Story’s Stories will see tourism consultant, Mike Story, explore inner space, rocketing deep into Argyll to discover and tell the stories of folk who live here.
The series has no limit. It will be as many storeys high as Mike needs to listen to the people he knows have great stories to tell. Argyll being Argyll, the series is likely to be multi-storey, probably a skyscraper. As he says: ‘Everyone has a story, some will inspire, some will make you cry, some are simply too important not to write down.’
Mike will be in charge of choosing his targets and running them down
The man himself has no shortage of stories to tell, from a career in the international side of the hospitality and tourism industry, working principally with major hotel chains across several continents ['I spent a major part of my life opening new hotels all over the Asia Pacific.']
At one point he became accustomed to spending every Monday in no fewer than three countries – Bangkok, his base then, for breakfast, plane to Singapore for a day of meetings; plane on to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia for more meetings the next morning. Oh, and Wednesdays were only two countries – Thailand and Hong Kong. ‘I used to get through a new passport every year and its was always a great ice breaker with immigration officials the world over, I once retired a passport with 500 stamps in it.’
Mike was in Hong Kong in the run up to its handover by Britain to China; at the historic event itself; and afterwards under Chinese rule.
Working for Marriott at that stage, he has in his possession the flag that flew from his Hong Kong Marriott [left] on handover day. ‘I was listening to Highland Cathedral being played at Government house as they lowered all the British HK flags and I thought this flag needs a new home !’
It was also the Hong Kong handover that brought him – a Borders man from Hawick [and of course, as a six footer plus, a rugby player and aficionado] to Argyll – specifically to Mull. On business here, he stopped in transit for a quick fish supper in Lochgilphead and on the door was an Estate Agent’s flyer for a property on Mull.
At this stage, like most ex-pats in Hong Kong on the approach to handover and with no idea what China would do, he had taken his money out and was looking for property here in Scotland to put it into, as an investment and as a bolt hole depending…
Getting hungry in Lochgilphead proved one of those life changing coincidences, He bought the Mull property and after carrying on happily in Hong Kong – with a wise China accepting the value of the place as the economic driver it was and is – he came to live in Mull before later moving to the mainland near Connell.
And it was Mull and his work with tourism development on Mull and Iona that started the adventure that saw Argyll and Isles Tourism Cooperative come flaring out of unpromising beginnings.
Mike was invited in to Argyll and Bute Council’s Strategic Tourism Partnership by then Provost, Billy Petrie and then Councillor Ron Simon, both much missed. Shortly afterwards, the sign went to Fasten Seat Belts. This scram jet was ready to take off.
Mike still loves Hong Kong. His face lights with the remembered adrenaline of that unmatchably busy and generative place. One example he offers is just how long ago Hong Kong had what was called an ‘Octopus’ card – accepted by the railway, the underground [MTR], the buses, the trams, the ferries… And where are we in the UK today? Not off the blocks yet. Even in London we’re not doing anything as comprehensive as this?
Inevitably there were times, politically, when the nature of his job saw Mike Story in the wrong place at the wrong time, with his great memories tempered by experiences that sear the mind.
He was with Marriott at a hotel on a mind-blowing scale in Jakarta, the fabulous JW Marriott in Mega Kunnimham, adjacent to Marriott’s other leading brand, The Ritz Carlton Jakarta. These two magnificent towers were in the heart of Jakarta’s new financial centre.
One Friday afternoon after Muslim prayers, a car drove in, a bellboy stopped it to check where the driver wanted to go, the car blew up – taking 12 lives, 150 seriously injured, and much of the hotel with it. Mike was at work at the time but his office was out of the way of the blast. However the scale of the bloodshed has never quite left him.
Had the car been free to drive on to the point where it was intended to blow up, it would have taken substantially more lives. They found the head of the man who had remotely triggered the bomb on the 8th floor. He had taken a room in the hotel and would have been unaffected had the car been where he assumed it was.
This attack was a vengeance by Jemaah Islamiya for the conviction of those guilty of the 2002 Bali bombings – itself an Al Qaeda retribution for America’s war on terror which followed Al Qaeda’s attack on New York’s Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre a year earlier, on 9th September 2001.
On 9/11 itself, Mike flew out of LAX [Los Angeles airport]. They landed in Honolulu in Hawaii at which point all the passengers were impounded, with no reason given. Eventually they were allowed out to continue their journeys.
Mike found crowds of people clustered around television sets, silent, hands to their mouths. He wondered what they were watching and, being tall, could see over a few heads to a screen. He saw a plane tear into what he recognised as one of the Trade Centre towers. He thought it was a disaster movie [not that he was wrong] and asked someone for the name of the film. He was told this was real, happening in that moment.
On four occasions Mike Story was in cities when they chose to have a coup d’etat – twice in Bangkok in Thailand, once in Phomh Penh in Cambodia and once in Myanmar – Oh and he was on his way to interview for a job in Sri Lanka during an attempted coup…. ‘I never got further than the airport as the Tamil Tigers had blown the place up!’
Of the two Bangkok coups [the Bangkok Marriott is above] Mike says: ‘In true Thai style the Bangkok traffic jams were so bad that eventually the army gave up and went back to barracks. In the second one, in 2006, I was showing guests round the grand Palace, when a tank rolled in and politely asked us to return to my hotel as they were about to overthrow the government.’
As the memories chased each other to the surface he remembered: ‘I was also in Jakarta when the Suharto Government was overthrown, which frankly was one of the scariest times of my life. Anti western militia were going around the hotels looking for Western and Chinese visitors. Our Hotel was surrounded by armoured cars to protect the place, and we sat on the roof watching the crowds of anti-western rioters being tear gassed….very hairy!’
The natural world executed its own coups in his presence too. He was in Thailand when the tsunami hit Phuket; and he was in the Hong Kong Marriott in around 2003 when Typhoon Nuri made a direct hit on HK, took out those massive windows [bottom photograph] and chopped the grand piano in the lower lobby in half – but as it was 7am there were no casualties.
Fun, games and the most beautiful experience of a lifetime
In more peaceful vein, Mike Story has played rugby on a school pitch sponsored by Sheraton on a tiny Fijian island 12 hours sail from Nandi with 24 under-12 Fijian Kids, He has played for real in expat teams – as with the Bangkok Bangers and the Seoul Survivors, the International Sports Club of Indonesia and the HK Club.
Getting a new Sheraton hotel up and running at Noosa, the stunningly beautiful nature reserve resort north of Brisbane on Australia’s east coast – where he says you soften saw pods of dolphins and a frilled lizard on the doorstep became a familiar occurrence – one of his staff was always using flexitime to finish at 3pm. Curious, Mike asked why. She said it was to take her son to surfing lessons. Mike queried if that was really worth the refocusing of her entire working life. She said her son was ‘quite good’. He is Joel Parkinson, the current World Champion.
The most beautiful experience of his time in Asia, Mike remembers as being in Bangkok for Loy Krathong. The staff at a business he still has in Bangkok had kept telling him he should see Loy Krathong – an ancient November festival of tribute to the spirits of the river.
A krathong is a little float covered with folded banana leaves or lotus blossoms, with a coin hidden as an offering to the spirits; and with a little candle held in the leaves. This is lit before the krathong is floated off, with hundreds of thousands if not millions of its fellows.
Mike found all of his staff in the office on the day of Loy Krathong [top photograph] – not working but all fiendishly busy making krathongs. Then, later, he witnessed the river, around two miles wide in the city, like a moving field of light in the dark, covered completely with the lit krathongs.
Then there were white splashes in the darkness amongst the little water lanterns, like a school of fish. These were local children swimming under water and surfacing to grab the coins from the krathongs – needier recipients than the water spirits.
When the whistle blew for the start
This all began when Mike was a 24 year old graduate, taking his first job with Intercontinental Hotels, sent first to London and then to Jakarta via Asia and New Zealand [which he absolutely loved and still does], at a stage when, he says, he’d hardly been to Spain.
Jakarta was a mammoth showcase hotel, with 1,800 rooms. 12 restaurants and the capacity – often in use – to banquet 3,000; with sports pitches, tennis courts, an olympic size swimming pool and the national badminton centre. ‘We had 15 kitchen artists and 12 ice carvers on staff!’
His first night there was strange, disorientating – he had no idea what anyone was saying; and lonely, wondering why he had come there. Then the next day there was a St Andrews Night ‘do’ in the massive function area – for which the centrepiece was a massive recreation of Edinburgh Castle – which gives you a sense of the scale of the place.
The Pipes and Drums of the Black Watch had been flown in for the event – as had a band, a member of which turned out to be an old school and rugby mate from Hawick. The evening swirled with the huge expat community in Jakarta – and the young and rather homesick Mike was fine from then on in. Later, he did a second stint at this hotel, which was when the first of two bombing atrocities took place.
Intercontinental moved him around and a couple of years later he found himself in Saudi Arabia – which he hated. He says it gave him an early introduction into what it is like to be a member of a despised minority.
He bailed and went to Sheraton, later to JW Marriott .
A strange start in destination marketing
But what was the link in a wide ranging international career in marketing major hotels for the big operators and his work as a consultant in destination marketing in Argyll and the Isles?
That link is branding. Mike Story’s earlier career had been centred on the creating, strengthening and refreshing of brands.
You could say that his first experience of destination marketing was in the unlikely location of China’s Shenyang – up on the border with Korea and Russia – a bleak place known for an activity hardly compatible with tourism – building missiles.
A Chinese general, who was involved with this activity in this place and, like so many, obsessed with his personal ‘legacy’, wanted to see a big hotel built in Shenyang. In these circumstances, generals get what generals want – but it was Mike’s job to make it work.
This was clearly at the cutting edge of destination marketing.
So who would come to a place like this? Answer: the defence and arms industries for business guests and the Harbin Ice Festival for tourists. Job done.
The Story timeline
In spinning this narrative, we have hopped around the timeline to bring certain things into focus. In practice, the batting order was, in Mike’s words: ‘First from Edinburgh to London with Intercontinental hotels, then to Jakarta Indonesia via Asia and NZ.
‘Then to Bali and Lombok with Intercontinental, then to the gulf (Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, Oman, Dubai and finally Saudi Arabia.
‘Then I joined Sheraton in Auckland, and then to Sydney. Then on to a pacific role covering East Coast of Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, the Cook Islands and Micronesia, Then the Sheraton Hong Kong, with a regional role covering South East Asia.
‘Then I moved to Marriott to a regional role [Asia Pacific, including Hawaii, All of Asia. and Guam].’
‘I loved the travel, the challenges and above all the amazing people I got to meet, so for the best part of 25 years I just kept travelling!’
The countries he has worked in – not just visited – are:
- Hong Kong
- Saudi Arabia
Mike Story clearly has a rich mine of stories to tell himself – but just now he is interested to talk to and tell the stories of a whole series of people he has got to know and admire in Argyll and the Isles.
The top photograph – of Loy Krathong at the Chao Phraya river, from Lumpini Park in Bangkok – is by Robertpollai and is reproduced here under the Creative Commons licence.
The other photographs are from Mike Story;s own records and show, from second top, The Hong Kong Marriott; the Bangkok Marriott; the Hong Kong Marriott lounge. Incidentally, this was the first Marriott Flagship in Asia, opened by Ron Harrison, Bill Marriott’s son in law. It was the foundation of the Asia Pacific region for Marriott.