If you’ve ever been in a hotel and wondered how to outsmart the minibar or the in-room movie ordering system, Jacob Tomsky has the scoop on how you can drink all the little bottles of bourbon you want for free while catching a new flick on your television without being charged for it.
His snarky new memoir about the hotel industry, “Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality” (Doubleday, $25.95), spills the beans on valets and how they really treat your Mercedes when you’re not looking.
Tomsky, who lives in Brooklyn and is already being compared to food author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain, explains how easy it is to get a complimentary upgrade and lots of free amenities (just pass the front desk agent a “baby brick” – a $20 bill), and why you’ll always be given the worst room if you book online through a discount website.
This tell-all isn’t likely to make Tomsky any new friends in hotel management, but his behind-the-scenes look at life in the industry and his passionate defense of tipping hotel workers (and treating them like human beings) will likely have the folks who clean your room cheering.
And you too, if you take his advice on how to save money during your hotel stay.
Q: I’m a little unclear after reading the book: Are you still working in the hotel industry?
A: At the time I was composing the book I was, but now I’m a full-time writer, which is wonderful.
Q: In the beginning of the book, it seemed as if you were actually proud of providing great service and got some enjoyment out of it. The second half, you seem much more jaded and all about the tips. After doing this for so long, did you get any enjoyment out of it at the end?
A: Anytime you do something for that long, it’s going to be harder to enjoy it. The arc of the book, at the beginning I was a little bit happier, a little bit starry-eyed, and then there’s a transition in the hotel where I worked where new management takes over and it becomes sort of an angry situation.
But you know, there was always constant joy in dealing with nice people. It had nothing to do with tips. Newlyweds would come in, and I’d make sure that they had a wonderful experience.
One of the wonderful things about being front desk, I speak in the book about being instant karma. If you came in and you said something homophobic and racist or mean or rude, or you yelled at somebody, then I was in a position to make your stay horrible. If you came in and were a wonderful person and were super-kind and excited to be here, I could make your stay 15 times better.
Q: I want to talk about tipping a little bit. It occurred to me that if you tip everyone as much and as often as you suggest, you might as well pay for the upgrades yourself. For the average Joe, what are the true expectations of a valet, a bellman and a front desk agent?
A: The standard for a valet would be a dollar or two. Sometimes they don’t even work for the property. They work for an outside garage, and oftentimes you won’t even see them when they take your vehicle, because they will call for the valet.
But if you do see the guy parking your car at the very beginning, it’s good to give him a dollar. Then he’ll take care of your vehicle. Or if you see him when he comes back, it’s good to give them a dollar, because it’s a physically demanding job. They’re running a lot.
Most bellmen and doormen are happy with $2 a bag. They wouldn’t consider that generous, but they wouldn’t consider that rude. If you’ve got two bags, I would just go ahead and round it up to $5 – $5 to the doorman, $5 to the bellman.
You said you might as well pay for the upgrade, but the point is, the front desk is not a tipped position, and they are the ones that are most likely going to provide you with an upgrade, because we are the ones who have access to all the room features and all the room types. So your money goes much farther with a front desk agent because they’re not used to getting it.
Q: If being a bellman is such a great job that people stay in it forever, why should someone who is really strapped for cash themselves feel guilty about carrying their own bags?
A: At a luxury property, (bellmen) might be making a decent amount of money, but in other situations, maybe not. In New York, if you’ve got a 500-room hotel, the possibility of getting (tips) and making a decent living is much increased. Now, if you’ve got a smaller hotel of 30 or 40 or 50 rooms, and you get a smaller city or boutique hotel, that one’s going to pull in a lot less money.
Not to mention, the job is physically demanding. You’re constantly hoisting those bags. There’s a lot of bellmen who, toward the end of their career, have a lot of physical problems – shoulder problems, a whole lot of knee and hip problems, foot problems from being constantly on your feet. It is a difficult position. I can see where you’re going with that, but it’s not as if the money isn’t deserved.
Q: That’s not what I was getting at. I was feeling sorry for, say, the single mom where every penny counts. Is there a polite way to say, “No thanks, I can carry my own bag,” without worrying about retribution from the staff?
A: There is definitely a polite way to turn down a bellman. They know that not everyone needs help. It could be a businesman; he’s done this 6,000 times and he knows how to get to the room. Just being polite. Speaking to the bellmen in person.
One of their biggest pet peeves was when they would be standing there trying to assist you, and yet the guest would tell me, “You know what? I don’t need any help with my luggage.” Of course, they’re telling me, but the bellman is standing right next to them. (They’re treating him) as if he’s not a person, or they’re afraid of him. So turn to the bellman and say, “You know what? I really appreciate it, but I think I got this.” No bellman is ever going to be angry at that. The service is not mandatory.
Q: What are the top two or three things hotel guests do, besides not tipping, that will instantly tick off the staff?
A: I think yelling, right away. I think there’s a big difference between a request and a demand. I think a lot of people lose that line, and that’s a very good way to irritate staff – demand as if everything is deserved for you when there’s other people who have guaranteed reservations.
Snapping their credit card on the desk, that’s one of my little personal pet peeves. Being on your cell phone during check-in (is) very, very rude.
Q: What are the grossest parts of a hotel room that people should avoid? I noticed you made fun of the guests who brought their own pillows, but if you watch “CSI,” you know the bedding is disgusting even after it’s been washed.
A: The duvets themselves are a little disgusting. Now what they’re going to do is, they’re going to put a duvet cover on there, and the duvet cover will be washed, but the bedding itself inside is a little bit disgusting. That’s not cleaned as often as you think, since they think it’s OK just to put their duvet cover on it.
Or maybe in a more budget motel, you’ve got that scratchy blanket. They’ll put it in between two sheets and think that makes it sanitary. You might just want to take that off the bed completely and just use the sheets.
The minibar glasses, oftentimes it’s the responsibility of the housekeepers to clean, and you can look on their cart and there’s no dish soap. So often, they clean them with what they can, aka shampoo and sometimes Lemon Pledge, because Pledge leaves it streak-free and they’re judged on making sure the glasses are clean.
The TV remote, if you’ve ever tried to clean a TV remote, even in your own home, you’re going to realize how hard it is because of the sticky rubber buttons – which you really want to clean, because when the thumb presses down and touches the plastic underneath the button, it’s very hard to clean that. Of course, any number of things can happen with that remote in a previous guest’s hand.
Q: You said that you’re a full-time writer now. How did that come about, and what are you working on now?
A: I could write an entire other book on hotels. If you get near the end, I was assigned anger management and all this stuff, so there’s a whole other series of events that took place after the chronological ending point of the book. I’m expanding. I’ve written some articles on fashion, and there’s one I’ve got coming out on dating in the 21st century.
So while I was at the hotel, I wasn’t just sitting there being a front desk agent. I’ve been trying to be a writer my entire life. The front desk was paying my rent while I was constantly looking for agents and constantly working and working and working.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: