Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Review of Jacob Tomsky's "Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hopitality" (Doubleday, 2012)

An important disclaimer, this book is dedicated to me. Right there in the acknowledgements, Tomsky thanks “every single hotel employee who ever clocked in.” See, I’ve clocked in and continue to clock in at a boutique, luxury hotel.
Therefore, much of this memoir of hotel life rang true for me, but not all. The primary dijfferences between my experience and his can be found in the size of our hotels. Tomsky has worked in New Orleans and New York in hotels with hundreds of rooms. I’ve worked in a motel with twelve rooms and my largest hotel had 56 rooms.

This leads to a variety of differences in our experiences. Tomsky has worked as a valet, front desk agent and housekeeping manager. He’s obviously worked with bellmen, doormen, security and concierges. The roles in a large hotel are all quite distinct. As night auditor in a small hotel, I’m often alone and have to fill all of the above roles in a single night. This makes the complex relationships between the roles above a little simpler, and I enjoyed reading about his evaluation of people in different jobs.

He describes bellmen as tip hunters, always looking to get cash in the palm. Can’t disagree greatly with that. Remember as a hotel guest that like waiters, bellmen work for tips. So smiles and verbal thanks are fine, but green is what they truly understand. (And we are talking paper money, an early story in the book tells of a bellman drop kicking quarters received for surfaces. He later retrieves the quarters.)

He describes concierges as snooty narcissists. Now again, it might be from working at smaller places and not in NYC, but the concierges I’ve worked with have been sweethearts.

He describes those who choose to work the through the night shift as strange creatures indeed. As someone who has worked night audit for years, I’d like to disagree with him. I’d like to, but I really can’t.

As for his experience with management, he admits it’s been a mixed bag. But his experience when his NYC hotel was bought out by a private equity group led to an adversarial relationship that provides some of the best stories in the book. Working in smaller places, I’ve always known the ownership and quite fortunately, liked them, so his tales of fighting big, bad bureaucracies differ greatly with what I’ve experienced. One can understand why he appreciates his union card. I’ve never worn the union label.

A couple of things he gets very right. Just because you wear a name tag, does not give the guest an immediate right to your name. And it’s great if you continue to use your cell phone while interacting with a desk agent, you are an oblivious jerk.

He gets a few things wrong, in my experience. He spreads the myth that hotels have a magic room hidden away for movie stars and you. It might be true that sold out doesn’t mean truly sold out when you have 1000+ rooms. But when you have 56 or 36 or 12, sold out means sold out. I do not have a room with two king beds, a hot tub and an ocean view hidden up my sleeve.

But many people will read the book for the odd stories of the scandalous and sordid aspects of hotel life – sex, drugs, celebrities behaving badly, ladies of the night, nakedness, etc. Yes, he has those stories; everyone who’s worked any time in hospitality has those stories. After I told some of my stories to a friend, he was quiet for a bit and said, “None of this stuff ever happens at my accounting office.” Good for Tomsky (not his real name) to find a way to get paid to tell them.

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