The period between the late 1970’s and the mid-80’s was undoubtedly a milestone in the history of Budapest hotel industry. As a consequence of economic and political openness the inbound tourism increased, international hotel chains came to life (firstly in Hungary of all the Soviet Bloc countries), then as cause of the so-called “Austrian Credit Facility”, sharp capacity expansion occurred. About this exciting period of Budapest hotels will András, the experienced and excessively versatile hotel professional talk in the following vojazs.blog.hu’s interview.
Vojazs: Regardless the technical development what is the biggest difference between the operation of a Budapest hotel today and 30 years ago from a viewpoint of an insider?
András: There are a few things, the case of bell boys for instance.
That time in the 70’s there was 20-25 bell boys only in the hall of a 300-room five star hotel. Bell boys on higher floors were another category. There was a so-called commissioner bell boy who was going about for theater tickets or other things to deal with. For instance he brought the passports and the registration forms to the KEOKH. KEOKH means Külföldieket Ellenőrző Országos Központi Hivatal (National Central Agency for Monitoring Foreign People). There was an “appointed” ashtray bell boy, whose duty was to empty out the ashtrays and clean the fingerprints from glass doors. Night shift bellboys’ duties were to clean those shoes which were put out to the doors, knock on the door to wake up those guests who didn’t wake up for the phone, and the key report, which means they had to ascertain whether the key left in the reception belongs to a guest who stays out for the night or to someone who left the hotel without paying the room.
The reception was also different: there were 10-12 receptionist, one chief receptionist and supervisor receptionists. I also started my career in this position. At that time everyone had a college or university attainment in the staff. We had two jurist doctors among us, since it was even more important than today to give multilingual information to the guests, in the absence of information forms and other cultural, transportation, foreign police and epidemiological reports.
Of course there were telephone exchange, telex and journal positions, but I’m not going to talk about them because they have been uprooted by technical development. But it’s still strange to see that among those university students who graduated 5 or 10 years ago, there are no one who knows what a telex is.
Vojazs: What were the most enviable privileges of the big Budapest hotel workers’ in the 70’s and the 80’s?
András: Obviously the gratuity, particularly the gratuity in currency. But on the other hand people had to work in three shifts, getting low salary without holidays… of course nobody envied this part of the story, mainly because average people didn’t even think about it. The opportunity to have a window to the world and meet world-famous people also nourished envy.
Vojazs: How could someone be an employee of a freshly opened, international hotel?
András: You probably predict the answer will be “with influence”. Well, of course it happened. The son of the creditor bank’s chairman, the daughter of the operator company’s director, the wife of another bank’s chairman… they all worked in the hotel. But I have to say that (with one exception) they worked well, I mean very well, and nobody of them demanded further “positive discrimination”. The exception was a girl boosted into a hostess job. The Front Office manager protested: “but this girl doesn’t speak any language”, and the answer was “no problem, she’ll learn it with time”
Another way to get in was transferring from one of the former leading groups of the profession. The first graduating students was leaving the Budapest Catering College that time (there were no academic education for professionals before), many of them made a so-called “social scholarship contract” with the operator company, which obliged both sides to employment. By the way the company’s director also supported the students himself.
Vojazs: How big was the difference between the average price of a five star hotel room and an average Hungarian salary?
András: A room rental was circa a semimonthly or monthly salary. But this proportion decreased with years. I remember the prices of a five star hotel opened in 1977. The cheapest room was HUF 690, the most expensive HUF 1120.
Vojazs: How did the supply and demand conditions form and what capacity utilization was attainable in yearly basis?
András: There were very few high quality accommodation places, they became full very often. Except one or two winter months, they were constantly sold out. We didn’t go to holiday before Christmas because we waited for the partners (companies and travel agencies) to “express their gratitude”. Today employees, primarily salesmen can’t take holiday because they are delivering the hotels’ gifts to the partners.
Vojazs: Who were part of the typical clientele of five star hotels that time?
András: Businessmen who arrived to conferences and congresses. Besides them, old American tourists showed up, wearing checkered trousers and gaudy shirts, who were interested in the life of the happiest barrack. They came by ships or planes from America, many of them took a trip from Vienna. They asked whether the tap water is drinkable. And of course there were our emigrated, more or less tattered fellows. “Do you have that cake, that rigou Johnny?” (note: “Rigó Jancsi”, name of a Hungarian cake)
Vojazs: Were there day-use rooms in that principled state party times?
András: It was most severely forbidden. Those women who were waiting in the hall alone was walked out because of the suspicion of being a hustler. Once an indignant father came in yelling, his whole face red: “You treated my daughter as a b***, but this one is not a b***, that’s my other daughter!”
Vojazs: The Krisztián Ungváry –Gábor Tabajdi author duo mention in their book “Budapest in the shadow of dictatorship” (Budapest a diktatúrák árnyékában) that government security services bugged hotels in order to monitor the arriving foreigners. How much did the guests know about it, or how much was the government security’s special attention towards guests noticeable during everyday procedure?
András: This was the point where technical development became questionable. It all started with the connecting door and the glass goblet. The “frequenters” always took a room like this. In some hotels more than one third of the rooms was designed this way. Think about it, even nowadays a family wellness hotel doesn’t need this many connecting rooms. Among the forbidden girls, or rather instead of them there were two middle-aged ladies who were targeted to go to the observed rooms. I still doubt that they would have had more language skills than what was necessary for having sex.
Vojazs: Did that ever happen that this “background activity” caused interruption in the daily operation or at least influenced it significantly?
András: I don’t thinks so. It was sometimes difficult to explain to the guests why can’t they choose any room they would like, or why do we make a copy of their messages (the obligate answer was “in order to prove that we passed them”). But sometimes we made mistakes. Once someone asked for a telephone for the hospitality desk. My boss had one in his office, so I gave it to them. Well, it wasn’t intended to be there… There was huge panic and I almost got fired.
Vojazs: What was the most welcome alteration that the regime change caused, and was there something that you personally didn’t appreciate?
András: Many new, beautiful, unique, old, international hotels were built or rebuilt, each one more beautiful than the other, all of high standard. My only “hurt” is that the personal relationship between guests and hotel employees is constantly fading.
Vojazs: If you had unlimited finances, what kind of hotel would you open in Budapest?
András: I wouldn’t open a hotel in Budapest… Maybe in Paks…
translated by Zsófia Luca Szemes