How hard could it be to run a hotel? It's all just folding towels and changing the sheets, right? When you scale that up to include hundreds of rooms with guests coming and going every day of the week, the management of resources -- both the workforce and the linens -- can become quite chaotic.
To learn more about what it's like to run a hotel, we spoke with a young manager in Louisiana who quite literally started as a valet and worked his way up.
Tell us a little about yourself and your experience.
I'm in my late twenties and I work at a major 150+ room hotel in a major city in Louisiana. My official title is "Operations Manager". I've been working in hotels since 2007, first as a valet and bellman for two years at a 200 room corporately-owned resort in coastal Alabama, then at the front desk at a smaller independent hotel. After that I was a front desk agent at a 300-room corporate hotel in Dallas where I was promoted to front desk manager, and finally I moved to Louisiana a year ago. I started at my current hotel as front desk manager and was promoted to Operations Manager in a couple of months. I've been at this hotel for one year.
What drove you to choose your career path?
Nothing drove me to this career path except a need for beer money, at first. I lived with my parents at the time, when I started working at my first hotel as a valet parking attendant, and I've stayed working at hotels ever since because you meet a lot of interesting people all the time. That's my number one reason why I've continued to work in hotels. You meet some amazing people. It's never boring at a hotel in a city or a vacation resort.
Even if you don't see yourself having a career in hospitality, hotels provide opportunities to network with people from all walks of life, who work in every possible field and who can possibly help you get your foot in the door at your dream job. The nature of the business is that there are always people checking out and new people checking in. I've learned that I really thrive in a fast paced environment where you need to make snap judgements and take action on the fly. I've also learned that if you want to be successful in a hotel career, you need to have a strong sense of professionalism, a willingness to go above and beyond to provide excellent service, and an ability to anticipate the needs of people. These things come easily to me.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
To get my first hotel job I just walked in and applied. It's easy to get an entry-level position. To be an Operations Manager, you usually need a bachelor's degree in Hospitality Management/Business or, like me, a beastly work ethic, willingness to go above and beyond expectations, work long hours, and volunteer to take on tasks around the hotel that go outside of your job description.
What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
I spend the majority of my time supervising staff in different departments and making sure that everything is ready for guests to check in. Imagine you're throwing a dinner party at your house. Before the party, you probably meticulously clean, make sure you have towels in the bathroom, and make sure you have enough food and drinks for all your friends and guests. You also have to consider that everyone has different tastes and preferences so you probably want to get a variety. You also make sure the house smells and looks great and has a welcoming vibe because you want to make the best possible impression, right? Then your guests arrive and you want to make sure everyone's happy, comfortable, and having a good time. At the same time you have to make sure that dinner is ready on time. If you run out of ice or dip, you may have to run down to the corner store to get more. Once the party is over and your guests have gone home you have to clean up the mess. Maybe somebody had a bit too much to drink or is just an arsehole and broke one of your lamps and puked in your bathroom, or took home your favourite pillow without telling you, or there's mud tracked on the carpet. It's the worst part of throwing a party but it's gotta be done. Now, imagine repeating that process every single day and your house has 100+ bedrooms and you have 200 guests and they're all spending the night and they want breakfast in the morning too. That's what running a hotel is like.
On top of all that I have to make sure my staff is happy because they are just as important as the guests. If you check in to a hotel with an unhappy staff, it shows. So I have to make sure everyone communicates any problems or opinions; that includes daily meetings with the managers of every department. I can't do all of this stuff by myself so I have to train all the employees to think like I think, as well as make sure they have all the tools they need to do their jobs.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
The two biggest misconceptions I think people have about hotels are, first, that every hotel secretly keeps one or two rooms on reserve just in case President Obama or Kanye West suddenly and unexpectedly shows up. This is not true. Most hotels never do this because they preferably want every room rented every single night. It's more expensive to have a room sitting empty than to have someone renting it. I have had people stand at the front desk when I was working on nights that we were 100% full and insist for five minutes that I have an empty room that I'm just not telling them about. So if a front desk person tells you that they have no rooms to rent, you should believe them because they're telling the truth.
The exception to this are rooms that are out of order; rooms can be put out of order and left empty for various reasons. Sometimes it's a major problem like a leaking ceiling or busted water pipe or there's no heat, and sometimes it's minor, like the tub was just re-caulked or the TV is broken. These rooms are negotiable. I will rent you a room with no TV or no shower for a discounted price usually, if you seem desperate, but not a room with a busted water pipe or no heat because I don't want to give you the opportunity to sue. So it doesn't hurt to ask about out of order rooms when a hotel is fully booked.
What are your average work hours?
My average work hours are six days a week, 12-16 hours a day. Hotels are a 24 hour a day, 365 day a year business. So I'm always on call in case of an emergency, unless I'm out of town.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
Well it helps to have the right attitude and very thick skin. If you're easily offended or shy or have anger management issues or you're impatient, this probably isn't the industry for you. (The exception being cooks and chefs -- the best ones are always pissed off all the time, in my experience.) A lot of people can be rude, disrespectful, demanding, and sometimes just plain insane. You interact with many of these people on any given day, and it can wear you down easily if you don't have thick skin. I used to let those people get to me and as a result I was a very unhappy, but I've learned to just let it slide, and my job is much easier now. You have to realise that people's problems with hotels have nothing to do with you personally 99% of the time, so it's ridiculous to take it personally, and everything can be fixed one way or another.
Countless times I've had guests up in my face screaming and even occasionally threatening violence because of something somebody else did or something totally out of my control, but I stayed cool and just listened to them, let them know that I was listening, and eventually they calmed down too. On the other hand, I had an employee once who worked the overnight shift who was always on edge; if somebody got mad he would get mad too and argue with them. If they screamed he would start screaming too. Eventually we had to let him go because he had horrible people skills and we were getting tons of complaints. Even if a guest is wrong and you know it, it's not your job to prove them wrong. It's your job to flip the situation and make them happy so they have a great experience and they tell all their friends what a great time they had at our hotel. So a thick skin and a positive, zen like attitude.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession?
Some operations managers like to sit back in their office all day, communicating with employees with a radio, hiding from the real happenings in the "front of house", or trying to do everything themselves -- or waiting for problems to happen and then panicking to resolve them. I worked front of house so that's where I like to be. I'm either standing at the front desk greeting guests as they arrive, helping the front desk do check-ins, directing and motivating employees, walking around the hotel and inspecting every imaginable detail to prevent problems, and delegating tasks to the appropriate department whether it be maintenance, housekeeping or whoever.
I trust the managers of my departments and expect a lot from them and they know it. I'm not a bully about it, but they know if that they don't get it done I'm going to find someone who will. It's as simple as that. So I don't try to do everything myself. I'm talking to guests and listening to their opinions, good and bad, and I'm talking to my employees the same way. It's much easier to be nice to people and work with them and build relationships, trust, and loyalty, than it is to sit isolated in the back office ruling with an iron fist from an ivory tower. Sometimes I do have to sit in my office for a few hours, but most days I never stop moving.
What's the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
The worst part of my job is that it's a 24 hour-a-day, 365 day-a-year business. It does get tiring. Sometimes I just wish that we could lock the front door and unplug the phones for two days. You sacrifice time with your friends and family and/or you burn out and start to develop bad habits to cope, unless you're careful. The best way to deal with it in my experience is to actively seek a balanced life. It's easier sometimes than others. I have to remind myself to keep boundaries between home and work. I try to do relaxing things on my days off and since I trust my department managers, I know that sometimes I can turn off my phone and trust that the hotel will run fine without me.
What's the most enjoyable part of the job?
Best part of the job is all the characters that stay and work there. Occasionally a celebrity or band will stay with us and sometimes you'll get to witness their weird quirks and discover that they like exactly six pillows on the bed and need access to grape popsicles 24 hours a day. Or you can just tell the story that you met them and shook their hand. Either way it's satisfying. I also get free tickets to events and concerts all the time and free meals from awesome restaurants because they want you to promote them to your guests. The employee discount at any hotel in my chain isn't bad either. There's always something going on and new people to meet. It's really impossible to be bored and I'm not forced to stay in an office all day.
Do you have any advice for people who visit your hotel?
Please try to remember that you're not the only guest in the hotel and have some patience. Being nice and understanding will get you what you want much faster than being ugly to employees. We are trying our best, but there's a lot of people asking us for things all at the same time. Also, don't argue with front desk employees about your rate when there's a line of people behind you waiting to check in. That front desk agent has no power to change your rate and you're pissing off everyone in the lobby. Just keep moving, and when it gets slow, ask to speak to a manager.
How do you move up in your field?
It can be very cutthroat, politically speaking, at most hotels I've worked for. At some places you can move up by being related to the owners or throwing your coworkers under the bus. I moved up by having a no BS policy and being hardworking, reliable, persistent, respectful, professional and willing to volunteer for tasks that are outside of my job description. I've always been willing to help the housekeepers make beds, do laundry, mop up a spill, clean the pool, change a lightbulb or anything as long as it serves the best interest of the hotel. It's a longer road than some other ways of moving up but it's more satisfying.
What do your customers under/over value?
Hotel customers (or "guests" as they're called in the industry) undervalue how hard we are working to make you as comfortable and happy as possible. With few exceptions, any problems that occur are not intentional. If you have a concern or a problem, please bring it up to a manager. We have a lot of responsibilities and we're not mind readers, despite how hard we try to be. We will do our best to fix your problem and make you happy. That's our job. Please don't just hold on to a problem or concern and then vent about it on a review website. Those reviews on Travelocity, Priceline, and Yelp, etc. have a huge effect on business nowadays. They affect real people's jobs and lives. I promise if you have a problem and you let us know about it before you check out, we will do everything we can to make you happy. Also, don't lie and don't make up non-existent problems to try and get a room discount. You will piss us off and we'll remember you.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
It's not for everyone. Some people don't want to or can't deal with the people and problems and the stress I deal with every day. That's ok. The hours do suck and some people are jerks, but on days when it's all running like a well-oiled machine and everyone's smiling and having a great time working here, it can feel like a big party. As long as you have a great attitude that spreads to everyone else around you -- that really is the key.
Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about -- from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.