Book Review: Heads in Beds: a Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality

I must admit I have been derelict in my responsibilities of sharing with our Community the wonderful learning I encounter when reading books that I find by merely browsing virtual and real bookstores. Although the recommended reads from our entire Book Club have nearly always lead to pleasant page turns – once in a great while I stumble upon an outlier and Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, by Jacob Tomsky is a 5-Star – belly busting – journey through the eyes of a front desk agent of 4 and 5 star properties. Tomsky writes about lodging like Greg Kyte writes about accounting. For the insiders and experienced travelers you’ll find the humor both funny and sick and you’ll never leave your toothbrush unlocked again nor will you ever turn down the opportunity to have a bellman schlep your bags to your room while you hand over your 1s, 5s, and 10s for the privilege.

Tomsky is a pseudonym as he is writing about real life and real people. He attempts to opaque the hotels where he has worked (albeit not overly opaque – just enough to keep the predator lawyers from preventing its publication). This is simply a joy to read. As a frequent guest, and one with my own set of horror stories and comic relief realities, I appreciated the frankness of Tomsky’s writing.

Tomsky begins in New Orleans after concluding that his recent Philosophy degree doesn’t provide easy career entry and figuring that any job was better than starvation, he begins working as a valet at a restaurant where he begins learning the hustles and ropes of true customer service. He also learns how detrimental negative leadership is (besides being a fun and enjoyable read about hotels, guests, and life and times a professional front desk agent – this book has some great lessons about the value of excellent leadership (aka the Ritz Carlton way) and the cancers created by toxic turds that focus on abuse of power and profits above customers and people).

After a short yet honest effort as the restaurant valet, Tomsky learns of a new 5 star hotel being renovated and about to be opened (pre-Katrina) in the heart of New Orleans and is hired as a valet. Here he learns about the value of Total Quality Service (TQS). At the new hotel, the entire pre-opening team is paid for two weeks, just for training in the hotel’s way of service. They have a pre-opening party and clearly the opening management team is dedicated to serving their customers beyond their expectations. When one of the valet’s inquires how that might happen, the instructor quips back and suggests he thinks about something that would be desired, appreciated, and yet unexpressed by the guest. The valet retorts, maybe a guest that arrives with a dirty car he would like his car washed and detailed and the instructor replies that is exactly the kind of service said was desirable. When the valet asked a follow-up by asking if he was “to drive the car over to his home in the 9th Ward, and wash/detail it there and drive it back”? the manager said, not only “Yes, but I’ll pay you extra for the service realizing you will have lost some tips while you were away”. Think about that – how are your team members thinking of providing service and would you back it up with your wallet?

Soon, our author is recognized as better than valet material and is offered a spot at the front desk as part of the “front of house”. Here he learns about systems and processes. Realizes why a bellman never retires (can’t handle the pay cut) – how to summon a bellman by yelling “front” and handing the keys to the bellman making the guest have to negotiate them back or be obliged to be served. He learns to remember names, preferences, and handle any sort of challenge. He works for caring leaders and management that actually support their entire team.

Tomsky reminds us that once a hotel opens it never closes and reminds the reader that you will generally never find a lock on the front doors of a luxury hotel. They can fail to be in business, but while in business they do not close. Tomsky notes that “hotels are methadone clinics for the travel addicted” – safe refuges from the insanity of being away from home.

Early on in his career as he was studying the hotel management program he noted that “….{it is} (A) strange thing to see a hotel translated into a program, every room and floor represented, every guest assigned a profile, rate, and requests. A portion of the work involved learning the room codes: NT = no tub. NC = no closet. SB = small bathroom. And here is a great one: Ne = near elevator. Or another guest favorite: NV = no view.” This level of understanding of the hotel’s capacity lead me to think about PKFs and how could we create such codes for our services, our team, and our customers. One I thought of was NF = No Future.

While learning how to balance 10 requests for 8 rooms with a view, Tomsky notes that “services is not about being up-front and honest. Service is about minimizing negatives and creating the illusion of perfection.” I must admit part of this perspective scares me but it certainly contains some wisdom.

My first indication this was a book Greg Kyte would appreciate is when learning that it is perfectly acceptable by the front desk to wipe out that in-room movie off your bill (along with mini-bar charges {I must admit that this doesn’t sit well with me but I appreciate the authority the front desk has for taking care of business and seeing that happy customers return}). As he is describing that he doesn’t really need the full story of the accidental movie click – he begins mid-sentence with a guest calling the front desk “Yeah , I’m in room 1205. I accidentally ordered a movie. Can you take it off my bill? “Certainly, sir”. Over to the movie console to cancel Asian Secretaries Rike it Rough (italics in original), two minutes and seven seconds into playback. I guess the opening credits were sufficient” (that last phrase is just so GK)

After a significant stint at the font desk and clearly demonstrating that his philosophy degree has provided a leg up on the others, Tomsky is offered his first opportunity into management where he is offered the assistant housekeeping manager position. This is clearly not for the faint of heart. He writes about the humorous and sad of housekeeping. The amount of work and coordination it takes to provide turn-down servicing while the guests are away, maintaining a clear hallway, and providing extra-ordinary service like it is just an everyday occurrence.

One thing the author is adamant about is that housekeepers do not steal. They are the first blamed when careless guests (frequently too drunk to remember being to frisky when they swept that diamond earring out of their ears playing some form of cat and mouse game awake the next morning and begin looking for their missing items. And you know what. I believe him. From his time in housekeeping it is clear that there is way more to what he refers to as the “heart of the house” then meets the eye of the common guest.

While standing hip deep in dirty sheet and towels in the bowels of the hotel, it hits him that it is time to leave and start a new journey. He leaves New Orleans for Europe where he spends his savings drinking and staring at the stars before he returns to the States and lands in New York City. Initially he applies for any job but one in the only industry he knows. And ultimately he applies at a 4 star NYC hotel as he is about to be evicted from his boarding house and again enters the life and times of a professional front desk agent. Here he is tested by the doorman for honesty, hustled by bellman, and begins again providing extraordinary service to commoners and celebrities alike. He learns the hustle of New York where he frequently explains that a $20 or $50 bill cleanly wrapped around your credit card as you check in will get you that ultimate upgrade if possible and will certainly provide ample dividends as a guest who understands the process.

When the venerable historic hotel is sold to a group of private equity trolls, life begins to unravel as the new owners short-change themselves as they chase a current dollar while the front desk is protecting the valuable thousands generated from loyal customers. Management is switched out. Massive controls from clamping down on complimentary items, goody bags, and common sense solutions all the way to switching out the knowledgeable security team, lead by retired NYC police officers that could direct any guest to their destination to an outsourced service that worked for $8/hour less but had no institutional knowledge. They just were currently cheaper. But at what cost.

There are too many great lines for this posting – however here is the ultimate recommendation. I thoroughly enjoyed this read. It took me three days to read and I haven’t laughed so deeply while reading a business book since the Clinton Administration. This is simply enjoyable. Pick it up. Learn some lessons in service and leadership. And whenever possible swap your firm or leadership for the hotel team or management and leverage the lessons that are so wonderfully illuminated throughout.


  1. Hi,
    It is a great pleasure reading that you posted here.

  2. Ted Waggoner says:

    Dan, Based on your comment I downloaded Heads in Beds. While much of it was disheartening (about the room cleaning procedures used, etc) it was a great study of the micro economy at work. Favors follow favors, and in a cash society the greater favor is more cash.

  3. Papo Tatuman says:

    Enjoyed the book greatly. Realized why i got that super upgrade at AC Borgata suite next door to heidi klum and seal. Always tip liberaly, best advice Sinatra ever gave! Also realized why i got hot keyed for not putting tne cell phone down at tbe AC Sheraton. Fair enough. BTW Bellevue = Le Parker Meridien in NYC. Sad to see when Starwood (sp) took over.


  1. […] Book Review — Heads in Beds:  A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality.  This synopsis from Dan Morris of the VeraSage Institute presents the book’s lessons on client service (figure out what clients what, then figure out how to meet and preferably exceed that) and leadership (especially when it comes to supporting staff’s efforts to deliver excellent client service). […]

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