A hotel tell-all (and existential crisis)

By Arnie Weissmann
Arnie WeissmannJacob Tomsky's book "Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles and So-Called Hospitality" (Doubleday, 2012) will challenge industry readers on several levels.

Because we travel a lot, we have frequent interactions with hotel staff (in order of appearance: valet, doorman, front desk, bellman, concierge and housekeeping). By and large, our interactions with staff tend to be brief. Our deeper relationships in hospitality are with people who have titles that lend themselves to abbreviation: DSMs, GMs and possibly CMOs, COOs and CEOs.

What Tomsky's book makes clear is that even though we may focus attention on those in management to ensure clients have a positive experience, it is ultimately those who actually deliver service who make or break a stay.

Tomsky's experience is limited to two properties, both anonymous.

The first sounds truly upscale: a renovated New Orleans hotel that appears to be well managed and whose staff is reasonably well trained and motivated.

The second is a tired four-star in midtown Manhattan that at one point is taken over by a private equity fund and turned into a five-star, hip-but-heartless hotel.

The book is part tell-all, part personal narrative of existential crisis. Tomsky, who has a degree in philosophy, ends up finding a job as a valet at a hotel in New Orleans; he eventually works his way up to the front desk.

What separates this book from, say, Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" is that Bourdain loves restaurants and loves food. Tomsky's main attachment is to his co-workers. In fact, he sobs when, after his 30th birthday, he realizes he might be a lifer, stuck working in hotels forever.

That lack of interest in hospitality, if he is reporting accurately, does not make him unusual among hotel service personnel, particularly ones in New York. It's not that they won't do their jobs well, it's just that their passion is reserved for hustling for tips. He describes bellmen as follows: "These poor anachronistic hunters roam the plains of lobbies across the world, starving for a kill."

Levels of service can be shaped by the willingness of a guest to grease palms, but that's not exactly front-page news. Even so, Tomsky gets into the minutiae of tipping -- how much, when and why -- which will be of high interest to anyone who travels.

A word of warning: There is a reason the word "reckless" is in the subtitle.

One recurring theme in the book is how to get an upgrade. His basic message: Why pay big bucks for an upgrade when handing $20 to the front desk agent will get you that, and possibly a bottle of wine and chocolates sent up, as well?

His justification for profiting personally at the expense of a hotel collecting a higher room rate is that this type of extra attention will build guest loyalty, and ultimately benefits the hotel.

But Tomsky goes well beyond sharing strategies for working the system and begins doling out advice on how to steal from hotels. He even lays out a strategy for wiping out the entire contents of a minibar in an untraceable fashion.

His rationale for watching an in-room movie, then disputing the charge? Since hotels usually pay a flat subscription fee, "there is no loss of product" and it "has no negative effect on the hotel's revenue stream. It just doesn't have a positive one."

(When I shared these aspects of the book with a hotelier I know, he responded, "In other words, he's an asshole.")

Do not pick up this book expecting a modern take on Conrad Hilton's "Be My Guest" or Bill Marriott's "Spirit to Serve."

Still, it is a good complement to both those books, and it should not be viewed by hotel management as the work of a disgruntled employee. It's a detailed examination of a tip-based culture that has evolved to its natural extremes, and tip-based cultures have their advantages for management, too, particularly in moderating payroll expense.

There's a lot to contemplate here. I just hope for Tomsky's sake that his instructions for stealing don't motivate some hotelier to retaliate by scanning the entire book and putting it on the Internet for free, prompted by Tomsky's argument that it wouldn't have a negative effect on the author's revenue stream -- just not a positive one.

Email Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com and follow him on Twitter. 
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