The cost and benefits of being a bellman

I’m currently reading “Heads in Beds” by Jacob Tomsky, a purported insider’s account of the hotel business. Besides being pretty entertaining, it’s full of interesting facts (it costs $30 to $40 to turn over the average hotel room), helpful advice (speak out the employee’s name when making a request you don’t want said employee to forget), and unpleasant anecdotes, such as what happened to a pro athlete’s bottle of cologne when the athlete stiffed his bellman.

The worth of a bellman is a recurring topic in the book. Even in the age of wheeled suitcases, a good bellhop can still make a living. While the wages are low – the median salary is $20,880, according to current Labor Department statistics – a Manhattan bellhop who’s a “real hustling bullshit artist” might make “well over a hundred thousand dollars” annually, Tomsky claims, from an endless stream of ones and fives. And a guest who is too cheap to spare a couple bucks? Tomsky writes: “He shouldn’t use his toothbrush that night (or ever again, really).”

So when Tomsky, then a recent college graduate and college loan debtor, is offered a promotion to be a bellman or a manager, it’s not a straightforward decision. The bellman position pays much better for fewer hours. But his general manager frames the tradeoff in a memorable way:

(emphasis mine)

“I trust you, Tommy. I’m going to offer you a choice. You’re done with the front desk. I heard you’ve started to loosen up down there, started in with the jokes.”

“Oh, well, I hope I haven’t—”

“Not to worry. It’s natural. You’ve outgrown the position. So I’d like to offer you two opportunities. Whichever one you want is yours. As you are aware, there is a bellman position recently available. Extremely recently. It’s yours if you want it. You are fantastic with the guests. Or.”


“Housekeeping manager. Management, Tommy. Take over the evening position down there. You’d be in charge of turndown, scheduling, purchasing, and a thousand other things. A staff of 150.

“Let’s talk money. Housekeeping means ten-hour shifts or more, on salary. When you break it down hourly, you will make less than you are making now. You’ll have to purchase your own suits. The work is physically demanding, the staff is large and can be difficult. It’s a very challenging position. Bellman? You’ll double your money immediately and keep the eight-hour shifts. Zero responsibility.”

“You think I should take the bellman position?”

“Do that, and you’ll never be anything else in your life. Hate to say it, but it’s true. I’ve seen it my whole career: Show me a twenty-year-old kid getting his first job as a bellman, and I’ll show you a seventy-year-old bellman who started fifty years ago. You grow accustomed to that pay grade, and taking a step forward will always mean cutting your money in half. No one takes that step.”

“Housekeeping,” I said.

Not a bad lesson, for the hotel business or any business.

Excerpt via: Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality (non-affiliate link) by Jacob Tomsky (2012).

A relevant 2001 essay: “How to Correctly Tip a Bellman

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