08 March 2014

Succeeding by failing

As most of you know I have been in a terrible reading slump so far this year. Not getting much of anything read. I have definitely been doing much better since we hopped on a plane to Hawaii for a little rest and relaxation. And then I had a moment at the newstand/bookshop at the airport on our way from Oahu to the Big Island. With about ten unread books of various flavors I wasn't in the market for anything more. And this particular shop had a small and less than enticing selection, I was just in there to buy some highly sugared treat. But then this caught my eye:

Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky
A gossipy tell-all book by a guy who had spent years working in hotels. Could there be a better beach read? One of those books you know you can finish in a day if you choose to. I had no intention of buying it. After all I still have a month to go on the official TBR Triple Dog Dare and about nine months to go on my self-inflicted decision to extend the dare until we move back into our house sometime in late November. Of course under the rules of the Dare, I was not prohibited from buying the book, I just wasn't supposed to read it until the challenge was over.

But this was a book I wanted to read now. And so I failed at the TBR Triple Dog Dare--although I intend to continue it, this was just a momentary blip--but I succeeded at getting lost in a book. After purchase I went to the gate area to read and found myself so engrossed that I kept reading as I walked down the jet-way for our short flight to Kona. (On the runway I was temporarily distracted as I got to watch fighter jets and a big refueling tanker land at close range, but then, back to the book.)

Heads and Beds can be broken down roughly into four main themes: 1) Jacob Tomsky's personal and professional coming of age; 2) gossipy bits about guests famous and not famous; 3) tales of the crazy stuff hotel staff do  when no ones looking; and 4) insight into how the hotel biz works and why your stay has been awful or wonderful. Of these four I was most interested in numbers 1 and 4 and then part of 3 also interested me.

1) Tomsky's personal story boils down to him falling into the hospitality industry after realizing that his Philisophy degree wasn't very marketable.

2) The gossipy bits are a necessary part of this kind of book, but stories about people too famous to name always leave me disappointed. I want to know who acted that way. And the stories about the non famous were interesting and added color but none of the activity described really surprised me--although I am sure it will surprise many.

3) I didn't care so much about staff hijinks undertaken merely to relieve boredom, but I was fascinated by all the ways hotel staff show appreciation and disapproval of guests and hotel management. And that part leads into my favorite parts of the book...

4) How the hotel biz works. Hotel lost your reservation? Given a terrible room or a fantastic upgrade? It's all here and pretty fascinating. It should come as no surprise but being a dickish customer will never get you anything good in the hotel industry. You may think you have extracted some benefit, but hotel employees have way of exacting revenge in ways that aren't always apparent.

Besides being nice, want to know how to be treated well in a hotel? Tip. Oh yes, you should also tip. Did I mention tipping? The parking valet, the doorman, the bellman, and, if you want the upgrade you hand over a twenty (minimum) to the front desk agent upfront. You don't wait until he has done something for you, you pay him upfront and hope for the best. May not get an upgrade, but you may get a late checkout or a bottle of wine.

And a word about the bellmen. They really want to take your bags up for you. Even if you have wheels on your luggage. Sounds stupid but this was a revelation to me. I always felt a bit ridiculous as an able bodied person with a wheelie bag getting "help" with my luggage. Apparently 98% of people checking in feel the same way,  but that bellman really, really wants your tip.

Speaking of tipping, to my recollection Tomsky is silent on tipping housekeeping staff. He talks about tipping "housemen", the guys who deliver the roll-away bed or things like that. He says if you tip them they will bring you anything you desire. But I don't think he mentions tipping housekeepers. I could have missed that part--and I don't doubt for a second that he would advocate tipping them.

If a lot of this sounds like Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential for hotels, that's because it is a lot like that. I didn't mind for a minute. I enjoyed KC when I read it eons ago. The tone of this book is perhaps a little more cynical than it needs to be--sometimes you wonder if the author is describing a cynical world or if he himself is a really a bit of a dick himself. I realize that is twice I have referred to dickishness--but I can't think of any other descriptors that convey so perfectly and succinctly much of the behavior (guest and host) described in this book.

A fun, quick read, with lots of tidbits to think about when dealing with hotels.

P.S. I worked for six months at a lovely, 21-room hotel in Chelsea (London) in 1992. Some of what Tomsky writes about is familiar to me from that experience, but I wasn't in the business long enough or at a big enough hotel to encounter the world he describes.


  1. I worked at the Intercontinental in Chicago for almost two years when I was first married, but I was in the kitchen, so I saw a very different side of the hotel industry. However, ever since then I've always tipped very well for the housekeeping staff, since they are so poorly underpaid. I also make sure my room is really neat so that they hardly have to do anything. I've never understand how people can trash hotel rooms. I try to tip the housekeepers every day since someone could clean your room for a whole week, but if your checkout day is their day off, they won't get the tip -- it goes to whomever cleans the room that day.

    And I think you can make an exception for the TBR dare when you're on vacation! I'm going on a two-week vacation soon and I'm going to take your advice and bring books I can leave behind if I don't like them. That might be tough because I tend to be a book hoarder.

    1. I am terrible about tipping housekeeping staff. I am otherwise quite generous but there is something about that situation where I always forget or don't have money for it or, or, or. John and I actually talked about it on this trip and are going to rectify it when we check out.

  2. I think James gives out day passes for the TBR dare :) I'm glad you're finding connections to books again. I have to admit, I'm really bad about tipping in hotels, partly because I'm not sure how much is appropriate (so I end up with nothing, which I know isn't!). Enjoy the rest of your trip!

    1. I am beginning to think I have used too many day passes at this point. Bound to be expelled.

  3. James graciously gave me a one-day reprieve from the Dare a couple of weeks ago and it was just what I needed... am sure he'd offer you the same deal ;-)

    This book is already on my wish list - think I'd enjoy this hotel version of Kitchen Confidential, too!

  4. I read this book last year, and I agree that I also was fascinated by the whole valet-frontdesk-bellman hand-off of their favorite (well-tipping) guests. If I recall correctly, one of the bellmen would keep a little book with the names of guests who tipped him well, and would recognize them on their next visit. I also found the whole union aspect added an interesting layer.

    1. There were so many fascinating things. I am not sure they are entirely universal but maybe I am wrong. At our hotel on the Big Island I put some of his advice on tipping to use. But the front desk folks were so friendly that I felt it might be insulting if I tipped them as I was asking for a late checkout, so I didn't tip. Think about that, I penalized the staff for being friendly.


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