A press trip to Austria took an unusual turn with no Alps, no Sound of Music, no Strudel and no Salzburg. Just a bunch of hoteliers with women on their minds.
One of the best gigs I ever had as a journalist was as Editor of a magazine called Hotel.
Press trips were generally the best going – weekends in fancy places and entertainment on a grand scale. I was living the dream, people.
One of my most memorable junkets was a trip to a furniture factory outside Salzburg, at the invitation of their British distributor.
It was unusual in that I was the only journalist present and had been tacked on to a sales trip.
The managing director of the distributor had brought five London hoteliers over in a bid to get them to buy some Austrian furniture.
The hoteliers were middle-aged Greek men in dark suits and designer sunglasses, boisterous and determined to have as good a time as possible.
Along for the trip was the managing director’s sister, who was also chairman of the company. And rounding out our number was his secretary, a sweet little 19-year-old who was pining for her boyfriend on her first trip away from home.
We were given clear instructions before we arrived not to mention The Sound of Music.
“They really hate it,” said the md.
I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it.
We were taken to a hotel about an hour out of Salzburg, on a hillside which could have come right out of That Which Shall Not Be Named, complete with goats.
I was looking out for him, but I saw no Lonely Goatherd nor any children dressed in curtains.
Across the road, on another hillside, was the furniture factory. There was nothing else and, eerily, we were the only guests. Turned out the hotel was owned by the factory, specifically for sales visits.
At dinner we met the factory sales director, Wolfie, and were given an outline of the itinerary, beginning the next morning with a tour of the facility.
The business out of the way, Wolfie would take us on a tour of Salzburg in the afternoon followed by dinner in a little place famed for its traditional Austrian cooking.
Would it be showing the football? No? Then we don’t want to go there, said the Greeks in an ominous foretaste of things to come.
Wolfie, eager to please, reassured them that there was an English style café in the area which would no doubt be screening the match and we could dine there instead.
I consoled myself with thoughts of a few of my favourite things plus the promised tour of Salzburg, where I planned to indulge in a discreet form of movie tourism.
But what about tonight, were we really going to be stuck high on a hill in the middle of nowhere?
Why don’t we go to a brothel, suggested the Greeks.
This was clearly a turn that the managing director had not foreseen and it was something of a joy to watch him wriggle helplessly between his sister and his secretary, torn between decency and keeping the customers happy.
The nearest brothels are in Salzburg, he protested.
No matter, we’ll pay for cabs, the Greeks generously announced.
We can’t abandon the ladies, he pleaded.
They can come along, the Greeks cheerily offered.
No, it’s not like you think. It will be fine. You’ll enjoy it.
Sensing a weakness to be exploited, the horny hoteliers turned all their persuasive powers on the women.
They insisted we would find the experience friendly and inclusive, that business was conducted discreetly away from the bar area, where we could sit and feel perfectly at home.
Surely any sophisticated modern woman wouldn’t shy from the opportunity to see for themselves the civilised, welcoming environment of the modern brothel.
Well, sorry to disappoint you readers, but at this point I made my excuses and left for my well-appointed room and a good book. Direct experience, I decided, was not always necessary for a rounded view of the world.
Madam Chairman and the little secretary, however, went along for the ride.
The next morning I was alone at breakfast when Wolfie turned up to take us across the road to the factory.
It was a gorgeous morning.
Through the windows a picture postcard hillside beckoned, begging me to pluck up the courage to ask Wolfie to take a picture of me out there, arms outstretched, but I was sure he’d sense my dark purpose.
I kept my silence on the matter and instead we made small talk and waited. And waited.
“I don’t think we are going to have time to go into Salzburg today,” Wolfie said.
My one remaining consolation melted away like a snowflake, perhaps on your nose or eyelashes.
Eventually, more lunchtime than breakfast, the women turned up and launched into a tale of woe.
Unsurprisingly, it had been pretty much exactly as I had imagined.
There had indeed been a bar, just like any other bar, where Madam Chairman and the secretary were hastily dumped by their companions who disappeared into a lounge area where things seemed to be more, um, relaxed.
“Every so often a man would come in and as soon as he saw us sitting there he would turn around and walk out again – I guess we didn’t look like we belonged there and so we were just embarrassing people,” Madam Chairman said.
“The women were very nice to us and even gave us a tour of some of the rooms,” said the secretary.
“I felt so silly when I saw there weren’t any blankets on the bed and I thought, ooh, won’t they be cold.”
And she blushed, with all the sweetness of a 19-year-old who has found herself out of her depth.
Embarrassment and boredom got the better of them and they braved the lounge area to find md and the others (or at least, ahem, some of them) to let them know they were heading back to the hotel.
“They were obviously relieved because they all started throwing money at us for a cab,” Madam Chairman said.
“When we got in the taxi and added it all up it came to over £600.”
I made the obvious joke about not being sure what was worse, going to a brothel or coming out quids up.
It seemed to fall a bit flat.
The men finally shuffled in, looking in real need of their shades.
What little genial conversation was left trailed away to the most uncomfortable silence since a certain sea captain told his children he was marrying a baroness.
It wasn’t until we were crammed on to the little bus for the airport that my companions remembered I was a journalist.
For the rest of the trip I was subjected to a relentless charm offensive from the five, who no doubt were imagining lurid headlines on the cover of the next Hotel.
What, when there are big stories breaking in the contract laundry market?
People just don’t understand journalism.