Ever get the feeling that you’re being watched?

guam.jpgGreetings from the hot, sunny, duty free paradise that is Guam!

My five day “familiarization tour” is coming to a close. It’s been a lot better than I’d expected in virtually every way. Furthermore, I think I may have stumbled upon an earth-shaking revelation: I haven’t actually crunched the numbers yet, but I have a solid theory that a week in Guam is actually cheaper than a week in Hawaii, never mind the dry heave difference in plane ticket prices. At the end of the week, after you factor in accommodations, food, on-island transportation, activities and, of course, shopping, I think when you reach the bottom line the added expense of the plane ticket is equalized and Guam has the advantage. There’s still the little matter of it taking nearly two days to get here and back – two days that you’re not sitting on a beach with a primary-color cocktail in one hand and your sun reflector in the other – but that’s something to debate in another forum.

I’ve been treated very well on Guam. The natural friendliness and common courtesy of the residents has been vastly magnified by the treatment I’ve received at my “home,” the Sheraton Laguna Hotel.

The Guam Visitor’s Bureau is keen to boost tourist numbers from the continental US and my little but powerful magazine is a bull’s-eye in terms of hitting their prime demographic: moneyed, intrepid, frequent business travelers. The Sheraton concurred, agreeing to host me for an unheard of six straight nights. The Sheraton, just opened in April of 2007, looks new, smells of mahogany and natural oils and is operated by a staff with NASCAR pit crew teamwork and precision.

When I’m on assignment for this magazine, I often find myself arriving at a hotel that has been, erm, expecting me. Like the time I arrived at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Santiago, no less than six carefully prepped and placed people greeted me with “Welcome Mr. Pettersen!” between the car and the front desk. But the doting I’ve enjoyed at the Sheraton has broken all former standards. And it not just that these people are a crack team of alert hospitality professionals, which they most certainly are, but they prepared for me. They had meetings about me. There was a short training session on how to spell my name correctly. Someone went online, downloaded my picture, printed out a pile of copies and distributed them around the hotel, taping them behind every desk, bar and office door. I think the marketing team got drunk last week and got tattoos of my face on their bikini lines.

It was like they were preparing for the Pope, if the Pope had the ability to jack up their US visitors stats and could crush a coconut with his bicep.

guam2.jpgIn terms of Guam visitor demographics, us Pinkies run a distant fourth to the Japanese (85%!), Koreans and Taiwanese. So, even without the FBI-style canvassing of my name and face around the hotel, the staff weren’t going to have too much trouble spotting the “American journalist that looks like Beckham.”

As much as I adore being the center of attention, this has made my job very difficult. I still have to somehow write an impartial review of this place that will accurately represent the experience of a guest who doesn’t have the advantage of being a devilishly handsome Travel Writing All Star. Since nearly everyone in the hotel is treating me like their annual bonus depends on how happy I am on a minute by minute basis, I’ve had to go black ops a few times to suss out precisely how much of my treatment is special occasion fawning and how much of it is every day Sheraton conduct.

I’ve spent a lot of time out on my seaside-facing balcony in a lazily tied bathrobe with a surveillance notebook, infra-red pen and high-powered binoculars, intently observing how the staff treat other guests. Also, if I straddle the railing and crane around the corner I can just see the over the nine foot wall surrounding the outdoor massage stations at the female-only spa.

Additionally, I’ve been sidling around the hotel, springing the Look-and-Acknowledge (L&A) test on unsuspecting staff. The L&A rule is standard operating procedure in a five-star property. If staff should meet your eye at any time, they should greet/acknowledge you, even if they’re 50 feet away, on the phone and behind a glass partition. They must at least nod and smile, but if at all possible they should say ‘hello’ and ask about the general state of your well being and, ideally, inquire how they might improve upon that state.

I’ve been tip-toeing up behind people like the doorman, the cashier at the buffet and the towel attendant at the pool – sometimes yelling “bleh-bleeeaah!!!” for form’s sake – and gauging the reaction time and sincerity of their responses. I’ve done the glance-up-and-look-away maneuver to see if I only get an almost-acknowledgment flinch or if they do a full-on greeting even though I’ve seemingly turned my attention to something else. I even went so far as to deviously run the L&A test on a few non-hospitality staff, like the poor guy cleaning the pool in the blazing sun, who passed like a prodigy.

All those fun and games aside, yes, I am a little creeped out that half the island knows who I am and why I’m here and that my whimsical impressions could noticeably impact their 2009 GDP. The large-scale consequences of this article are possibly the most grave that I’ve ever dealt with. But hey, if I didn’t want pressure cooker stress and insurmountable ethical dilemmas, I wouldn’t have gotten into travel writing.

I’m going to continue to wallow in all the fun and attention, but the agonizingly carefully chosen words and 317 edits I’m going to have to suffer through at write-up are going to make me nostalgic for the olden days, like when I went to Kiev and not a single local knew before (or after) that I was writing about them because they didn’t give a rip.