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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Hotel Confidential: An Industry Insider Tells All

A man works at the front desk of a hotel in New York City’s Greenwich Village in March 2009. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Jacob Tomsky spent years working in the hospitality industry. Starting as a valet parker in a New Orleans hotel, Jacob worked his way up to front desk clerk and housekeeping manager, eventually moving to New York City.

Now in his new book “Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality” (see book excerpt below), Jacob not only talks about a life catering to guests’ needs, but also gives tips on how to get the most out of your hotel stay.

One of his suggestions: tip your front desk clerk, because your money will go further. And, he cautioned, front desk clerks wield a lot of power.

“I can make your keys stop working… I can check you out early, I can over-authorize your credit card, I can add additional charges,” Jacob told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “The ways in which we can get back at you are severe and there’s plenty of them.”

Interview Highlights

Jacob Tomsky is author of Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality.

Be polite or beware:

“If you piss off the wrong person, there’s a thousand ways we can come back at you. A lot of times, at the front desk, I felt like I was a master of instant karma, you know? If you were rude to my co-workers or, you know, rude to the cab driver, or just rude in general, I can make your keys stop working. I can check you out early. I can over-authorize your credit card. I can add additional charges. The ways in which we can get back at you are severe and there’s plenty of them… We all have access to your room. We’ve got master keys. So any room, anywhere, anytime, that bellman can get back in your room and get back at your toothbrush.”

How to protect your car from the valet:

“Do a nice walk-around, a nice, visual walk-around. First of all, it’s going to give you the certainty that you need later so that you know if that scratch wasn’t there, then you’re like, “You know what? I know it wasn’t.” In general, they might assume that it was already there. And also, when I was a valet, when I saw a guest take a quick walk-around, I knew when I was pulling off that I needed to be extra careful because this guest was on top of it.”

How to avoid a cancellation penalty:

“Say, ‘You know what? I don’t want to cancel my reservation; I just want to move it to next week. My meeting’s been canceled; I need to move this reservation until next Friday because they’ve rescheduled a meeting. Is this possible?’ And many times the front desk agent is going to say, ‘Absolutely.’ Because we don’t feel as if we’re canceling, we’re just adjusting it. So, move it into the future. Hang up the phone. Drink a soda. Call back. Speak to another front desk agent and say, ‘You know what? I have a reservation for next week. That meeting’s been canceled and I need to cancel my reservation.’ And you’re well within your rights now.”

Book Excerpt: ‘Heads In Beds’

By: Jacob Tomsky

Advisory: There is explicit language in this excerpt

Introduction: “Welcome to the Front Desk: Checking In?”

I’ve worked in hotels for more than a decade. I’ve checked you in, checked you out, oriented you to the property, served you a beverage, separated your white panties from the white bed sheets, parked your car, tasted your room service (before and, sadly, after), cleaned your toilet, denied you a late check-out, given you a wake-up call, eaten M&Ms out of your minibar, laughed at your jokes and taken your money. I have been on the front lines, and by that I mean the front desk, of upscale hotels for years and I’ve seen it all first hand.

How does one fall into the pit of hospitality? How is it that nearly every dollar I’ve ever earned came from a paycheck with a name of a hotel written on it somewhere (or, of course, in the form of cash from the hand of a generous hotel guest)? Call it an accident, like catching a train with the plan to go across town, but as the platforms smear by one after the other, you come to realize you’ve broken city limits, the train is not stopping and you’re just going to have to ride this life until the doors open. Or until they stop the train and throw you out on your ass.

After a certain amount of years in the hotel business (and I’ll just mention this upfront) you’re just too useless and used up to do anything else.

I grew up military; Navy mother, Marine father. As a child it was two years maximum in any given city and then we’d be on the move again, changing schools, checking into a hotel in LA, a hotel in Jacksonville, a hotel in Asheville, a hotel in San Pedro, looking for a new “permanent” residence. I grew up like a spun top, and, released into adulthood, I continued spinning, moving, relocating.

Those two-year episodes of my childhood left me feeling rootless, lost in the world; perhaps that’s why I stubbornly pursued a degree in philosophy. I cannot explain the idiocy behind my choice of major. Shit, if I had chosen business, I might be in business right now. Perhaps you’d think one main goal within the philosophy degree itself would be the ability to argue unequivocally why a philosophy degree is not a complete waste of time. I never learned that argument. Garbage. My degree was garbage stuffed inside a trashcan of student loans.

So someone, some asshole, suggested I earn some money in hospitality. Hotels were willing to ignore my dubious degree, offer great starting pay and, I will say this: It’s an ideal career for the traveler. I love travel in every way; new people, new sounds, new environments, the ability to pick up and disappear. (My top is, even now, spinning, and though digging a nice divot into Brooklyn, the balance is beginning to lean and, once that tip finds traction, it’s going to rocket me off the continent.) Plus, hotels are everywhere: Kidnap me, duct tape my face, drop me out of a plane, and I promise you I will land in a parking lot adjacent to a hotel and in less than a day I’ll be wearing a suit, assisting guests, earning a nice check and making friends at the local bar.

Hotels are methadone clinics for the travel-addicted. Maybe the only way I can even keep a home is to hold down a job surrounded by constant change. If I’m addicted to relocating, then how about I rest a minute, in a lobby echoing with eternal hellos and goodbyes, and let the world move around me?

And that is exactly what I did. From New Orleans to New York, I played by hotel rules and, in the process, learned every aspect of the industry. Due to the fact I just don’t care anymore, here is one of my objectives: I will offer easy and, up till now, never publicized tips and tricks. Want a late check-out? Want an upgrade? Guess what! There are simple ways (and most of them are legal ways!) to get what you need from a hotel without any hassle whatsoever. It’s all in the details; in what you need done, whom you ask to do it, how you ask them, and how much you should tip them for doing it. Need to cancel the day of arrival with no penalty? No problem. Maybe you just want to be treated with care and respect? I understand, dear guest. Come on, now, calm down you fragile thing… take my hand… good… okay, now put some money in it… very good… thank you. Now that’s a proper hospitality business transaction.

And when all is said and done you will understand the hotel life, what we do and how we do it. Though why we continue to do it may be harder to grasp. All of this will be beneficial to you because the next time you check in with me (and believe me, I get around. I’ve probably checked you in a couple of times already), the next time we meet, a comforting, bright light of total understanding will be shining in your eyes and I will help you and you will help me, and reading this book will give you the knowledge you need to get the very best service from any hotel or property, from any business that makes its money from putting “heads in beds.” Or, at the very least, it will keep me from taking your luggage into the camera-free back office and stomping the shit out of it.

As a hotelier I am everywhere. I am nowhere. I am nameless… except for the goddamn nametag.

But first, let’s talk about names. Let’s talk about changing the names to protect the innocent. Let’s talk about how innocent I am and how much I need protecting:

My name is Jacob Tomsky. But in the hotel world we are all registered with our last name first. Jacob Tomsky becomes Tomsky, Jacob. So, in the spirit of self-preservation, Tomsky, Jacob—for the purposes of this book—becomes Thomas Jacobs. Good luck little Tommy Jacobs.

Excerpted from HEADS IN BEDS: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality by Jacob Tomsky. Copyright © 2010 by Jacob Tomsky. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Guest:

  • Jacob Tomsky, author of “Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality.”

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