Worlds & Time

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Working in a Hotel

I got into hotels by default. Hotels hire people for summer positions and I was looking for a summer job. Soon, I found that all of my experience was in hotels, so now that I'm on my own and looking for work, I gravitate toward the places with which I have experience.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love the place where I currently work. If I could get into management here, I would probably stay here for years.

The problem is, almost all of the other people here are also in love with this place. And they should be. It pays decently (although, what place in town doesn't?) and people really know each other here. Because it's a well known and long term hotel, the people treat each other like family.

My problem is, there is almost no turnover whatsoever. This is a fantastic thing for the hotel because it means that they always have trained people for the positions, but for me it means that there probably won't be a managerial position open for years, and even if there is, they'll probably have a long term assistant manager ready to step up.

Aside from the place where I currently work (and one other example), I've come to realize that hotels aren't really an attractive option for employment.

First off, most of them don't pay well. Back at my old job, where I was the head of my department (not a manager, basically just a supervisor) I made about as much as the entry level at my current job.

Santa Fe has a city wide minimum wage that is the primary reason for this, but I also work at a fairly nice place. If they could get away with it though, they'd probably pay me about a dollar less an hour (about $8.50/hr).

Most hotel jobs are minimum wage, and they don't increase substantially over time unless you go into management. Most of the people that I know that have made hotel jobs long time commitments have had to work second jobs to make ends meet. It's hard to make hotels a full time career.

Why do they pay so low? Because there are so many hotels looking for so many workers. The skill sets aren't difficult to find. For the Front Desk and other areas that require interaction with a guest, you're looking for people that can speak English, count to one hundred, that can learn a computer or phone system, and lie convincingly. For the back end of the house (kitchen, housekeeping, maintenance) you need someone that can speak Spanish, a few words of English, lift at least twenty five pounds repeatedly, and follow simple commands.

In the two and a half years that I worked at my last job, I was one of the ten oldest workers in the front office. Turn over is usually extremely high at hotels. If you have an employee that's not quite right, for any reason, you can just get rid of them. New Mexico is an at will employment state, and so you don't have to provide a fired employee with a reason for firing them. That means that if you have an employee that complains too often, or makes too many suggestions, or is short with a guest, you can put them out the door without a hassle.

That person that you've fired will be able to find another job within a week, and you'll be able to find someone to replace them within a few days probably, considering that other hotels will be putting other employees out the door as well.

And with a fairly low unemployment, there are lots of people in the United States looking for jobs with low qualification bars, and hotels certainly qualify in that regard.

Just two things about the skills you need to work in a hotel: First, the technical skills are industry specific, and even then, there isn't a industry standard. If you transfer between different chains (or sometimes even individual hotels in the same chain) you'll still have to learn new software for managing the property, and most jobs in the hotel revolve around that system. Whenever you check into a hotel or check out and pay your bill, that is all a manipulation of the property management computer system, and so the jobs of your front desk employees will completely revolve around that system. That means that no matter who you hire, most people will need very specific training in the computer system that you're using. Ironically, this doesn't help them retain their position. They can't take those skills elsewhere because they'll still need to learn another system. Even in chains, the differences between properties are significant.

Second, it takes a special kind of person to work in a hotel. A very special person that can lie all the time. Unfortunately, that doesn't show up during an interview and it probably doesn't show up in the twenty minute psychological profiles that some hotel chains (Hyatt is the only one that springs to mind at the moment) are using now during the application process. Eventually the lying and the constant complaints from guests that you can't solve and the indifference of your managers gets to you. It's frustrating, and it doesn't get better.

I think that's the second time that I've mentioned the lies. Hotel workers lie to you. Selling a hotel room is like selling a car. You try to sell the room (which is going to sit there occupied or unoccupied anyway) for as much as you can get. The actual "cost" of a hotel room varies (especially per star/diamond level) but in the hotels that I've worked for I've learned the cost ranges between $35 (low 3 stars) and $65 (mid 4 stars). I'm sure the Loews Miami Beach Hotel was around $200/night. That cost includes things like:
  • The hotel's mortgage (and they have huge ones, trust me, probably between 40k and 200k a month, depending on the hotel).
  • The hotel's franchise fee (if they have one) (it was about $20,000/mo at the Marriott, if I recall correctly).
  • Salaries for front desk, bellmen, concierge, housekeeping, maintenance, accountants, restaurant & kitchen staff, reservations, sales, and management (maybe 100-150k a month for a hundred or so employees at a 4 star hotel).
  • Beds, mattresses, sheets, blankets, pillows, toilets, televisions, desks, lamps, chairs, and all of the other things you'll find in a standard hotel room, plus sofas for suites.
  • What it costs in materials to supply the room with miniature shampoos, chocolates, and other consumables (mini-bars!).
  • Computers, paper, printer toner, pens, uniforms for front desk, sales, housekeeping, maintenance and management.
  • Hammers, nails, wrenches, and light bulbs for maintenance.
  • Scrubbing brushes, soap, laundry detergent for housekeeping.
  • Et cetera.
Don't bother calling up a hotel and telling them that some hotel "insider" told you what the actual cost was and that you want a hotel room for that much. They'll laugh at you. Not even hotel employees get rooms that cheap.

See, hotels have vacancies, and even when one of these rooms is sitting empty, it still costs that much money per day (except in consumables, and that's the least expensive entry on that list). If a hotel operates at 95% occupancy (like the Loews did), that means that it is making mostly profit on anything it charges over that $200 per night it costs per room. If your hotel runs between 70 and 80% occupancy, then you suddenly have an additional 20-30% expense on the rooms you do sell.

If, like most hotels, you run barely on that 70% or lower for most of the year, each one of the rooms that you sell costs twice as much to you. If the room costs $40 per night, you need to sell it for at least $80 per night to make any money off of it. It doesn't make sense to sell them at a loss, even if you get lot of rooms sold by bulk, so you list a "rack rate" on it, which is your actual cost per room x3.5 That $40 per night room is now $140 per night. Then you offer discounts, like AARP or AAA or for a long stay (or those disgusting Entertainment discount coupons that offer 50%. Yes, they're worth it, and we hate them. Hotels accept them as cheap advertising, but they will do anything not to actually have to honor that rate because they probably lose money on them). These discounts will bring the price down about 10% per discount. That way, the hotel can offer you a room at about two times the cost per night, and it will still seem like a great deal because that's about a third off the list price.

But if you are paying attention, that means that the "quoted" room rate for a room that costs $40 is $140, and some people are going to pay that price. Some people are only going to have one discount, and some people will only have two. People are going to be paying different rates, and I haven't even touched on the occupancy part of the equation where the dragons of supply and demand live.

So, the chances are, when you walk up to a person at the front desk of a hotel (or call reservations, for that matter) and you ask them what the best price they have for a room is, they're going to quote you $110 for a $140 hotel room. This is probably still a lie, but it won't be an egregious lie. That's a reasonable rate. You might be able to get them down to $100 if you're convincing, but that isn't very likely, and once you hit the bottom bar that employee isn't going to budge any more. Take a hint, at a certain point, that front desk person can't just "knock 5 dollars off."

If you were wondering, hotel employees and their families are only allowed to take rooms on nights with less than 60% occupancy, they have to book about two weeks in advance, and they pay slightly above cost ($45-55 probably in our ongoing example of a $140 hotel room). The hotel would lose money on this kind of sale if they did it all of the time, but once in a while it's okay, especially if you aren't going to be sold out anyway.

(Note: I was going to launch into a detailed description of how price and occupancy correlate, but you know what? That's a subject by itself, so it will eventually get it's own post. Back on topic: Hotel employees lying.)

Hotel employees have to lie about other stuff too. What the state of the rooms or hotel is a another big one. What do you expect me to tell you, that our rooms haven't been redecorated since Regan was President or the hotel is in such disrepair that this one time the roof of the hotel collapsed? (I've worked at both of those hotels in the past, incidentally. Ask me about the Maxim photo shoot sometime.) Where their managers are is the third most common lie that I recall. Most complaints are going to be handled by lower level staff members, especially if you turn into a bastard about it.

As a guest that doesn't want to be lied too, don't ask about the history of the hotel. The most honest answer is "I don't know," but you'll rarely hear that. Interestingly, I've found that most people will believe anything you tell them about the hotel history as long as you don't include fairies and gnomes. I can tell people about the hanging, assassinations, prostitution, and secret tunnels in the hotel, and the only part of that that's true is the hanging.

Anyway, the lying gets to me after a while because it's very prevalent. I couldn't lie with a straight face before working in a hotel. Now I can. Doing it consistently wears on you, and you need to be able to do it cheerfully at any time.

They don't pay us well enough to lie convincingly for 8 hours a day, but then again, I don't think many chains have figured out how to test for the personalities required to be cheerful even though you know you'll be selling crap all of the time. Especially, but not limited to, the hourly employees because they don't get paid enough for that. I suspect the managers do.

Here's a tangential story about one of my General Managers lying:

I once had this General Manager (GM). When I was in training, he came in and talked with the new front desk people. He greeted us and then with a wistful look in his eye he told us that twenty some odd years ago he had started off working as a bellmen in a hotel, had worked his way up through the front desk, and was now general manager. Although one of the women in the room was about his age and starting a minimum wage position, the moral of the story was clear: one day, even we could eventually reach the rank of general manager. All we had to do was work our way up to it.

About a year passed, and one day I was listening to two maintenance workers talking. I made some quip about how the GM was out of touch with the workers, and one of the maintenance guys said: "I think he listens to us. Maybe that's just because he started off in maintenance though."

I stopped him, and backed him up. The GM had started in maintenance? The maintenance guy assured me that he had. The GM had come by one of the maintenance department meetings and told him a story about how he had started off as a painter, worked a few years in maintenance, and eventually gone into management.

This GM, incidentally, was so technologically inept that he couldn't figure out how to print reports from his computer, so he demanded that the daily reports be placed in his box every morning. Even if finding it on the computer was the first command he should have learned. Even though his computer login controlled the system, his password for more than a year was "Coach," just like the nickname that he insisted that we called him.

As you can imagine, I was intrigued by the conflicting stories, so I asked around.

It turned out, the restaurant staff had been told a story in which the GM had started off as a busser in a hotel restaurant, worked his way up and eventually became GM at our hotel.

None of the people in banquets (turn-over is highest in the banquet department) had heard the story first hand, but at least two of them were under the impression that he had started in the banquet department.

One day I was sitting in HR for some reason, talking about the manager training program, and I finally asked the HR director about the GM's background.

"Oh, he went to college, graduated with a business degree, and went right into hotel management."

Yeah, that sounded about right. You'll notice that the lie was a little bit helpful. It served to encourage and motivate the employees. Was it true though? Not a whit. I can't believe he got away with it. The other managers must have known about the prevarication on the part of the GM.

Now, in management at a hotel like where I work now, or in any four or good three star hotel, you'll probably make a comfortable living as a manager. Except you won't get overtime since you're a manager and they'll still expect you there for at least 60 hours a week, and that isn't including special events and mandatory morning and evening meetings. Don't expect a regular schedule either. This isn't a 9-5 M-F job for anyone except the accountants and the General Manager.

So, to sum up this point: hotel workers lie to you. That's their job. They will still honestly do their best to help you out, but something things are beyond their ability to fix. If we're sold out, we can't even shift your room around to fix these things, they're usually fixed by management by the time you arrive. Please don't get angry at them. It's their job. They don't have much of a choice in the matter.

Of course, those people that do usually get angry probably aren't go to read this, and I'm sure others are going to feel used and abused because you're being lied to. There's nothing that I can say to make you feel less angry except point out that people lie to us every single day about being AAA members, AARP age, military or government workers, or even that they "stay here all the time and I should get a better rate." Are you one of those people?

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  • Oh hotels. I feel SO LIBERATED. You should really try to get into Borders...the Sanbusco one. You would LOVE it, and I'm not sure but I think they start around 9 or 10 in SF. I'll give you a good reference.

    By Blogger Ashley, at 6:56 PM  

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