A book review of Jacob Thomsky’s “Heads in Beds”
Imagine if Elmore Leonard had started out on the graveyard shift at the Bellevue hotel. Had he written a novel about it, it might have looked like Jacob Tomsky’s Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles and So-Called Hospitality. It is an enthralling and luridly entertaining account of real life inside a hotel.
At times, I didn’t know whether to laugh out loud or recoil in horror at some of the tricks: how to drink off the minibar for free, how to get free movies, how to get expensive upgrades for a fraction of the price, and how skip the check-in line, among others.
The “tips and tricks” portion of Tomsky’s rendition, several of which can be charitably described as morally dubious, have the reviewing readership over at Amazon all in a lather. Apparently, the memo went out. Have a gander at some of the bad reviews yourself.
The humorless reviewers miss the point: that behind the corporate facade and standard operating procedures that mark the franchise-oriented business model of modern hotels, and beyond the seeming uniformity of routine in the life of the frequent hotel traveler, are real human beings. Human beings are anything but standard and routine.
Heads in Beds is far more than a how-to manual for hotel hustles. It is also a poignant look at the struggle of those who work at these properties to juggle rapid change. The environment is constantly changing. Guests come and go. Managers come and go. Owners come and go. Brands come and go. Technology impacts the business in unexpected ways, as in the example of how wheeled luggage has made bellmen an embattled, if not endangered, species.
As the CEO of my company likes to say, we are living in the “Age of Great Change”. Amid all that change are real people, with real families, trying to adjust.
Tomsky reveals a heart of gold in his dealings with members of the staff victimized by irritable guests or vindictive management. He goes out of his way to care for guests who need a port in the storm, or want an unforgettable honeymoon, or can’t remember the name of that great cocktail at the bar but they want to use in their upcoming wedding. In the climax of the novel, Tomsky reveals a stash of letters that guests have sent him through the years, thanking him for making a piece of their lives memorable. Thanking him for his service.
He didn’t use the phrase, but the book was saying it: this is why I work. This is why I work in hospitality.
Ensconced for the past six years at above-property positions in hospitality, my line of sight into the day to day operations (not to mention day to day lives) of line-level hotel associates is damn well nonexistent. This lack of property operations experience has been a source of irritation for me in an industry that, as evidenced above, can be quite inspiring to be a part of. Not to mention entertaining.
So I get my entertainment vicariously via Tomsky, who delivers the goods.
Among the more humorous portions:
- The strategy of “upping the intensity” to turn the tables on an irate guest
- How agents set up a “front” with guests to make sure the bellman gets his due
- The meticulous notes required to make sure an agent doesn’t screw up a marriage proposal
- How giving guests huge freebies in exchange for tips costs money up front but gets lifelong guest loyalty
- How clueless private equity firms with excessive bottom-line focus lose sight of the above
- How large hotels have cameras, and they retain plenty of footage of guests doing everything and anything you can imagine
On the downside, the oft-repeated “Brian Wilson died for our sins” punchline was gratuitous and unnecessary. My impression is that this turn of phrase was intended to score brownie points for Tomsky among post-Christian book reviewers and self-styled intellectuals.
One Big Takeaway
Most already understand that people like bellmen, housemen, and the guy who brings the rollaway bed to your room are expecting, and indeed survive on, tips. People remember to tip the housekeeping crew on multi-day visits.
Often overlooked is the front desk staff. This is a mistake.
Of all the people in a hotel, the front desk staff have the most control over the quality of your stay. They can upgrade your room, give you a late checkout, send you a bottle of wine, chocolate on the pillow, roses on the beadspread, and waive a good number of fees on your behalf if they are so inclined.
How to make them so inclined? Cash.
That’s right. Stop with the compliments; the bullshit about how it’s your birthday/anniversary/big promotion/etc. Those things are great, but much more effective in conjunction with a baby brick ($20 in hotel lingo) in the hand of your friendly front desk agent.
Make these people your friends. If you booked on a discount site, you will be put in a crappy room. Call ahead of your reservation and confirm a particular room type. Get an agent by name for your check-in. Get a relationship going, especially if you will stay frequently.
Above all, take care of your agent. They will take care of you.
Thank you, Jacob Tomsky. See you at the reception desk.
Want more? Buy the book here.