Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

King of meet and greet

Fairmont ambassador opens doors for many

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Jim Woo is not a doorman. He is not a bellman. He is not some anonymous uniformed service guy at one of this city's finest hotels.

He is the "lobby ambassador" at The Fairmont. His job description includes customer service, an almost magical knack for fulfilling guest needs and a nature so gentle that even the most bull-headed guest will ask for and take his advice.

Yes, occasionally, he still swings the heavy glass front doors open.

But Woo generally takes his position near the front desk, hands crossed, ready to help if he's needed, greeting guests and making himself available to grant most wishes, no matter how unusual or trivial.

He's there from 6:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., five days a week. He smiles at familiar faces, is friendly but never obsequious and shakes hands with frequent guests.

The movers and shakers in this town know Jim Woo and he knows them well.

Woo has no clear idea how old he is. He estimates he's somewhere in his sixties. He was born in a Chinese village so small there was no doctor present and no government official to record his arrival.

The man who would become the face of The Fairmont Winnipeg was sent to Canada when he was about 12, travelling with a family friend who falsely claimed she was his mother.

When Woo came to Canada in 1960, he settled in a small town near Calgary to live with his grandfather. He would spend 10 years there, caring for the old man and initially working in his uncle's grocery store.

"I had some English but barely enough," he laughs, sitting comfortably at a table in the hotel's tony Velvet Glove restaurant. "I say, 'Wha' you buy?' I couldn't understand the answer."

Woo finished high school in Calgary and could have attended university. What stopped him? Woo makes a universal sign, rubbing two fingers together and shrugging.

There was no money. He had to get a job.

"I swear to myself I'll never work in a laundry or a restaurant," he says. "First job I got was in a laundry."

He worked there for a couple of years, adding a second job when someone asked if he could work in a restaurant. He raises an eyebrow and smiles again.

"Laundry and restaurant. For the longest time I was working two jobs."

He got his Canadian citizenship "at the time of the moonwalk."

Woo learned to tend bar during the day and continued to work two jobs.

"I was never hungry," Woo says. "I was making good money. No time to spend it."

He met his wife, Kitty, when he was asked to be a tour leader on a trip to Hong Kong. They married a couple of years later.

Woo came to Winnipeg in the summer of 1970. A friend knew a fancy hotel was opening and asked if he could help out. He thought he'd be here for a couple of months.

"We were the mice," he says. "We took every picture up the stairs. The elevators weren't in. We ironed the sheets and pillow cases manually. We delivered them to all the floors. Manually, it all happened manually."

When the hotel -- the Winnipeg Inn at the time -- opened in August 1970, Jim Woo was holding the doors open for the swells. Thirty-eight years later, he's still there.

"My typical day involves greeting people, escorting people up to their rooms. Anything at all pertaining to the guests, I do."

In the old days he endured a lot of prejudice. "I still do, but not as often. Sometimes I see it in their faces. I'll say something to them if I want. I'm not afraid to say anything to their face."

He makes somewhere "in the mid-30s" and adds another 50 or so dollars a day in tips. People assume his tips are better but some guests don't feel comfortable tipping and others never figured out it's expected.

"The only time I feel bad is when it's a well-known person. They put their hand in their pocket, take it out and then they put it back in their pocket."

Woo managed to send two children to university with his earnings. His daughter is a mechanical engineer. His son is a scientist working on a PhD in pharmacology.

Woo says guests have changed over the years. Things were more formal when he started out. People don't necessarily dress as well as they did. Woo treats them all the same.

Sometimes inexperienced travellers don't know what his job entails.

"(For) a lot of people, it's trust still. The ones that do not know you, that don't travel often. 'Why should I give you bag? What you doing in my room?'"

His most thrilling guest? The Queen.

"We have some movie stars. A few of them are good. They could be friendlier. We give people a lot of respect. We keep our distance. I don't treat them any different than any other guest."

Woo used to have nightmares about his job.

"I used to scream and holler. For many year I used to take what I do home with me."

He doesn't think he'll leave a legacy when he retires in 2012. "I'm doing my job, doing my best. I can keep treating people well, make them want to come back."

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

 

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2009 B1

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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