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Behind the scenes at the King David Hotel

  • NicolaKingDavidHotel
When the US president comes to town, “it’s sorry for you”, if you happen to have booked a room or two at Jerusalem’s historic landmark King David Hotel, even if you booked months in advance to coincide with Yom Yerushalayim celebrations.
by NICOLA MILTZ | May 18, 2017

“We were kicked out like dogs,” raged an infuriated Zev Krengel, vice president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, who heard at the last minute that his coveted room at the famous hotel was no longer available to him and several other prominent South Africans forming part of the Mizrachi delegation.

A last-minute scramble for rooms kept the South Africans on tenterhooks as their travel agents scavenged for what remained.

“Fortunately our clients have been accommodated at the exclusive David Citadel, but it was an around-the-clock logistical nightmare that took over a week to sort out,” said Israeli tour operator, David Walles, who got wind of the 1 000-strong Trump entourage only a fortnight ago.

“I had to source 45 rooms; it was crazy. There are about 70 South Africans coming for the celebrations and the city is packed with foreigners wishing to be here when Israel celebrates 50 years since the Six Day War.”

The man behind the reshuffling of guests is South African-born Sheldon Ritz, the hotel’s Head of Operations.

“I like to call it transferred out, not kicked out,” says Ritz who has been at the King David for 17 years, diplomatically.

“Fortunately, the majority of guests understand, they know they can’t stay under the same roof as the most powerful man in the world,” he said.

It’s never ever a dull moment for the former Durbanite who made aliyah in 1992 at the age of 26, as he handles all diplomatic visits to the renowned hotel which overlooks the capital’s Old City.

Requests from leading dignitaries and international celebrities range from the absolutely bizarre to the mundane.

“A few months ago the prime minister of Russia requested a ton of pork for his meals. Being a kosher establishment we could not meet this requirement; however, he took his meals at another premises off-site. It does get tricky when guests ask for eggs and bacon in the morning. We don’t like to say no.”

The hotel once had to make special little steps so that Barbra Streisand’s pooch could climb onto her kingsize bed.

And he remembers when Jean-Claude van Damme requested a special contraption that would allow him to bungee jump off the balcony for a scene in one of his movies shot at the hotel.

One guest demanded a specially built mosquito net, afraid that he would contract malaria, while former French President Nicolas Sarkozy insisted on chocolate made with 90 per cent cocoa, which had to be specially imported.

Condoleeza Rice, who has visited the hotel on numerous occasions, prefers Diet Pepsi over the locally available Pepsi Max, so bottles have to be brought in specially for her visits, which Ritz stores for her himself in his office.

During his studies at the M L Sultan Hotel School in Durban, he never thought that one day he would be shaking hands - literally - with the world’s most famous people and attending to their every possible whim and wish.

It is certainly not a job for the faint hearted agrees Ritz, who on any given day could be preparing the red carpet and flags for a visiting dignitary.

“The Foreign Minister of Denmark arrived at 01:30 today and I was there to meet him,” says Ritz who often sleeps in his office on a mattress on the floor and showers at the hotel gym.

For Trump’s visit, all 233 rooms are taken and Ritz will find himself in his office making sure things run smoothly for the duration of the US president’s visit.

All American presidents who have served this century, have stayed at the King David.

According to reports, more than 1 000 rooms are needed to accommodate the Americans. At least 11 hotels are involved. The entourage will include US Marines, Navy Seals, Army Rangers and the all-important Secret Service personnel.

The King David is, according to Ritz, “the most secure” hotel in Israel and the presidential suite is bullet- and bomb-proof and poisonous gas-proof.

In addition to security precautions within the hotel, the surrounding streets are sealed off during the visit of a US president.

“Historically when a US president enters the King David Hotel, the environment must be completely sterile - we do not do a red carpet and management and staff are not to be seen. Staff do not even clean the suites.

“We stay in the background and observe on closed circuit TV as he enters.”

Zev Krengel: “I was bitterly disappointed when we got bumped. I was here 10 years ago for the 40th anniversary celebrations and I made sure to book nine months in advance for my favourite room with its ground-level balcony and amazing view. It’s the ultimate position, so beautiful with such heritage.”

Most of the South Africans are now staying at the David Citadel and a special Shabbos dinner and lunch has been planned.

In response to the discontent, Ritz says: “On behalf of the hotel, I extend my sincere apology. It is actually not in our control. The Israeli government and the secret service literally force us to shut down. I wish it was a case of Trump taking one floor and we could open the rest of the floors to guests.”

He remembers with discomfort having to assuage over 100 guests whose check-in plans clashed with the departure arrangements of former US President Barack Obama as Jerusalem experienced heavy winds and a sand storm creating absolute havoc.

“That was Erev Pesach. Our guests had to wait for at least two hours for Air Force One to be out of Israeli airspace before I could allow them to check in, and that was well past 21:00,” says Ritz.

But it’s all in a day’s work for the busy, yet highly competent Ritz, who says he loves his job although it can be “quite tiring”. Fortunately, his wife and two children understand the demands of his job, he says.

Among the guests who had to be moved out of the hotel because of the Trump visit, were the Premier of Quebec Philippe Couillard who had booked 60 rooms, former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee who had scheduled a large dinner party with important guests, and several barmitzvah and other celebrations were also moved.

The Japanese Embassy had apparently been very co-operative and rescheduled a lavish cocktail party to celebrate the 65th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Japan and Israel.

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