The other day I was scanning my Twitter feed, and happened upon a Huffington Post blog entitled ’21 Things You Only Know If You’ve Worked in Hotels’. As blogs go, this was a particularly insightful and accurate one (despite the bad language), and now I am trying to sum up my hotel career in a blog post, the first of the 21 points discussed comes to mind as particularly relevant.
‘Much like prison, hospitality is far easier to get into than it is to leave.’
I have worked in my hotel for almost four years. Actually it is exactly three years and eleven months, and it’s hard to put into words how many things have happened, how much my legs have suffered and how many complete nutjobs I’ve encountered in that time. It’s fair to say I’ve felt this job was more like a prison sentence at times. Let me set the scene for you. Before I began my hospitality career, I worked in a music shop. A music shop is a world of boxes and dust and stickers, CD cases, old magazines and debates. It’s a world of faded denim and ripped t-shirts, tattoos and crazy hair styles. Most of all it is a world of music, music, music. When I worked there I had bright pink hair and a million piercings in my ears. I walked around with reels of stickers on my wrists, a pencil behind my ear. I spent hour after happy hour ruining my bright, glittery nails while flicking through endless racks of CDs and vinyl. My head would be full of the latest Springsteen album, or critiquing the new Ian Brown artwork. Your week could be made by finding an old deluxe Tom Waits album on sale, or a Gorillaz import that nobody else would have.
Then suddenly that world was over. I found myself thrust into a world where everything gleamed and sparkled clean, where men rushed around in suits, dragging briefcases on wheels. Where women wore heels and had heavy black credit cards. Where people smelled nice. It was a world that demanded my hair be a more natural brown colour, and where tattoos be covered up with blue catering plasters. The world of a five star hotel.
Up until this point, my main hospitality experiences consisted of a few nights in a West End Travelodge (for the record, one of the nicest hotels in London), Home Alone 2 and the Fawlty Towers box-set. My idea of a valet service was the £5 car cleaning thing my local petrol station did, and night shifts?? Well, once I’d worked until 10pm on a stock take……
As it turned out, John Cleese and co were actually valuable reference points for my new life as a hotel receptionist. It’s not that different. I began to question my new job about four minutes into my first shift when Gavin, the night manager, handed me a rape alarm, and told me not to worry, I’d probably never have to use it. Probably? What had I signed up for? By the time I had my first night time room service order, a few hours later, I was in tears. Wandering around the massive maze of a hotel, not knowing which floor I was on, or which room I was going to, arms dead from dragging a huge tray loaded with a half burnt, half frozen chicken tikka masala I’d attempted to make in the hotel’s huge, empty kitchen (no chefs after 10pm), I had pretty much decided I’d go on the dole. I left the tray in a corner, headed back to reception and tried to think of a reasonable explanation as to why the whole process had taken me over an hour, when it should have taken 20 minutes. As it turned out, that kind of stuff happens to everyone, and when I continued coming to the hotel instead of the job centre, I started to get the hang of it. I learned to check in properly, I learned how to deal with complaints, I learned the layout of the hotel. I even got over my fear of chicken tikka masala. Most of all, I learned to deal with drunk people. Drunk guests complaining because they think you moved their rooms, inebriated students trying to check in wearing nothing except giant nappies, party goers falling over, vomiting and trying to make you go clubbing with them. Alcohol does terrible things to people and night shifts gives you the full spectrum. It also gave me a huge admiration for housekeeping. I know I couldn’t clean up all that sick.
Eventually I switched to day shifts and left the world of finding drunk people sleeping outside their rooms. Now I was in a world of light, of sober people (well, some sober people), of more staff to talk to! I made friends, and began to appreciate having proper departments to do all the stuff that reception does on nights. Obviously it came with drawbacks, there were far more guests, but going to sleep at night and waking when the sun was up was a luxury that outweighed everything. Three years on, I still appreciate it!
But with more people came more complaining, The things people will find fault with in a hotel still astonishes me, and the way in which they deliver their complaints staggers me even more. I understood the lady who found an open box of Pringles in her minibar, I’d probably feel annoyed too. But would I launch the box at the poor receptionist who came to get it out of the goodness of her heart? I doubt it. I certainly would apologise if it hit her in the face (she didn’t). I didn’t know a thing about feng shui until one guest came to say that her room was channelling really bad energy. By the time I’d taken her to seven different rooms, I began to think the whole hotel was built to block the flow of positivity, and we both agreed she would just have to bare it for one night. We did what we could though and moved a few chairs around to help the situation. There was the man who stayed every week, ordered the same meal every single week (prawn salad), and complained every single week that there were too many prawns in it. There was the lady who demanded a reduction in her rate simply because she didn’t like the way the hotel was built. Of course, there are good guests too. I’ll always remember the group of elderly ladies who got completely drunk on wine in the bar while Public Enemy stayed with us, and started singing Welsh hymns with Flava Flav conducting the harmonies. There was a lady who bought me a chocolate lolly because I’d made her smile, and the nice regulars who come every week, have a gossip and laugh with you on the desk and never make a fuss. So many people, so many stories.
And so it continues. In my time on the front desk I built up a pretty thick skin, and now I’m pretty good at smiling and taking abuse that comes my way. You have to be. If you have worked in hospitality you’ll know how it is. How it becomes your life. Crazy shift hours mean that usually your social life takes a hit, and so your colleagues become your main group of friends. They understand your need to rant about VIPs, guests who refuse to leave a credit card and your latest argument with Housekeeping. They go through stuff with you. I could go a long, long way before I would meet someone like Jackie Jeanes again, one of the most lovely human beings on the planet, who was there for me unfailingly when I had a rough year. Whether I was standing by her on the front desk or travelling home on the bus, talking to her on Whatsapp, she was amazing, and gave me such good advice and support, I’ll never forget it. What about Pedro, who has the dirtiest laugh on the planet, and teaches us to salsa dance and points out every hot woman in a ten mile radius? Dessy, with her booming laugh and love of wine and sad books? Will, neurotic and culture obsessed, who still sends me music reviews, even though he lives in Canada now. Jean-Brice, my boss who I sometimes had differences with, but who is and probably will remain to be the best manager I had. And Seb. My Seb, crazy Polish boy on concierge, who entertained me for years with mad stories of his adventures, became my best friend and who is now my partner and owns my heart. However much I’ve hated my job, and struggled coming to work, dreamed of getting out of the hotel, however rubbish it was, I’d do it over and over if it meant I got him at the end of it. Cheesy maybe, but true. The list goes on. Again, so many people, so many stories.
And now it’s my last day. I don’t know how I feel about it. I can’t quite express how glad I am to have a new job and move on, but at the same time, the people I’ve met along the way, friends I’ve made, the situations I’ve found myself in that couldn’t possibly ever happen anywhere else (like, where else would you learn to never ask Leo Sayer for a credit card? Don’t by the way, it goes bad), I find myself feeling grateful for it. As much as I dwell on the negative stuff, I’ve actually had an amazing time. I know for sure that when I’ve had the ceremonial burning of my beaten up uniform, I’ve finally got rid of my float, and my feet have stopped throbbing, I’ll immediately start looking back at this period of my life with rose-tinted glasses, and I’ll miss it. So if you read this, and ever put up with my hotel-related rants, mood swings on the desk, and perpetual lateness (buses are a bitch) I’m sorry, and thank you.