James Shillinglaw | August 03, 2015 1:19 PM ET
Tales of a London Doorman
You see them at many luxury hotels around the world, but they are fixtures in one city in particular—London. At most of the top hotels in that city that I’ve stayed in, the doormen do much more than just open doors. They are official greeters, part-time concierges, tour guides and yes, they do open the door to let you enter or exit the hotel.
Jim Burns has been the doorman at The Athenaeum for the past 23 years. I’ve stayed at the property several times during that period, but I’ve never known his name. But he’s always greeted me with a friendly good morning or good afternoon, and made me feel welcome as I checked in or returned to the property after an exhausting day, usually at a travel industry conference.
PHOTO: Jim Burns makes his work home at The Athenaeum hotel in London across from Green Park. (Courtesy of The Athenaeum)
Indeed, in his top hat, waistcoat and tails, combined with his height, Jim is a real presence on Piccadilly, the road where The Athenaeum is located just across from Green Park. “I love engaging with guests and the folks walking down Piccadilly,” he said. In fact, he claims he’s become a bit of a showman, with his perch in front of the hotel becoming his personal stage.
Jim joined The Athenaeum in September 1992, so he’s just shy of celebrating his 23rd anniversary at the hotel. Prior to that, he worked in a variety of fields, including as an engineer in the British Army, a motorcycle courier, insurance salesman and (he says believe it or not) a jeweler. Indeed, many London doorman seem to have the traditional background in the British Army.
While the primary tasks of a doorman are to greet guest and assist in their arrival and departure, Jim says the doorman’s responsibility is to make guests feel special and provide them with a warm welcome. “Whether you are a repeat guest, are traveling solo or this is your first time in London, the experience remains the same—we provide a welcome to your London home,” he said. “On the practical side, having an excellent eye for faces, being a good listener, intuitively reading what a guests needs, and discretion are essential.”
And yes, discretion is a must, so Jim doesn’t tell tales about guests, many of whom are entertainment or political celebrities. In my own stays at the hotel, I’ve seen the late Maggie Thatcher, the former prime minister of Britain, and her husband Dennis Thatcher having breakfast in the restaurant. I’ve also caught a glimpse of the actor Michael York in the lobby—at least I think it was Michael York.
Asked what the strangest things he’s seen at the hotel, Jim says it was when a woman walked up to him carrying a magnum of Champagne. She handed him the bottle, turned around and walked away. “She never said a word,” Jim said.
Last month Jim Burns visited New York City to tell his own rather unusual tale, involving a rather active hobby for someone who specializes in opening doors and greeting guests. He loves to ride motorcycles on long trips.
Now, when I think of a biker, I picture a guy on a Harley with leather jacket and pants, maybe with some huge motorcycle club emblem on the back of the jacket, and that Marlon Brando cap from “The Wild One.” That doesn’t exactly jive with Jim’s usual uniform of top hat, waistcoat and tails that he wears at The Athenaeum.
How in the world did Jim become a biker? “Necessity is the mother of all invention,” he said. “My brother suggested I use his bike as transportation to and from my previous job as an insurance salesmen. This brilliant move was to save money on gas. He gave me verbal instructions and off I set for home followed closely by him in my car. Needless to say, my very first accident was on my brother’s motorbike followed by being hit with my own car. We both survived to tell the tale and, yes, I am still speaking to my brother. Proper motorcycle lessons soon followed.”
Jim’s motorcycle of choice is the Triumph Tiger Explorer, a really tall bike for a pretty tall man, so it can accommodate his long legs. And that’s even more important when he goes on long trips.
Earlier this summer he took a two-week, 2,500-mile motorcycle ride from Chicago to Los Angeles on the famed Route 66 in the U.S. “When you travel Route 66, you travel into the heart of America,” Jim said. “The history, heart and soul of the country are laid bare. From a motorcyclist’s point of view, Route 66 is not the most scenic of drives. But of all the historic roads, this is the route with the most poignant story to tell.”
Jim says you can still feel the hardships faced and endured by the early settlers who traveled west for a better life. “Even today, the route still has a story to tell—the hardship inflicted on these once vibrant communities now they has they have been bypassed by the interstate highways.”
Jim actually traveled on three separate routes on his long journey around the U.S. The first leg of the trip was spent on Route 66; the second was traveling the Pacific Highway, Route 101 from Los Angeles to Seattle; and the third leg of the trip was the transcontinental Route 2 from Seattle to Maine. “In total, I spent six weeks away from home and traveled 9,500 miles, he said. “And yes, I was a bit saddle sore!”
For Jim, the highlights of the trip, first and foremost, were the people he met along the way. “I’ll never forget Melba ‘The Mouth’ in Kansas or Doug in Proctor, just a few of the passionate, kind, generous and funny people I met along the way,” he said. “They are the stars of this journey.”
On the other hand, Jim’s trip was full of great sightseeing. “Visually it would be hard to beat the magnificence of the Grand Canyon,” he said. “I can understand why it became a major tourist attraction in the 1800s.” After that, he said, the giant Redwoods of California and Glacier National Park also left him “speechless.”
Jim says some of his other interesting experiences included visiting the Space and Air Museum at Weatherford and walking into the giant blimp hanger in Tillamook. “I even got to meet and talk to one of the last train engineers of the huge Yellowstone locomotives of Duluth,” he said.
Prior to his U.S. sojourn, Jim says his longest motorcycle trip was a three-week, 3,500-mile holiday around Europe, which took him through nine different countries He’s also biked many times to Germany and Poland. But his U.S. trip was clearly a milestone journey.
So the next time your hotel doorman greets you as you arrive, you might want to ask: Just who is the man in front of the door? There may be much more to him than you think. He may be a biker!
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