It’s been quite a while since Douglas Browne worked in Cayman. Nearly 30 years, in fact.
“It was 1984 to 1986, around the time that the Britannia was being built,” the hotelier recalled in an interview with the Compass at his current hotel, the Memphis Peabody.
“The golf course and condos were built first, then the golf club and restaurant and then the Hyatt. Across the street, on the ocean side, that was the last part of the process. It was a fun time, but a tough time at the same time.”
One thing that has changed from those days is that there was a shortage of labour and unemployment was therefore low, he said. This led to quite a few scenarios that he finds funny in retrospect.
“We had hired all our housekeepers for the hotel and had our first meeting. I got there late and at the tail end; the head housekeeper had gone over the standards of the hotel, the policies, the dress code with them all.
“The housekeepers all got up and left. They were all going to resign on the first day, in a very nice way, and I am thinking, ‘What did he say?’ And it was down to having to wear pantyhose, which they never had done before. That was the Hyatt standard, but most were Caymanian and it’s hot here. It was stupid on our part,” Mr. Browne said.
A quick call to the corporate office in Chicago sorted that out, as did the hotel’s standard that their employees had to wear a coat and tie which made the customers feel uncomfortable, he said.
Mr. Browne was rooms executive, which is one of two right hand men to the general manager within that Hyatt structure. He said that for a lot of people they had experienced a culture shock coming to Cayman, but he had grown up in various Caribbean islands so it was easier for him to acclimatise.
“I did have many discussions about the fact that we were hiring people from cities in the US and they might have problems with ‘Island Fever’ and the like. It is a real thing for some people. Every manager we brought into my division I sat them down and talked to them about the fact that the walls have ears on an island.
“You cannot sit in a restaurant and criticise because it will get around and you will be done. But eventually you will love the island way and get it. You will turn,” he remembers.
Teething troubles are numerous in such a big operation as the opening of a hotel. Everything, Mr. Browne said, had to be brought in from fixtures and fittings to soap and toiletries.
“We only got two containers per ship – we could easily have taken the whole ship, but, of course, they were bringing in stuff for the whole island. Then about two weeks before we opened, we put up 20 or 30 people from a task force in our hotel, which wasn’t open yet.
“On the ship there were two items that were crucial – toilet paper and lightbulbs – but they had not come in. We wanted to start stocking the rooms and my boss from the corporate offices told me to send people out to buy all the toilet paper and lightbulbs from the grocery stores – and in 1985 there were not that many,” he recalls.
Mr. Browne advised that this would cause a problem across the island, but nonetheless he put his instructions into action and cornered the market on the essential goods.
“Then, of course, two days later the front page of the newspaper was, ‘Hyatt affects home necessities,’ which was horrible PR. So we ended up flying in 10 cases of toilet roll on Cayman Airways and gave it out to people as a good will gesture,” he laughed.
He recalled being able to stroll up West Bay Road, waving at many people he knew, and feeling safe doing it.
“You felt like you were home; that you knew everybody and were family.”
Mr. Browne found his way to the Peabody Memphis in January 2003, notable for its grandeur as one of the American South’s premier historic hotels. Situated in central Memphis, it’s also home to the famous Peabody Ducks, which hang out at the central lobby fountain throughout the day before being escorted to their penthouse suite every evening.
There are actually links between his Cayman and Memphis hotels, he revealed.
“The day I left Cayman was the same day Tom Cruise was arriving to film ‘The Firm’, which was also filmed in the Peabody. So it was in the Hyatt and also here where I ended up.
“I have great owners here and the hotel is a fun hotel. There is not a day that doesn’t go by where we don’t have a celebrity or a high profile person staying here. Ten years ago, when I was relatively new, we had ex-President Jimmy Carter coming here for a book signing. The first thing he said when he arrived was, ‘when’s the duck march?’ and the Secret Service weren’t all that keen, but we saved him a spot. And we regularly get crowds of 300, 400 people here, so it’s a big deal.
“He came down like a little kid, stood near the fountain. The ex-President of the United States. And to the right there was this tall gentleman, too cool, with shades on – it was Michael Jordan, unquestionably at that time the most famous athlete in the world.”
Not only that, Mr. Browne said, but Lisa-Marie Presley and her husband of the time, Nicholas Cage, were also watching the ducks from the mezzanine level.
“And we thought – what can you say? It’s just another day at the Peabody,” he said.