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What the Hotel Industry Can Learn From “Heads in Beds” by Jacob Tomsky


Heads in Beds

I recently finished reading Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky. To be clear: I am not writing a standard book review. A book is going to have a different impact on every reader. I’d rather tell you what what the book meant to me, and to the hotel industry.

First, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed this hilarious and very readable book.

Now down to business. I think the hospitality industry is in dire need of books that put into perspective how hard people in the hotel business work. To make it appeal to a general audience, Tomsky has included all sorts of tips and tricks for getting upgrades, and a better deal on everything that you can imagine at a hotel. That is a great way to sell more books to the everyday reader/traveler. But as a hotel industry person, you have to look beyond the tips and tricks. There are some amazing insights here, particularly for folks who inhabit or are about to enter the world of hotel operations.

If you have ever worked in hotel operations in your lifetime, as I have, it’s almost impossible to dislike this book. The man (Jacob) lays it down the way it is, no matter what people tell themselves in order to sleep at night. I like that sort of brutal honesty in my reading.

Here are the top highlights of the book — beyond all the hustle, profanity, tips and tricks — that I think hotel owners and managers should pay attention to.

Don’t curb the enthusiasm!

There are a lot of people who start out in hotels (such as myself) with much, some might say, “unbridled enthusiasm.” A lot of times it’s our first job! The book opens with a very young Mr. Thomas who is working really hard (like there is any other entry kind of level job!).  But he is not just working for his paycheck.

Every hotel Human Resources professional and every department head should try their best to protect their enthusiastic, fresh, new employees from the jaded members of their workforce. Hospitality is about people. If your hotel staff comprises jaded and bitter senior-level staff, they will crush the young spirits. I have seen it and experienced it myself. Don’t let the Debbie Downers be in charge of training the youth. A few bitter dinosaurs can crush the passion that new hires bring with them.

The book also highlights something that has adorned the pages of so many business magazines: Employees don’t just leave their jobs for the money and better hours…It’s mostly the lack of appreciation that does it for them. Nasty “bosses” will always drive up the attrition rate for your organization. Hotels that have recently made money during the economic collapse of 2008 have awesome employees on board who dispensed much-needed encouragement to their teams.

Housekeeping is king.

It’s spectacular how the most important department in hotels is almost always an afterthought. Endless hours are spent discussing marketing, revenue, reputation, and even ridiculous things like… the revenue potential of social media for hotels. The answer to solving a ton of issues actually lies in improving and cultivating the housekeeping department. It was amazing how Jacob highlighted in his book the massive task that is cleaning a hotel and keeping it running. Nothing is more important to a guest checking into a hotel than a clean room. Why can’t that be the core focus for hotels? (That, and free high-speed Wi-Fi!) Paying your housekeeping staff well and treating them well can transform how your hotel guests write about you on review sites like TripAdvisor, what they tell their friends and family, etc. You solve a lot of your social, reputation, branding and revenue issues in one sweep (literally and figuratively).

Respect the front desk.

Jacob correctly pointed out that the front desk is the nerve center of the hotel. Getting the right team in place at your front desk will transform how your hotel operates. I have always been baffled by the fact that so many hotel operators refuse to look for the right information in their biggest human database of guest information — their front desk. Marketing companies will sell you an “e-CRM” for whatever money you’d like to spend on it. Nothing replaces the depth and accuracy of the experienced front desk operations staff.  They can tell you a lot about your hotel, its guests, what’s important to them, and what would transform the guest experience. A huge focus on marketing, without doing the right research at the operational level, is why so many marketing plans fail/backfire. I have often said, “The front desk is where the best laid hotel marketing plans go to die.”

Don’t burn people for profits.

There are hotel owners and there are hotel operators. This is the first book I have read that highlights the dark side of some of the private equity groups in the hotel industry. There are some wonderful groups out there that have a hospitality focus.  Jacob’s book highlights some funds that would be as happy running a public storage facility as they are running a hotel. People simply don’t matter to them.

The truth is that the ‘slash and burn’ approach of massive cutbacks reaps excellent returns in the short term. These owners optimize and flip assets like nobody’s business.

In the long term, losing good staff is never good. It was great to see the author’s example of the additional revenue a smart front desk agent can deliver versus a low-wage dud. Sadly, short-term gains are the mantra of a lot of private equity firms. The author’s hotel fell victim to such a takeover, and it’s stunning to read about the lives this ruthless ‘trimming of the proverbial fat’ impacts. Having smart people and paying them a worthy wage is always more profitable than replacing good employees with below-average, low-cost hires.

Another really amusing thing for me was the whole idea of turning a classic hotel “boutique.” Apparently, turning the hotel lobby into a shady nightclub makes it boutique. How many hotels in how many cities (especially Manhattan) have fallen to these “boutiquification” (maybe I should trademark this word) misadventures?

The Fallout

A lot of hotel folks I know were pretty upset about the portrayal of the industry in this book. I heard a lot of “how dare he say that” and “OMG, that’s not how we operate.” These people obviously work in some dimension of the industry that is not accessible to common folks like us. Maybe they exclusively worked in sales and marketing — conveniently removed from the realities of actually running a hotel. Jacob does not put the hotel industry down like many have said. He is not a bitter guy, just a normal guy who went on a hospitality adventure and was bold enough to write about what he experienced.

I think he almost romanticizes the popular notion in the industry that “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.” (For you kids reading this, it’s a band called The Eagles.) Once you get into hotels, it’s hard to ever check out!

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