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"Heads In Beds" and Higher Ed
December 17, 2012 - 9:00pm

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

Published in November, 2012.

Hotels share some things in common with higher ed. They are both bundled businesses, combining a range of functions and services at one location. They are both high fixed cost industries, where the economics only work if the high costs of the physical structures and staffing expenses must be distributed across many customers. They both offer differentiated services by price, with both luxury and no-frills brands competing in the same marketplace. And they are both at risk of being disrupted by new the internet and new business models, as witnessed by the simultaneous rise of airbnb.com and coursera.org.

We can learn some things from the hospitality industry.  

Heads In Beds follows the tradition of the X Confidential genre, initiated by Anthony Bourdain's restaurant memoir Kitchen Confidential.  

Take an industry.  Mix in a narcissistic, alcoholic, and basically dysfunctional man/boy protagonist who "finds himself" through years of dead-end employment.  Throw in a zany but lovable and wise cast of co-workers.  Fold in some stupid and overly privileged customers, and bingo you have yourself a possibly best seller.   

Examples of this new publishing tradition (or at least examples that I have enjoyed), include Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip--Confessions of a Cynical Waiter and Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet

In Heads in Beds Jacob Tomsky recounts his experiences of almost a decade working in a fancy NYC hotel as a front desk agent, and his prior experience as a valet parking attendant and housecleaning manager in another expensive hotel in New Orleans. 

The sociologist in me loves these books for their glimpses into the subcultures that develop within every industry.   Our workplaces are all alike in that they all share status hierarchies, in-groups and out-groups, deviants and conformists.  Each industry develops a specialized language and a set of shared norms and understandings - violate these norms and you will be quickly ostracized.

Some of the things that we do learn from Heads In Beds include:

  • Tipping the front desk agent is the only strategy available if you want any sort of room upgrade or access to hotel amenities.
  • Tipping the bellhop should be viewed as part of the cost of staying in a high end hotel.
  • There is a wide variation in quality across hotel rooms in a given property.  Piss off any of the hotel staff by being rude (or not tipping) and you may find yourself rooming next to an elevator with no heat and a toilet that will run all night.
  • The people who clean hotel rooms work incredibly hard for low pay, and in very difficult physical conditions.  A tip for every night you stay in a room should be considered part of the cost of your stay.

Heads in Beds could have been a much better book if the author had less literary and more reporting ambitions. It is amazing that Tomsky can have worked for so many years in the hotel business without being able to relate more information about the economics and organization of hotels. This would have been a much better book if Tomsky had left out much of his boozy love life and bouts of depression, and instead found some time to research and report on how the hotel industry is evolving. His insider knowledge of hotels would have given the reporting on larger trends some perspective and intimacy.

While Tomsky is never a particularly appealing character, you end up rooting for him (and his buddies the bellman) over the evil hotel management and the spoiled hotel guests.  You could do worse than to bring Heads In Beds along with you to your next conference or vacation.

What are you reading?

A quick Amazon search of other books in this genre of service employee workplace memoirs yields:

Cruise Confidential: A Hit Below the Waterline: Where the Crew Lives, Eats, Wars, and Parties. One Crazy Year Working on Cruise Ships

Concierge Confidential: The Secrets of Serving Champagne Bitches and Caviar Queens

Mortuary Confidential: Undertakers Spill the Dirt

Tour Confidential - Triumph and Torment: A Golfer's Life on the Global Stage

Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks

Cast Member Confidential: A Disneyfied Memoir

 

 

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