Six-year-old Jonathan Yuri Mc Shane was at the British International School when terrorist bombs hit Istanbul just two weeks ago. His father, Ray, resident manager at the Conrad Istanbul, couldn't get to him. "The city came to a complete standstill, ambulances were driving at 80 miles per hour, it was chaos," he recalls. The phone systems were also down, but fortunately the hotel has a satellite phone, for use in emergencies such as earthquakes. Aware from Turkish television reports that it was British interests that were under attack, Mc Shane phoned the school to put his mind at rest that the security was good enough to protect his son and then proceeded to look after his guests and the hotel.
From the executive lounge of the 14th floor of the hotel, smoke could be seen billowing around the city. Some guests rang down to say they had heard bombs and could see the smoke. Others gathered in the business centre to watch Turkish television's rendition of events, taking place just 2km from where the hotel is situated. There were no holds barred. "You probably got the censored version after the events had taken place. We got it as it was happening and there was no censorship on that. It was body parts they were filming," Mc Shane says.
Immediately security was upped, with the front of the hotel sealed off so that cars could not drive up to it. The loading bay was closed and access in the street outside was also reduced from two lanes to one. Fortunately it was Ramadan (the ninth month in the Muslim calendar, when people fast from dawn to dusk) and so the hotel was quieter than normal, with only 80 guests. Some wanted to leave straight away - something that was easier said than done. In the panic following the attacks, all flights were fully booked and subject to long delays because of congested airspace. Then it was down to practicalities. The Conrad hosted the CNN press conference that took place the morning after the event and Mc Shane found himself hosting Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who flew in to speak at the conference and to hold a private meeting with the Turkish foreign minister.
Inevitably, events such as these will take their toll on business in a city that in recent years has suffered an earthquake, hostage-taking in another hotel, rampant currency devaluation and the war in neighbouring Iraq.
The Foreign Office has now advised against all but essential travel to Istanbul, and you only have to look at the impact that terrorism has had on Bali and Indonesia to realise how far-reaching the consequences of terrorism on tourism can be. Mc Shane reckons that November occupancy at the Conrad will close in the mid-50s, whereas it would normally be 10-15 percentage points higher. At the moment it's too soon to predict the impact that the bombings will have on bookings.
Inevitably there are feelings of personal vulnerability, particularly as Mc Shane and his family live in the hotel. "Of course, there's the fear factor," he admits. "But I've lived through the threat of the IRA in London. What happened here was horrific, but it doesn't change the way I feel about Istanbul."
On Mc Shane's side in dealing with a crisis such as this is that he is used to difficult postings, having worked in Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan. In happier circumstances he enjoys the cultural diversity of Istanbul - the blend of East and West, the huge choice of restaurants, art and music, the wealth of archaeological sites, and the great views of the Bosphorus meandering through the city. On the downside, Istanbul is a huge place - the population is 12 million - and so getting around can take some time. The city is also highly polluted, the Turkish language difficult to get to grips with, and the economy unstable. (The lira was devalued in 2001 and since then there has been hyper-inflation. It has now slowed down a bit, and is predicted to reach 20% by the end of this year.)
But there's no question of upping and leaving following last week's attacks. "You have to take it on the chin. Istanbul has so much to offer and it would be such a shame to lose that."
Not just turkey...
As well as Turkey, Mc Shane's career path includes Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan, choices that probably don't top too many people's wish lists. So how did he get there? In 1995 he was working as sales and marketing manager at the Forte Crest Regents Park, London, when the call came. It was from a headhunter wanting to know if he would be interested in going to Saudi Arabia, to work at the InterContinental Jeddah, only 30km from Mecca, the centre of the Muslim world. Mc Shane arrived at midnight, to a shock. "It was 37 degrees. I was in my best suit, and there was no one to pick me up. I didn't have any currency on me, in my na‹vety in not preparing for a foreign country, and had to persuade a taxi driver to take me to the hotel. At 5.30am I heard the call to prayer as the speaker was outside my window. I didn't have a clue what was happening."
But Mc Shane stuck with it, adapting slowly to the multinational environment in which he found himself, working with 417 other men from many countries. The easiest way to integrate, he soon discovered, was to eat in the rank-and-file canteen and not with the other members of the management team. The food was better there, too. "Each nationality used to take it in turns to cook so there would be Egyptian food one day, Bangladeshi another, and so on."
Culturally Saudi was a big adjustment, not just to working in a Muslim environment, with prayer rooms and halls, but also in terms of greetings. "In Middle Eastern countries, a greeting between friends is a three-cheek kiss. It was rather a shocking experience to be kissed by a man. But I did it because I thought if I am ever going to make this work the integration process is everything."
Extremes of wealth and heat were also challenging. "There was a Lamborghini in a car park covered in dust. When I asked why, I was told that the first gear was broken and one of Saudi princes had left it there because he couldn't be bothered to get it fixed."
Mc Shane, meanwhile, had to make do with his Hyundai and recalls that the temperature in August hit 55¡C. "My Tina Turner cassette had warped on the car seat. I cooked an egg on the bonnet of the car just to prove the point."
After five months Mc Shane acclimatized, with air conditioning on 24 hours and a change of shirt two or three times a day. In the year that he spent there it rained only once - in a torrential downpour that had dried out completely by the following day.
Mc Shane's next position was in Kazakhstan, as director of sales and marketing at the Marco Polo Rachat Palace, on three times the salary he had had in Saudi Arabia. His first thought was: where's Kazakhstan? Having established that it was part of the former USSR that had become a republic in 1991, he decided to take the position, leaving the roasting Saudi to arrive late at night at -28¡C in the old Kazak capital, Almaty. Soon after, the hotel was taken over by Hyatt and Mc Shane found himself with new bosses and intellectual company for colleagues. "Everyone wanted to work for an American company because the wages were so much higher than in local companies. One of the waitresses in the coffee shop designed rockets for the space centre, but because the state was paying her only the equivalent of $50 (£29) a month to do so she took the option of working for $300 (£174) a month in the coffee shop. We also had numerous doctors on the staff."
Food was, at times, challenging in Kazakhstan. The national dish is horse meat and the national drink kumis, which is made from fermented mare's milk, not a taste Mc Shane ever acquired. But integration was much easier than in Saudi Arabia. "By the time you go to your second country you have a better idea about what you are doing. I was a lot less na‹ve that time around."
It was in Kazakhstan that Mc Shane met his wife, Vitalina, learned to speak Russian and went through a wedding ceremony in Russian and English. And there was more to do than in Saudi, with weekend skiing in the nearby mountains a substantial lure.
Conrad Hotels is the luxury arm of Hilton Hotels and was founded in 1982. The first hotel opened on Australia's Gold Coast in 1985 and there are 15 hotels operating worldwide. The 620-bedroom Conrad Istanbul opened in 1992. It can host groups of up to 1,250 for meetings and special events. There are three openings planned for 2004 in Miami, Bali and Phuket, Thailand.