Balticon 50: The Zapata Conflict

    *Note: this situation reaches its final resolution in part 2, a year later.  

  I was a little dubious about this convention in the first place, as it's a long haul for me and it had moved back to downtown inner-harbor Baltimore from its long-standing residency up in the burbs at Hunt Valley.  I had promised myself long ago that I wouldn't bother with the con if it was in town due to numerous logistical and parking problems.  But this was its fiftieth year, sort of a special occasion, they'd landed *George R. R. Martin* as the guest of honor so everything was taking on a Game of Thrones theme, and besides, I was supplying most of the tech production intercom system for their main presentation space.  The technical director also as much as assured me that any potential issues about bare feet had been taken care of at the *contractual* level with the hotel, and we shouldn't have any problems in that area.  So I decided what the heck, nice little spring roadtrip.

What we found when we got there was the complete opposite.  I pulled up to the loading dock and discovered that the convention personnel had already been so thoroughly cowed and threatened by the hotel security and operations staff that *our own co-workers* were telling us to put shoes on right then and there or we'd get kicked out.  Not the best way to start what I thought would be a productive weekend, and I and my co-traveler only made it through less than a day of setup work and decided to simply bail out early and let the whole steaming clusterfuck stew in its own juice.  I've never done that with a con before, and it was pretty upsetting to reach my tolerance limit like that.  But we spent the rest of that Memorial Day weekend banging around interesting little byways of northeastern Pennsylvania instead, and it was *so* much more peaceful.

The situation with the hotel had gotten even worse in our absence and it seemed hopeless to reason with them, but I decided to try anyway and researched up the appropriate contact information for Marriott Corporate which Renaissance is a branch of.  This is what I then emailed to their customer service department, not expecting to receive anything at all in return but at least I could say I was doing my own due diligence on incident followup.

Date: Thu, 2 Jun 2016 11:54:21
To: customer.care@marriott.com
Subject: Baltimore incident

I would like to lodge a formal complaint against your property at
Renaissance HarborPlace, in Baltimore.  I was there for an event
scheduled through this past Memorial Day weekend, May 26 - 30 2016,
to help with its technical setup and operations.  The event was a
science fiction convention named Balticon, in fact its fiftieth year
in existence, put on by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society (BSFS).
This was its first year at this particular hotel property, and may
well be the last.

Within mere minutes of arriving to unload gear and begin building our
technical infrastructure, I and several of my colleagues were harassed
by the hotel security staff for not wearing shoes.  Some number of my
crew generally work without shoes for an extensive set of positive
reasons, including but not limited to increased agility, comfort,
*safety*, and situational awareness.  While perhaps a bit unusual in
the relevant activities, it is our personal right and freedom to enjoy
and presents no unacceptable risk or concern to either ourselves or
the venues we occupy.  The many health *benefits* of going barefoot
are also well known.  We accept full responsibility for our own care
and safety, and at that level it is not up to any other entity to
dictate to us about it either way.

The harassment continued and escalated through that evening, even after
our staff offered a temporary compromise by confining our activities to
our assigned function space and slipping on shoes to go elsewhere on
the property.  The only shoes I had with me were effectively light-duty
slippers which would cause me to be significantly *less* surefooted
and safe while working, and thus were not a viable option.  This was
also true of our other staff, who only had open-toe sandals and other
seasonally-appropriate footgear on hand.  Ultimately I was unable to
continue working the convention setup, and wound up simply leaving the
entire event prematurely because it seemed like the only reasonable
option left open to me.

Thus, your staff actively interfered with and hindered the ability of
the event to prepare properly.  This constitutes breach of contract,
as BSFS had scheduled and paid for use of that space in a manner of
their choosing for the entire weekend.  The Safety/Security staff at
the property apparently does have some kind of policy document that
addresses this, or at least produced some facsimile thereof the next
morning which for all we know could have been composed the night before
as a means to aid and abet the discrimination we were victim to.  We
were not apprised of any of this in advance, and there is no statement
to any similar effect on the hotel's website or other publicly viewable
information.  Given that such "policies" are not supported by any
external legal statements or precedent, we cannot accept them as valid
and certainly not as grounds to impede our activities performed under
the tight time constraints we were facing.

Going barefoot is a personal choice, like with clothing or hairstyles,
and nobody on a hotel staff has any right to bully its visitors and
discriminate against them for those personal choices.  There is no
social mandate about it one way or the other, and it has little or
nothing to do with individual safety especially for more experienced
people.  There are no public laws, statutes, or regulations against
it in any state, including in situations traditionally thought of
otherwise such as food establishments or driving a vehicle.  NONE.
Please visit the website at barefooters.org and research this for
yourselves.  OSHA guidelines only cover direct employees, and only in
job environments where clear and present foot hazards exist.  Our
event staff are all volunteers and thus not affected by OSHA to begin
with, and hotel ballrooms and public spaces are some of the most benign
environments which are completely appropriate for bare feet.  Does your
property management try to mandate wearing of gloves or protective eye
and headgear for all guests and event workers?  Then why should feet
be regarded as somehow special?  I assure you, they're not.

We were also made aware of strong evidence that the security staff at
this facility has taken similarly intrusive actions with other groups,
such as invading and going after members of wedding parties who might
be enjoying themselves on the dance floor.  That is *beyond* offensive.
If I was one of such newlyweds or someone helping organize an event
like that, I would regard that kind of nonsense as your staff actively
ruining and sabotaging my special day.  If someone within the hotel
staff is concerned over the property getting sued for something, they
should worry far more about contractual violations of this sort than
someone complaining because they happened to injure themselves due
to their own inattention.

If this is a Marriott-wide policy, then I can assure you that I and
some number of associates will be flat-out avoiding any of the Marriott
branded properties as much as possible until such a short-sighted
policy is rescinded and abolished throughout your infrastructure.
A scathing review of our weekend's experience may also be readily
findable on the internet -- not exactly the kind of publicity you
need.  Please escalate this issue and complaint to your highest levels
until it reaches someone who understands why this is important.  As a
corporate entity you have no more right or cause to dictate personal
choice about footwear as you would about tattoos, six-inch purple
mohawk hairdos, or women in full hijab.  It is all discrimination,
plain and simple.

Reflect upon what "renaissance" means -- the dawning of a new age of
reason.  My experience in Baltimore was entirely at odds with that;
there was no reason at all on the part of the hotel staff.  With a bit
of thought and acquiescence toward what American freedom and personal
comfort really mean, a more "barefoot-friendly" public presence could
have Marriott and its subsidiaries viewed far more as a progressive,
forward-thinking lodging business rather than the stodgy, backward
and inflexibly hostile entity I had the misfortune of dealing with
and simply fleeing from in the end.


I was somewhat astounded when Marriott not only responded, in less than 24 hours, but also forwarded the report to the Renaissance property in question.  What came back was basically a form letter, but at least it was something:

Date: Thu, 2 Jun 2016 23:59:15
From: Customer Care <customer.care@marriott-service.com>
Subject: Message from Marriott Customer Care

Hello.

I am sorry your stay at Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel was not
the Marriott experience you deserve.

I shared the details you provided with the executive team at the hotel.
They will take action and respond to you soon. I ask that you allow us
three to five business days to resolve this issue.

You can count on Marriott to improve your experience in the future.

Safe travels,

Rodney Bennett
Marriott Customer Care

----
This communication contains information from Marriott International,
Inc. that may be confidential. Except for personal use by the
intended recipient, or as expressly authorized by the sender, any
person who receives this information is prohibited from disclosing,
copying, distributing, and/or using it. If you have received this
communication in error, please immediately delete it and all copies,
and promptly notify the sender. Nothing in this communication is
intended to operate as an electronic signature under applicable law.

ref:_00D37JC9y._500373H5Rx:ref
[img src="http://marriottintl.my.salesforce.com/servlet/servlet.ImageServer?
  oid=00D380000FC2y&esid=01749300001Ycnx"]

What proved it was a form letter was receiving two copies of the above, and then a third message with the same text but "signed" by Matt McFoster instead and with the same meaningless disclaimers at the bottom.  The important thing was that they did involve direct representatives of the Renaissance, who also responded about a day later:

Date: Fri, 3 Jun 2016 16:56:31
From: "Saleh, Pam" <Pam.Saleh@renaissancehotels.com>
Subject: Renaissance Harborplace Hotel

Thank you very much for taking the time to share your feedback.  Our
top concern is the safety of our guests and visitors in every area of
the hotel.     This includes making sure potential accidents are avoided.
There is always a possibility of remnants of a broken glass, etc. that
can cause injury.

My apologies for any inconvenience.   Please know we are looking out for
everyone's wellbeing.

Thank you again for contacting us.   We truly appreciate and rely on
your feedback.

Sincerely,
Pam

PAMELA SALEH  |   RENAISSANCE HARBORPLACE HOTEL CUSTOMER CARE
Renaissance Harborplace Hotel|  202 E. Pratt Street Baltimore, MD 21202
T 410-986-4802
Renaissance Hotels. Live Life to Discover.
renhotels.com |  facebook.com/renhotels|  twitter.com/renhotels

This communication contains information from Marriott International,
Inc. that may be confidential.   ( ... same boilerplate ... )

[http://mm1.lettermark.net/marriott_renaissance/lhead/RHR_Brand_Winter.gif]

[http://mm1.lettermark.net/marriott/images/disclaimerText.gif]
along with typical HTML fluff and image tags like just about any corporate piece of email we see these days.
But this seemed awfully noncommital with no hint that they were going to bend on the policy, so I responded directly to the Renaissance rep with some more ironclad logic to try and further my cause.

Date: Fri, 3 Jun 2016 14:20:25
To: "Saleh, Pam" <Pam.Saleh@renaissancehotels.com>
Subject: Re: Renaissance Harborplace Hotel

Yes, but safety with regard to things on the floor really is the
individual's responsibility.  I could just as easily trip over a
badly placed chair, or someone else's luggage, or pinch my hand
in a door, or in the contexts I was working that weekend I could
simply fall off the loading dock!  We all take some amount of risks
in day-to-day life, and accept those, and where my feet go is my
concern and my concern only just like any other part of my body.
I've walked over bits of broken glass on numerous occasions without
incident, because in that state it basically amounts to sand or
small pebbles.  It is NOT a problem, and clearly visible to
anyone more concerned about it than myself.

So are you going to keep that baseless and intrusive policy in
place, or get rid of it?  *Everyone* else I've copied on my
complaint firmly believes that YOUR organization is 100% in the
wrong.  Please tell me you're not going to simply sweep this under
the rug and do nothing to fix it, because it really needs to be.

Thanx


At that point they all fell silent, so after another few days I decided to press the point one more time by responding to the main corporate address, CC the Renaissance rep, and take them mildly to task for being unresponsive.  More blowback from the convention had also appeared in the meantime, so I figured I'd include some of that for their perusal so they could get an idea of just how bad things had gotten down there.

Date: Tue, 7 Jun 2016 12:44:53
To: Customer Care <customer.care@marriott-service.com>
Cc: Pam Saleh <Pam.Saleh@renaissancehotels.com>
Subject: Re: Message from Marriott Customer Care [ ref:_00D37JC9y._500373H5Rx:ref ]

Thanks for passing this situation/feedback on to the Renaissance in
Baltimore.  Pam Saleh [CCed here] from there did respond, albeit in
a somewhat indeterminate manner that gives me no assurance that the
unreasonable and intrusive policies there will be relaxed or removed.
I followed up asking for positive indication that this would get
taken care of, and Renaissance hasn't responded as of today.

In the meantime, it has emerged that the Balticon event there had
*numerous* problems with that hotel's security staff, relating to
quite a number of issues besides a few barefoot guests.  Please check
these links for some of the event staff and community's take on it:

     http://file770.com/?p=29313
     http://kradical.livejournal.com/3103391.html

I would encourage you to work with the Renaissance staff and any
other corporate policymakers to make sure this sort of thing never
occurs again, which I would like to believe is in line with your
customer experience goals.  Again, please check the many resources
at sites such as barefooters.org and barefootalliance.org to gain
reassurance that there *are* no legal, safety, or liability concerns
needed with regard to patrons who have clearly already made their
own personal decisions, and that further adherence to ill-founded
"rules" only renders Marriott and Renaissance less credible in the
public view.

This also has direct bearing on whether I choose to attend and/or
help with the convention next year, if it returns to this property.
My understanding is that they've entered into a multi-year contract.

Thanks

The Renaissance rep responded again, and for some reason couldn't seem to retain the thread subject ...

From: "Saleh, Pam" 
Subject: Renaissance Harborplace Hotel
Date: Thu, 9 Jun 2016 17:02:16 +0000

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to share your feedback and
concerns with our management team.    We are investigating possible
alternatives specifically for the Balticon group and we will discuss
these options with the leadership of the conference.

Sincerely,
Pam

PAMELA SALEH
Renaissance Harborplace Hotel|  202 E. Pratt Street Baltimore, MD 21202
T 410-986-4802
Renaissance Hotels. Live Life to Discover.
renhotels.com |  facebook.com/renhotels|  twitter.com/renhotels

Meaning that you're still going to act like tin-pot dictators to all your other comfort-seeking guests, right?  I can only hope that they also view that as unacceptable, especially when it comes as a surprise.  As far as Balticon itself, this has sort of left everything on hold, as the "leadership" has the entire intervening year to figure this out.  It is still unclear if the problem lies with this specific hotel or across Marriott in general, but the lessons learned will likely be more interesting and poignant than the eventual outcome.  If it is a Marriott-wide problem and we convince them to constructively turn their Titanic, that's a significant talking point to leverage against other large organizations!


"Live Life to Discriminate", more like.  The saga continues to a relatively rapid conclusion in part 2, about a year later.  I hope all the referenced participants are proud of themselves for such an epic screwup.
  _H*   160609

Read more barefoot advocacy