There I was again tonight
Forcing laughter, faking smiles
Same old tired, lonely place.
Walls of insincerity, shifting eyes and vacancy
Vanished when I saw your face.
— Taylor Swift, “Enchanted”
Australasia Hoteliers Symposium, Adelaide Convention Centre
Paul Robinson made his way through the large function room, navigating through circular banquet tables and a sea of business people dressed in monotonous black and white formalwear, with the occasional splash of grey or navy blue.
“Is this table 22?” the Lassiters Erinsborough owner asks as he approaches one of the many tables towards the centre of the pack.
He already knows the answer … there was a ‘22’ sign placed conveniently in the middle of the table and a placard with his name on it. Got to make small talk somehow.
“Yes, it sure is”, a woman replies. She’s wearing a vibrant red dress, with confidence and elegance.
“Great!” Paul says, as he takes his seat next to her.
“You must be Ezra Hanley”, Paul enquires as he reads off the placard. He’s greeted with a chuckle.
“No … Ezra had a last-minute family matter and asked me to take his place. I’m his manager … Terese Willis, great to meet you”. She holds out her hand and exchanges a smile.
“I’m Paul. Paul Robinson”, he says as their eyes meet and their hands clasp. Firm shake. Strong eye contact.
Paul proceeds to exchange pleasantries with the rest of the hoteliers at the table. Among them were familiar faces: Tristan De Vine, the owner of Zofitel Fremantle, Henry Thronton owner of Rullman Paramatta, and Bernard Rogers, investor in several Hercure hotels in Queensland. As Paul greeted them, it was the routine, meaningless small talk he knew all too well. He really didn’t care about how business at Zofitel Fremantle, Rullman Paramatta or Hercure Brisbane was going, and he was certain those men could say the same about his hotel. Nonetheless, it was part of the job to schmooze, because everyone in the room was a cashed-up, potential investor, business partner or valuable network and bad reputations were too easily formed when hotel owners were ‘unsociable’.
“So, is this your first Hoteliers Symposium?” Paul asks, turning back to the businesswoman seated to his right. He didn’t know why, but he was genuinely interested to find out more about Terese Willis.
“It sure is. The operations staff don’t usually get invited to events like this. I’m guessing this isn’t your first”
“How do you know?” Paul questions, curious.
“It’s the ‘how’s business going’ small talk”
“Oh?”, Paul replies surprised.
“Well, first timers like me—”
“—Sorry, one second”, Paul says as he pulls out the offending phone from his blazer pocket.
Miss you already!
Have fun at the conference xx
“Just business again! Can never catch a break, can we?” he remarks, as fingers hastily type “Have a good night” in reply. Wait, Rebecca is not 'business'. She’s my partner. Why on earth would I even say that? Maybe I should—
“Story of my life!”, the sound of Terese’s voice interrupts Paul’s inner turmoil and wins his attention.
“So, you were saying before?” Paul continues, switching his phone to silent and tucking it away.
“Oh, um … first time attendees are usually trying to suss out the menu”.
Paul is impressed by Terese’s wit, yet he also, can’t quite decipher if the charismatic businesswoman is joking or being serious. It’s intriguing.
“Well, it’s the only reason I come back to this event every year”, he replies as they both chuckle lightly.
“So, you own Lassiters Erinsborough, was it?” Terese asks.
“That’s correct. I haven’t asked where you’re from?”
“Perth, Lassiters Perth”
“Ah! I wasn’t expecting another Lassiters at this table!”
“What were you expecting?” she asks.
“A table full of boring businesspeople” Paul whispers, trying not to offend their company.
“So, are you saying I’m not boring?” she remarks, before taking a sip of red wine. Was that a hint of flirt— Don’t even go there, Paul.
“Uh … I … didn’t … not say that”, Paul stammers, caught off-guard by his thoughts. He quickly changes the subject, regaining composure, “You know, I’ve heard lots of good things about Lassiters Perth in the past year. How long have you been there for?”
“Well, GM as of last year”, she says matter-of-factly.
“So it’s you doing all of those great things”. Paul is not the least bit surprised she's a successful manager.
“I wouldn’t say that is incorrect”, Terese replies in a tone that is somehow confident but not at all arrogant … a tone the Erinsborough hotelier had never managed to perfect.
“I actually used to work at Lassiters Darwin, well, not in the same capacity as I am now. I started as a housekeeper back in 2001, then a receptionist ... it was definitely a journey”
Paul is in awe of Terese's work ethic. “... And now you're the boss!”, he adds sincerely.
“Well, General Manager”, Terese corrects.
“Just terminology” Paul says, mirroring her matter-of-fact tone from earlier.
As Terese smiles modestly, Paul finds his eyes drawn to her lips, perfectly painted with deep red lipstick, not so much as even a speck out of line— STOP IT, PAUL.
Clocking his actions, he quickly resumes eye contact, hoping the fellow hotelier didn’t notice his lingering glance, “so—
“Robinson! Great to see you again”. A booming voice interrupts their conversation.
Paul had been so focused on Terese he hadn’t realised three more hotel owners had sat down at their table. He hastily introduces himself, eager to return to his conversation … only to find Terese was now caught up with Tristan.
Paul finds himself feeling slightly disappointed. Wait. Why am I feeling like this? He is about to pull out his phone again, when he hears Terese’s voice in his direction.
“Food’s coming”, she whispers softly.
Despite his internal questions, Paul can't help but feel a bit content that Terese isn't interested in continuing dialogue with Tristan. Though, it was more of a monologue from Tristan, as it always was.
“Unfortunately, that also means Mr Director is about to start waffling on”, Paul says, directing his gaze to the Hoteliers Symposium Director making his way to the stage, before turning back to Terese, who cringed at the pun.
“Come on, it was funny”
“Mmm … I think you’ve confused funny with cheesy, Paul Robinson. But I guess being cheesy is better than being a boring businessman”, Terese says in a playful tone.
“Harsh!” Paul remarks, feigning offence, before the two of them burst into a quiet laughter.
Paul couldn’t remember the last time, if there was a last time, he’d actually laughed at one of these hotelier shindigs. The polite fake laughs did not count.
“So, what do you like most about the hotel business?”
“Um, don’t try and steer the conversation away from my comedic genius, Terese Willis!”
“I’m not. I’m genuinely interested”, Terese says, changing her tone and hitting Paul with strong eye contact he had begun to associate her with.
“Oh, well … to me, it’s not business. It’s part of who I am. The structure, the drive, the ambition—”
“It’s something you need” Terese chimes in.
The Perth hotelier seamlessly continues Paul’s train of thought, “There’s people I’ve met who just take life as it comes and ‘go with the flow’ … but I couldn’t imagine going through life without setting goals, without striving for targets … and without having control over something”.
At that, it was Paul's turn to carry on the reflection, “I totally agree … and when you’re in charge and everything falls into place how you want it to … knowing you did that. It’s a feeling like no other”.
“Absolutely. You feel … alive, but also secure. Because you know there is something you can control and life isn’t all unpredictable”
Terese raises her eyebrows, inviting Paul to elaborate.
“I’ve always known how important that control factor is but I’ve never said it aloud for fear it’ll get interpreted the wrong way. I mean, when people hear control they think ‘oh, you want to control someone’, but you’re right, it is about wanting to control something so I don’t feel so … so vulnerable to the world.” He briefly paused, “I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who’s gotten it that way before”.
“Neither have I”, Terese echoes softly.
There’s a moment of silence as Paul and Terese process the conversation that had just happened. There’s clearly a mutual understanding of what the hotelier life offers and perhaps, an equally clear understanding of each other. This wasn't the depth of discussion two people, who met less than two hours ago, would usually have at a business event. But it had happened. Without warning and without hesitation.
Paul felt vulnerable in the way the sophisticated, perceptive and fascinating Terese – a technical stranger – could read him. But it wasn’t a scary type of vulnerability … it was comforting, in a very unprecedented way.
The silence, along with the businessman's thoughts, is interrupted by a waiter placing entrées in front of them. As Terese reaches for her wine, Paul notices a modest yet glistening diamond— “You’re married?”, the words dart out without filter, abruptly shifting the atmosphere.