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If I Owned a Hotel…

Jacob Tomsky - November 2013

Veteran hotelier-turned-writer Jacob Tomsky draws on all the lessons he learned—and all the things he saw and overheard behind the scenes—to imagine an ideal hotel.

I’ve worked in hotels my entire life.

Guests have handed me the keys to their vehicle, so I could park it. They’ve handed me their credit card, so I could charge it. And they’ve handed me their wet, dirty towels, so I could wash them.

Hence, after all my experience in the business, it’s not like I haven’t thought about it:

What kind of hotel, if given the opportunity, would I like to open? After the publication of Heads in Beds, a memoir of my decade in hotels, I have been contacted by a number of investors wondering if I’d like to get involved in hotel planning and management. So I’ve thought about it. And here is the type of hotel I would like to open:

One of those hotels that’s actually a bookstore. Or a coffee shop. Or a bar. Anything, literally any business just so long as people can’t spend the night there!

Why? Because (as I am sure many of you know or can imagine) building a hotel and running it properly is extremely difficult. Hoteliers are the most multitasking, intuitive, hardworking, empathetic geniuses in the business world. And after 10 years as a hotelier, I have boiled it down to the one single factor that makes it such a challenge.

People.

A business of people serving people. Serving them in just about every way imaginable. Feeding them, relaxing them, helping them work, making sure they can sleep, cleaning up after them, and then—and here is where it all comes to a head—charging them money for it. People serving people in as many ways as you can imagine. And that’s a problem right there. So many moving parts, so many details to get right and, undoubtedly, failure is built-in. Someone will be unhappy. Someone will not receive the service or luxurious accommodations they feel they deserve.

A bookstore? People buy a book and then go home. Hey! Now there’s an easily definable business model!

But, again, it’s not like I haven’t thought about it. And there are certainly a few things I would love to see, all in one hotel, even if I’m not the one with the steel guts to run it.

Certainly there are standard needs for just about every hotel. Free Wi-Fi (free you guys, free), a business center, simple meeting/banquet rooms, gym. But recently I have been fascinated by the idea of pod hotels. A little tube you just slide into, like a sword into a sheath, and call it a day, call it a stay. As the world streamlines itself, as people pack lighter to avoid extra bag fees, and travel becomes more of an everyday experience, guests will psychologically streamline what they need from a hotel. However, I don’t see the need to only build a pod hotel. Some people fly in late and leave early, and they can stay on floors two through six, the pod levels, which would naturally be the lower floors since, windowless, they would be safe from street noise. Guests who need a full room or something even larger can find accommodations on the floors above.

Front desk agents (and, having been one for countless years, I am enthusiastically rubbing my palms together just thinking about this) would have access to stools. End of discussion. We want our front desk agents happy and pleasant to deal with; correct? So why force them to stand for eight hours? Foot pain has never, in the history of foot pain, made someone more pleasant. An elegant stool for desk agents to occasionally rest on would make the job infinitely better. Plus, how many times, while I was a front desk agent, have I been chastised for leaving my terminal? Want me there all the time? Make it the most comfortable place to be. That’s easy.

One question worth discussing: To union or not to union? Um…union. I know it seems bad for service. I’ve been on both sides. But unions give employees a feeling of security. Someone they can turn to, an organization designed to be on their side. Further, and this one, to me, is simple: health care. Solid, affordable union health care. Nothing makes you calmer and happier about life than security, and a union provides that in so many ways. People don’t like to think so, but there are many positive ways to work with unions. And many positive policies, such as hard-set scheduling, that actually make it easier on management.

Housekeeping?

Housekeeping is the absolute cornerstone of the hotel business. But too many times, during my tenure as a housekeeping manager, I saw policies and practices put in place that made their jobs harder. For no reason. And when I wanted to know which ones those were, the ones that actually got in the way of them doing their jobs? I had a special little trick: I asked them. No one knows how to clean a room like the person cleaning 15 of them every day, five days a week, for 20 years straight.

My above point is a simple, general concept encompassing all of hotel employee/management relations. Talk to the employees. What’s the best way to streamline the valet parking department? Let your parkers discover the holes and snags. Talk to them. Collectively, employees know more than any one person could ever know about their specific department. Collect that knowledge. Constantly. And then put it into effect.

I know this next suggestion will upset a few people. But, in a Tomsky hotel? Not sure I am too concerned about feeding the hotel guests. No room service, no restaurant in the lobby. Food and beverage is an art. And room service is a beautiful and unique performance. When executed well, it is the very embodiment of the word luxury. But, for my hotel and from my experience (granted all in the rooms division), I think most guests gravitate outside the hotel to find a meal representative of the city or town in which they are visiting. I summed it up when I wrote an Op Ed piece for the New York Times upon the announcement by the New York Hilton Midtown that it was discontinuing room service. “The money has never made sense. The cost of keeping a kitchen active through the night, of paying the attendants to stay awake and caffeinated has never been covered by the three drunk guests who order fries at 4 a.m.”

My stance also extends to the mini bar. Which I would eliminate. Too many problems. Not enough profit. Guests would find an empty mini fridge in the room, ready to be stocked with whatever items they need, but they would have to bring those items with them. Where would they get them? From our store, that we own, in the lobby. A basic corner store with reasonably priced snacks and possibly pick-up-and-go meals, just like the store across the street from most hotels, where the employees buy snacks and where the guests would, too, if given the choice.

I’ve toyed with this idea: How convenient it would be to partner with several delivery restaurants in the area, combine the menus into one “hotel” menu, sectioned off by restaurant/cuisine, and let them order away! All it would require is that the hotel provide a dispatcher to take orders and a dedicated employee to take the calls and get the food delivered to the right room. For a small fee, of course, charged for the convenience of being able to dial zero and order easily.

Clearly, for better or for worse, in my hotel world, simplicity would be key. There are so many moving parts that I believe the best thing to do is…well…rip out as many of those parts as possible. So many services a hotel provides (dining, spa, entertainment) can be found outside the hotel, run by companies and wonderful, local restaurateurs who focus solely on that service. Why foul up a hotel by trying to turn it into its own independent little city? Let them come in and go out, let them sleep comfortably in my hotel and then let them go home. And then provide excellent service throughout their stay with us; front desk, luggage assistance, housekeepers, lobby ambassadors— that would be the real bonus. And great service comes from great training, which I also know quite a bit about; but building that elusive side of the hotel is a whole different topic.

But, keeping it simple: That was the point of my book’s title, Heads in Beds. That’s really what the hotel game comes down to. It’s the main source of revenue: People who want to go to sleep.

Good night.

(Also there would be a bookstore in it.)

Jacob Tomsky is a Brooklyn-based writer and the author of Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, an amusing behind the scenes tell-all based on his decade in the hotel business.