You don't have to be mad to work here...

...but it most certainly helps. EMMA COOK signs on for the job of the millennium - as a host at the Dome
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Indy Lifestyle Online
What could be more exciting than visiting the Dome on New Year's Eve? Why, working for it of course. I am one of 900 hosts being trained in the art of making visitors feel at home in the Dome on the special evening and through the rest of 2000. It will be a truly "amazing" experience, I'm told. It will be about teamwork and commitment. It will be, according to page xiii of my special host introductory pack, "one amazing day and one amazing team".

I must be endlessly enthusiastic, smiley and helpful. I handbook for more guidance. "Welcome and treat visitors as though they were guests in your home. Each visitor is important and deserves the very highest level of service and consideration." I am thinking millennium ambassador. I am trying not to think British Airways air hostess or geisha girl.

I am especially excited at the prospect of wearing a special millennium uniform. Hopefully it will be glamorous for the Big Night. Something shiny and directional to impress Tony if I am chosen to guide him around the Faith Zone and answer any theological concerns he may have.

I queue up in the rambling staff quarters around the back of the Dome - where all employees must clock in every morning. Much of the staff area still feels a little makeshift. There are a series of Portakabins and functional changing rooms with showers and lockers. There is also a canteen where sturdy workmen in hard hats sit and eat baked beans on toast, not roquette or pancetta. My second disappointment, I must admit. I had expected a swish New Labour canteen for a swish New Labour workforce; with a name that ended in "a", like Granita, or Cantina, not Cafeteria as this one does.

Outside the place is teeming with activity; people shout into walkie- talkies, girls dressed like gymnasts and dancers dart out of changing rooms, other girls in suits direct groups of people from one entrance to another. I stand in a long queue and pick up my uniform: a regulation yellow and navy puffa jacket, baggy black trousers, a navy baseball cap emblazoned with "Millennium Experience" and black fleecy gloves. I feel like a burly traffic warden.

No one else is remotely disappointed by their outfits, or by the unusually expansive dress code in the staff handbook. No room for 21st-century individuality here. Only "natural classic make-up is acceptable". No coloured nail varnish. No tattoos. Hair must be "of a natural colour". Only "one scrunchie or bow to be worn at any one time" and anyone wishing to grow a beard "must inform their line manager prior to commencing growth". I am told that staff will also have to take part in random drugs and drink tests.

Not that these restrictions would worry my fellow hosts judging by their smooth-shaven and squeaky-clean demeanours. Such is their undeniable enthusiasm they could be handed black bin-liners to wear and still be overjoyed at the prospect. A few of them could be the sort of people who queue up to buy Cliff's single or, worse, work backstage for a Andrew Lloyd-Webber production.

More worryingly, they are incredibly excited to be spending New Year's Eve in a windy tent in south-east London, dressed like car park attendants, rather than down the pub with their mates. Don't they have any friends? If so, they won't admit to it. "My partner will be waiting for me at home. When I first knew they were looking for staff here I knew I wanted to be a part of it," says Carol with a spooky Stepford wife smile. "I felt drawn."

Maybe their fervour is down to the training which is, I am assured, cutting edge. Forget building bridges with matchsticks and introducing the person next to you. Raj Pragasam, human resources director, tells me about some of the induction techniques. When 2,000 staff arrive at the Dome for their first session, they are lined up and told to do a Mexican wave. "Can you imagine that many people doing the Mexican wave?" enthuses one of Raj's training officers. There is also lots of loud pop music, arm-waving and shouting. "It's amazing," his colleague tells me. "It's quarter past nine in the morning and I'm getting hundreds of hosts to let go to M People's `Moving On Up'." "Things Can Only Get Better" was, presumably, not on the play list. But they are handed a baton, which is passed among thousands of recruits. "It's a way of engaging and of saying we're part of a team where everyone is important. It's electrifying," says Raj.

In September they placed a series of advertisements in local newspapers for millennium hosts and received 9,000 applications. They have now employed 900 who will guide visitors from one "zone" to another. Their pay will be pounds 6 per hour - pounds 7.50 for senior hosts - and they'll get more for working on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Hosts' ages range from 16 to over 70.

Their backgrounds are equally diverse: catering, banking, nursing, teaching, theatre and the police. Some are mothers returning to work or were unemployed. Academic qualifications and experience are less essential than positive attitude and communication skills.

Hosts are the interface between the visitors and the Dome and, according to my handbook, are there to greet and welcome people, answer any of their questions and encourage them to make the most of their "interactive" experience.

There is less detail on how to answer tricky questions about the specific zones, with catchy titles like "work", "learn",

"play" and "faith". Would I have to answer any spiritual queries? Probably not, says Raj, although I may find myself dealing with a range of emotional responses. "This will affect people. The faith zone may make them think of a whole different side of their life." If any event is too stressful for visitors or they seek further guidance, they can always turn to one of 22 on-site chaplains, Raj reassures me.

Clearly they are relying on a high pitch of emotional fervour. When it comes to an intellectual response to the zones, Raj and his team are not quite as focused. Raj explains at one point, "All staff need to understand is the product. Hosts will learn about three different zones but it won't be like school." Phew. "It's interactive and you will learn from other groups." Exactly what or how much, though, isn't crystal clear. Which is probably a reflection of the zones themselves, not any shortcomings in the staff training.

In the docu-soap Trouble At the Dome, currently running on BBC2, designers and sponsors are constantly at loggerheads about the content of these "zones". "Hands-on" sponsors are concerned, naturally, with the branding. Designers want it to look fantastic. No one is clear about content. At one point Michael Grade interrupts one designer's creative rhetoric and shouts, "So what? So what? I don't know what this means."

One year on it's still a valid response. Some of the zones seem impressive but essentially it has the look of an enormous business trade fair - the logos of Sky, the City of London and McDonald's writ large. Hosts will probably need to know more about conglomerates than British history or the workings of the body. There is something eerily New Labour about their whole approach and the familiar criticism springs easily to mind; high on rhetoric and low on substance. While the recruitment procedure is exemplary - 6 per cent of the employee population is disabled - the Dome's management philosophy is, at points, cloyingly happy clappy, sometimes evangelical. Hosts are expected to follow seven service principles under the headings "Active Listening", "One Amazing Day", "Empowerment", "Exceed Expectations", "Guests" and "Positive Attitude".

Raj and his team take me through the sign-language for each principle that staff are encouraged to learn - thumbs up for "positive attitude", big circle with the arms for "one amazing day" and so on. The idea is that they associate the movements with the meanings and it becomes second nature. I can't help thinking that the last time I witnessed this the level of fervour was at a Mormon meeting. Aren't they a little worried that the British aren't ready for the total Disney experience? Raj and his team smile confidently. "No, no, no. We've tried not to do that. We're on target for the sort of people who will come through our doors. It's a unique experience not a leisure park."

Back in the staff quarters, Sophie, 22, a glamorous-looking theatre studies student with dark glossy hair and a winning smile, couldn't agree more, "It's a one-off night and I'd like to be part of that. I'll see my friends afterwards." Sophie, who hopes to go into public relations eventually, has moved from Cornwall to London where, apparently, they are less cynical about the Dome. "At home it's like `Wow. You're really working there?' They can't believe it's reality. In London you tell people and they say, `What a waste of money.' I just don't think they're being educated properly," she sparkles.

Peter Kingswell, 60 and a retired policeman who lives locally, also says he feels privileged to be a part of experience in the Dome. "Greenwich has had one of the highest unemployment levels in London. This has achieved more than people thought it would in regenerating the area. The job prospects are amazing." Sophie butts into our conversation to tell us about a certain visitor who arrived at the Dome yesterday. She is still terribly excited and her smile broadens when she recalls seeing Tony Blair in the flesh. "He's much taller in real life and very, umm, robust looking." He waved at all the hosts and he was, she says, very strong on eye contact. "I can honestly say he looked genuinely pleased by what he saw."

Now isn't that amazing?

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