In February 2017, I read in the paper that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman was heading off on a state visit for which he was expected to bring 459 tonnes of cargo with him, including two Mercedes-Benz s600 limousines and two electric elevators. Two days later, when he arrived at his destination (Indonesia), I saw a headline stating, “1,500 people, two Mercedes Benzes, 459 tonnes of luggage and a golden escalator: how the Saudi King travels,” and I wondered what would happen if somebody mistook an escalator for an elevator.
“Look,” said Jean-Paul Petain, head of security of Hotel Le Meuriel, waving a sheaf of papers in front of his face then slamming them onto the conference room table. “It says here, on the list of luggage that the king is bringing with him, that he will have two elevators.”
“Elevators?” asked Martin Le Blanc, the chief operating officer of the hotel group. “What does he want elevators for?”
“To get to his hotel room, presumably,” said Petain.
“Does he think we don’t have elevators in France?” scoffed Alain Blanchard, the general manger, flicking a speck of dust off his cuff. “What are we supposed to do—rip out our own elevators and install his, between when his luggage arrives and when he wants to go to his room for a nap?”
“Rip out the elevator?” said Philippe Sousiel, the architect, his eyebrows shooting up his forehead, as if demonstrating the function of an elevator. “Does he even know that our elevator is a copy of the sedan chair used by Marie Antoinette?”
The other people in the room muttered and frowned.
“I don’t know,” said Petain taking off his glasses and polishing them with a handkerchief, “I called the embassy to check if they really meant it, and the person I spoke to said that everything on the list will be coming with the king.”
“Did you ask specifically about the elevators?” asked Blanchard.
“Yes, and they said he always travels with his own elevators, and staff to operate them.”
“So our lift operators will be out of a job then,” said Blanchard. “The union won’t like it.”
A low muttering from the back of the room confirmed that fact.
“Did they say how big the elevators are?” asked a manager from marketing.
“Apparently they stretch about seven metres.”
“Is that all?” said the manager of guest services, who was supposed to be taking notes, but was flirting with the manager of the front desk staff. “So why did he choose to stay at this hotel, with seven floors, if his elevators will only reach the second floor?”
“Because we’re the best hotel in Paris, probably,” said Petain, “but the point is, he’s booked our entire hotel for the visit, and he expects to use his elevators, so we’ll have to find somewhere to put them and make them work.”
“I’m not ripping out my hotel for the sake of a one week visit, king or no king,” said Le Blanc, pulling out a packet of cigarettes from his jacket pocket and tapping it on the table until a single cigarette slid out.
“I agree, but on the other hand, imagine what it will do for business,” said Blanchard. “We can rent out the rooms he used to other Arab visitors for triple the price; whereas, if we refuse, everybody will know we turned down the Saudi king, and that definitely won’t be good for business.”
“Can we put the elevators around the back, where the fire escapes are?” asked somebody from the housekeeping department.
“What, and have the king step around the delivery vans in the loading dock?” said the manager from the advertising department. “That would get us publicity all right, but of the worst kind.”
“Well, we can’t put the elevators in the front without knocking down some of the arches,” said Blanchard.
Le Blanc took a deep breath from his cigarette and exhaled a dense cloud of smoke that hovered over the table. He waved his hand at Petain. “So where do we put this elevator?”
“I was hoping that we could build a new access way through the patio bar,” said Petain, unrolling a drawing of the building. He pointed to the plan of the bar, located at the side of the hotel, next to the two-star Michelin restaurant. “The king doesn’t drink, so the bar won’t be used during his stay, and we can close off this section and install his elevators here.”
Le Blanc and Blanchard studied the drawing then looked over at the architect, who was shaking his head and wringing his hands.
“Can you do all this in time?” asked Le Blanc.
“I’ll try,” said Sousiel, “but it will mean your bar will be closed to guests once the work starts, and I’ll have to take out the wood panelling.”
“We’ll serve drinks on the roof-top patio,” said Blanchard, “and let’s hope it doesn’t rain in the coming weeks.”
And so the staff of Hotel Le Meuriel threw themselves into the alterations with a fervour not seen in Paris since the days of the revolution. The builders shortened their lunch breaks to just one hour and even volunteered to work overtime, which the unions approved—although the unions insisted that all staff connected to the hotel should get overtime pay, whether they were working on the elevator or not—and the bar staff demanded extra pay for having to carry drinks up to the roof. Blanchard took to standing outside the hotel every afternoon, wringing his hands and begging the builders to work faster.
“How are you going to test it without the king’s elevator?” asked Le Blanc, gazing at the big mound of rubble where the patio used to be, when he came to see what had been done to his hotel.
“We’re using a similar elevator,” said Petain, pointing to a glass-fronted box that was blocking the entrance to the restaurant.
“So you’re going to test it with that thing, then rip your elevator out and install the Saudi elevator once it arrives?”
“Yes, we’re timing ourselves on the installation; right now we can do it in two and a half hours,” said Petain.Le Blanc shook his head as he looked at the side of the building where a gaping hole revealed the landing of the second floor, with the lace curtains floating gently in the breeze and the plaster moulding hanging down from the ceiling.
“Could we not have asked them to send the elevator in advance?”
“I tried that,” said Petain, “but I was told the king needs the elevator for the plane.”
Le Blanc rolled his eyes and took one last puff of his cigarette before stamping it under his foot. “This had better all be worth it,” he muttered.
On the first day of the royal visit, while Sousiel and the engineers removed the trial elevator for the last time, the hotel staff stood in the foyer in their crisp new uniforms, watching the TV screen which showed the royal jet taxi to a stop on the tarmac of Charles de Gaulle airport. Several service trucks headed out to the plane and one manoeuvred itself close to a hatch at the back of the plane. After a few moments the hatch opened, and a long package emerged and was loaded onto the service truck, which drove slowly to the front of the plane. A set of steps unfolded from the back hatch, and several men clattered down to the tarmac and followed the service truck to the front of the plane.
The hotel staff watched in amazement as the long package was unwrapped, revealing a golden staircase which was positioned at the front door of the plane. When everything was in place, the service truck drove off, and one of the Saudi men spoke into his radio.
The door of the plane opened, and two men in suits stepped out and stood one to each side of the staircase. A moment later, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud stepped forward onto the top of the golden staircase. He looked around him and nodded briefly at the dignitaries and crowds of press photographers standing a little way off on the tarmac, flanked by rows of security personal. Then one of the suited men touched a box at the top of the staircase, and the golden stairs began to move, conveying the king and his attendants down to ground level in a ripple of warm, deep yellow. More people followed off the plane, some wearing the same flowing white robes as the king, which they gathered around them before stepping onto the golden escalator and riding down to the ground.
When the last person had exited the plane, the service truck drove around the plane again, and, with the help of some French baggage handlers, the same men disconnected the escalator and loaded the contraption onto the back of the truck.
At Hotel Le Meuriel, Blanchard looked over at Petain and fixed him with a cold stare. “Monsieur Petain, did that luggage list say the king was bringing an elevator or an escalator?”