‘Tis the Season

From 2002 until 2007, my career was in consulting. Half of my time was spent working in the Middle East and the other half in North America. My business partner at the time was Mansoor who originated from Pakistan but lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for 18 years. We owned and operated The Corporate LIFE Centre International Inc. My Middle East work was concentrated primary in Saudi Arabia (“KSA”) with some assignments in Kuwait, Bahrain, Dubai and Egypt. For five years while travelling back and forth to the KSA (i.e. Jeddah, Dahman and Riyadh), I worked with such firms as: ZFP (the largest architectural and engineering firm in the Middle East), the King Fahd University of Minerals and Petroleum, Sipchem (a billion dollar petrochemical business), and SBG, the largest construction company in KSA and one of the largest in the world with over 100,000 employees. I had the opportunity to learn a lot about this part of the world but most importantly I developed several new friendships with individuals I would never have thought of as ever being part of my life. I also was taught a few invaluable lessons. 

My first visit to KSA was not unlike any other international trip I have made. But upon entering the country I was surprised. It is interesting how the media can wrongly shape one’s perception about a country and its people. I was greeted at the customs desk by my sponsor Siraj. The process was straightforward and soon I was on my way through the streets of Jeddah to the Hilton Hotel. Jeddah is a port city of several million people. It is very modern, clean and has its own historical “old Jeddah” where I saw the actual former living quarters of “Lawrence of Arabia” and what some consider the tomb of “Eve”. The Hilton Hotel was located along a line of several western hotel chains overlooking the Red Sea. Peering out my room’s window, it was as if you were in the Caribbean… a very beautiful setting with palm trees lining the road and water’s edge. 

Once I was settled, Siraj, Mansoor and I met for dinner to discuss the assignment ahead of us. People were strolling along the boardwalk , sitting on the grass or lying on carpets laid out on the sand and enjoying the beautiful and peaceful surroundings. Siraj taught me my first lesson. He told me that is was their custom to ensure their guest’s needs were totally taken care of for the first three days of their visit. So, I, being the guest, was introduced to Saudi hospitality. It was an amazing experience. Our client, SBG, ensured that whatever was required to make me comfortable and relaxed during this first visit to Jeddah, would be done.

And their hospitality didn’t expire after three days but continued for the two weeks I was there. Everyone at SBG was advised of my coming. A parking spot was provided in the executive parking lot, a private office and meeting room was assigned, a butler was on duty from the time I arrived until I left to ensure anything I needed was afforded me, and the executives of the company set aside time to not only take me out for dinner but to challenge my 4x4-ing skills among the desert sand dunes. But the most amazing experience was one of several evening dinners, laid out on carpets underneath the starry sky in the desert while we all sat, talked and laughed about life itself. 

We discovered we all had the same wants and needs in life: health, family, security and happiness. But they did ask for one thing from me in return: while it is custom to ensure the guest’s plate is always filled with food, I was asked to oblige their hospitality by eating the brains from the lamb that was served for dinner. So with a spoon full of lamb’s brains in one hand and a can of Coca Cola (I demanded a Coke since I figured it would kill anything I ate) I met my guests’ demands and was then accepted completely into their circle of friends. I quickly realized they also had a great sense of humour and I fell for it. Upon leaving two weeks later, several members of this family-owned business honoured me with gifts to take back to Canada. When I did get back home, and after unpacking, I discovered they not only had a gift for me, but they also sought out the names of my children, Richard and Joanna, and my wife, Linda, and had special gifts for each of them as well. Inside our curio cabinet in the dining room is a beautiful crystal decanter set, that has been appraised in excess of $7,000, and is a tangible reminder of the value these newfound friends placed on my visit and acquaintance. To this day, I regard my acquaintances in Saudi Arabia as my friends and I theirs. 

While one may cite the above as a single experience, there were so many others. We were travelling from Riyadh to Jeddah with an appointment to see Ahmed, the President of Sipchem. Our flight was late and so we arrived at Sipchem’s office late. Upon meeting Ahmed we apologized for the delay, explained the situation, but then had to advise him our meeting had to be shortened in order for us to catch our next flight to Dubai. Now, we were meeting Ahmed to make a pitch for a piece of business that other very large consulting firms were also bidding on and our chances of securing would be low. Our flight situation was not helping our cause. But Ahmed didn’t reject or scold us, rather his first concern was our getting to the airport on time to catch our flight and to achieve that he ordered his personal driver to take us to the airport. This again was an amazing experience of Saudi hospitality that I experienced time after time during my several years of travel there. It helped shape my own attitude of hospitality.

“Tis the Season”

During the month of December, it is the season when there will be many lunches, dinners, parties and festivities. It will all be very enjoyable and we will be at times impressed by various forms of hospitality. But come the New Year, we will put it all behind us and we will cocoon ourselves into our winter caves only to come out when the ice thaws and the snow crystals turn to rain. And we will again look for another reason to celebrate. But I am reminded of what Siraj told me, how Sheik Abdulla welcomed me and how Ahmed supported me. They not only said it but demonstrated it: “it is our custom, our practice, our way of life”!

May we adopt “peace on earth and goodwill towards men” as our custom, as our practice, as our way of life so that in all things we say and do, our neighbor will experience not just in December, but all year long the true meaning of the season. 

For businesses, the word and practice of “hospitality” is defined as “customer service”. I appreciate the reminders from our members that CMA’s hospitality or customer service requires constant focus and attention. Recently, I attended an accounting conference in Phoenix, Arizona. On this particular occasion, Linda accompanied me. The hospitality of the hotel was what one would expect from J. W. Marriott. They have a reputation for good customer service. Upon departure and in a cab to the airport, Linda discovered she had left her sweater in the closet of the room we stayed. The sweater wasn’t expensive so leaving it behind wasn’t going to cost us much. But she really liked that sweater so she called the hotel to see if by chance it was still in the room. The hotel concierge wasn’t able to tell her what she wanted to hear, but did say they would check and if it was, would send it to her home address. We arrived back in Toronto Wednesday night. On Thursday afternoon, the day after our arrival, there was a knock on the door and standing there was a FedEx agent with a parcel for Linda sent prepaid by J. W. Marriott. Inside that parcel, neatly folded was Linda’s sweater. We are now J. W. Marriott fans (“friends”) for life. 

You can call it hospitality or customer service. You can speak of individuals or corporations. It doesn’t matter. The principles are all the same and they are absolute.

It is not “Tis the Season”. It is how life should be.