its new position in the upper lobby, where it is a much admired and much photographed local curio.

And last but not least, I replaced the hundreds of thirsty potted green plants surrounding the hotel compound and the driveway leading to the welcome area with traditional large clay pots made to order by a local community potter.

As some readers may rightly observe, there was a small initial investment and some initial hand-carrying, but that was six years ago, and since then we have not purchased a single decorative flower and in the process have saved thousands of gallons of precious water and thousands of precious dollars.

How have you created low-cost and/or environmentally friendly decorative alternatives for your public spaces and outlets? I would be interested to see them and perhaps order a few — as long as I don’t have to carry them back to Pakistan.