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 shouldnâ€™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:
â€œI trust you, Tommy. Iâ€™m going to offer you a choice. Youâ€™re done with the front desk. I heard youâ€™ve started to loosen up down there, started in with the jokes.â€
â€œOh, well, I hope I havenâ€™tâ€”â€
â€œNot to worry. Itâ€™s natural. Youâ€™ve outgrown the position. So Iâ€™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. Itâ€™s yours if you want it. You are fantastic with the guests. Or.â€
â€œHousekeeping manager. Management, Tommy. Take over the evening position down there. Youâ€™d be in charge of turndown, scheduling, purchasing, and a thousand other things. A staff of 150.
â€œLetâ€™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. Youâ€™ll have to purchase your own suits. The work is physically demanding, the staff is large and can be difficult. Itâ€™s a very challenging position. Bellman? Youâ€™ll double your money immediately and keep the eight-hour shifts. Zero responsibility.â€
â€œYou think I should take the bellman position?â€
â€œDo that, and youâ€™ll never be anything else in your life. Hate to say it, but itâ€™s true. Iâ€™ve seen it my whole career: Show me a twenty-year-old kid getting his first job as a bellman, and Iâ€™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.â€
â€œHousekeeping,â€ 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”