Bookshelf: Heads in Beds

Photo courtesy of Vancity Allie

 

(The Bookshelf series discusses certain books that are relevant to some of the major themes of this site. They are not meant to be viewed as traditional book reviews. If you’d like a real review, there are plenty of places that can supply those! Here’s a previous Bookshelf entry.)

I love hotels. Sure, I know I don’t talk about this that much, so don’t spread it around, but it’s true. And it doesn’t matter the type of hotel, really. I love the simplicity of a Super 8, the cushiness of a Hampton Inn, the pointless extravagance of a five-star hotel, all of them equally.

So it was a treat when I got a copy of “Heads in Beds: A reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality” by Jacob Tomsky. It was a chance to get some inside dirt on the hospitality industry.

What do you think this is, a hotel?

No talking, just bed

Heads in Beds is a memoir of an unlikely life in the luxury hotel industry. Starting from the now-standard quarter-life crisis that hits most people after graduating from college (this guy had a philosophy degree) he finds himself working in a newly-opened luxury hotel in New Orleans. After a stint there and some more soul searching, he ends up at another establishment in the heart of New York City, which is both similar and utterly alien from the southern charms of Nawlins.

He spends much of his employment working at or near the front desk, checking in and out guests, dealing with their needs (some quite reasonable, some patently unreasonable). He talks about what happens behind the scenes that the guests never see. I was particularly taken with his claim that housekeepers sometimes use Pledge to keep the in-room glassware shiny, as a shortcut to actually washing them. Good to know, I think.

But most salient to me, though, were the tips and tricks for how to maximize your own benefits at your next hotel stay.

Something for (almost) nothing

Chief up there is the hotel upgrade. According to Tomsky, the easiest way to secure a room upgrade is to cheerfully hand the front desk agent your credit card along with a $20 bill.

“But drop a twenty, a baby brick, on a front desk agent, and something has shifted. It works because, for us, it is a commitment. We become indebted to you. … No agent will pocket a tip and just say thank you, not one who has a soul … There is always a better room, and when I feel that twenty burning in my pocket, I will find it for you.”

Anticipating my own insecurities, he continues. “Some people feel nervous about this move. Please don’t. It’s not a drug deal.” I’ve never done anything like this before, always relying on travel hacking and social engineering to secure whatever upgrades I could muster. I’ll admit that I dislike tipping, only because I never know how much to tip or when (or if!). It’s just like haggling, I never know what I’m supposed to do. I wish when it was time to tip someone, they would just give me a rate card or something.

But I like the idea of the front desk agent feeling “obligated” to do something nice for me, so I think I’ll try this next time. I won’t expect anything, of course, and won’t, you know, demand my $20 back if I get nothing out of it but a smile. To me, it’ll be a $20 experiment, a lesson learned, and a nice gift to someone who probably works very hard.

Too much for not enough

Other secret perks seem to land just outside of my ethical comfort zone. On describing how one can empty a minibar for free (!), he suggests asking for a non-smoking room, immediately smoking a cigarette upon entering, and then asking to switch rooms, but not before emptying the minibar of all its contents.

“Moving rooms in the system, when it’s done the same day as check in, leaves almost no trace … [c]ertainly nothing that allow the hotel to track down those five minutes when you stole five hundred dollars’ worth of individually-wrapped snacks.”

I don’t think I would do this. Perhaps because I’m rarely tempted by what I see in minibars, but this feels a bit too much like outright theft for me. If they upgrade me to a nicer room, I don’t feel like I’ve stolen anything (I would have to sleep somewhere, and it’s not like I’m taking up both rooms.) But emptying the minibar? Seems a bit over the top to me. But hey, your comfort zone may vary. (And it’s at least good to know that they will reverse pretty much any minibar charge without a fuss.)

New York state of mind

Probably the most compelling aspect of the book, beyond the helpful appendix of things guests should never say/do, is the author’s description of what’s it’s like to live and work in New York City.

He is able to convey that particular level of stress and enervation better than pretty much any other account I’ve read. I could feel my blood pressure rising just hearing about how the bellhops threatened violence to him if he didn’t facilitate more opportunities for tips. And the don’t-care-at-all attitude that everyone there seemed to exude toward anyone and everything matched my experience pretty much spot-on. How Mr. Tomsky is still able to live in “Partysburg” (as he terms Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I myself used to reside) is beyond me. Perhaps, as he says:

“And then there was the money. The number one reason a ho stays a ho: the hundos kept flowing in, and it takes a real serious [mofo] to turn off a money valve, especially in a city that carves poverty into every line of your face.”

Yet another reason for people to take control of their own income, I guess. There’s got to be a way to keep those “hundos” flowing in without having to work the front desk, right? I sure hope so.

But enough about Jacob Tomsky. Got any hotel tips and tricks you’d like to share? I’m sure we’re all keen to hear them.

Mike Pumphrey

Mike Pumphrey

I'm the founder and author of Unlikely Radical, a site to help people succeed with money, achieve their goals, and live intentionally.

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Mike Pumphrey
Posted on August 29, 2013