For whom the bell tolls

As a 40-year veteran — some might say “survivor” — of the hospitality industry, I am often asked by hospitality students and management interns about my first exposure to this noble profession.

The answer to that question is always the same — an answer that takes me back to the Grand North British Hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland, where in 1963, as a kilted and quite precocious 7-year-old, I performed my flower-bearing duties at my aunt’s traditional Scottish wedding and where I heard for the first time a magical sound that would change my life forever.

That magical sound was not the skirl of my grandfather’s Highland bagpipes. It was, in fact, a rather sharp “ding, ding” coming from what looked like the top half of my grandmother’s ancient doorbell, a marvelous melodic tone that echoed around the well-polished lobby of one of Edinburgh’s finest grand Victorian hotels, much to the consternation of a group of young bellboys in tight-fitting Hussar-style uniforms, all of whom jumped smartly to attention as the rather dour-looking concierge called them to his station via this peculiar brass contraption.

Later that day, while the by now quite affable concierge was enjoying a glass or two of single-malt whisky from my aunt’s proud father, I took the opportunity to climb precariously onto his tartan-cushioned wooden stool and began to ding that bell as if the hotel was on fire, which in retrospect was perhaps not the best idea, as it earned me a rather painful slap on my right ear from that same red-nosed gentleman, whose troupe of bellboys was enjoying a good giggle at my childish antics.

Many years later, after graduating from the kitchen to positions where I managed front-office operations, I always made it a point to provide my concierge — and in some cases even my front-desk manager — with similar bells, if that’s what they are called, not for decoration or even my own reminiscences about my early exposure to our industry. I made sure they were actually used, mostly to great effect and very often to the great amusement of our guests — especially in India and Pakistan, where such curious sounds had not been heard since the last days of the British Raj.

Over the years I have collected many antique desk bells from China, Africa, Europe and Asia, all stored neatly at home in an old tea chest, but I plan to donate all of them to a trendy retro bar/diner that a good friend of mine has just opened in Hanoi, Vietnam, where once again they will be able to ring out, or ding out, much to the consternation of a new generation of young servers instead of beleaguered hotel bellboys.   

Until then, my search for new additions to my curious collection continues to the consternation of my family, who fail to understand my connection to these much-loved examples of early hospitality communication tools, now replaced by Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, cellphones, iPads and other modern — but perhaps less romantic — devices.

Please do let me know the first time you heard the hospitality bell toll or ding, and where you heard it.