Monday, December 31, 2012

(No.224) "Heads in Beds": hotels & travel reality

"HEADS IN BEDS": an insider's expert advice for travellers about hotels

by Alastair Rickard

Jacob Tomsky, a university graduate with a philosophy degree and no prospects of employment, found a job working in a large new hotel. He has now worked for more than a decade in various hotel jobs particularly in front office roles.

Tomsky has now written a recently published book entitled "Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels. Hustles, and so-called Hospitality" (Doubleday, 2012). It is partly the story of his life working in the hotel business and partly the giving of an insider's expert advice about hotels and the hotel business.

From reading this book the hotel client will learn far more about the reality of being a hotel guest, using a hotel, taking advantage of a hotel and being taken advantage of than from a decade of reading the weekly Travel Sections of, say, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star combined. Having read both papers for many years I can't recall either publishing a Travel Section hotel review that wasn't positive, certainly not one that was frankly and negatively critical. The reasons for this I will deal with elsewhere, including why this is the standard in newspaper travel articles with too rare exceptions.

Tomsky's hotel experience has all been in the U.S., mainly in a major New York City hotel. However the Canadian reader will still learn a great deal about booking a hotel room effectively, checking in, being a guest who enjoys her stay, and so on.

As a longtime traveller for both business and pleasure I think Tomsky's comments and advice offer verisimilitude. They not only reflect my own experience and lessons learned (plus a great deal more I didn't know) but provide an insider's explanation of why.

I have long preferred whenever possible and practical to deal directly myself -- when booking --  with travel providers, whether they are airlines or hotels or cruise lines. Tomsky's comments about the way in which Internet  travel agencies like Expedia, Travelocity, et al operate vis-a-vis hotels reinforce my own preferences and will be an eye opener for many travellers. They explain much.

For example, Tomsky explains that in a hotel "the worst rooms are given to very specific guests for very specific reasons. There are larger factors, such as being part of a huge faceless group, that make a guest more likely to receive one of the poorer rooms. Reservations made through Internet discount sites are almost always slated for our worst rooms. ... why? ... we cull the least amount of profit from these reservations. ...  The guest pays the Internet site a specific rate and then the hotel charges the Internet company an even lower rate. ... So less profit [for the hotel] equals less priority. ...

"So, since we have no reason to assume Internet guests will ever book with us again, unless our discount is presented to them, it truly makes business sense to save our best rooms for guests who book here [directly] of their own volition. And there is always, always a better room."

Based  on my experience over the years, particularly if I am booking a room in a hotel with which I am unfamiliar, I try to talk to a staffer in that hotel unless I have access to a highly knowlegeable concierge service like the one provided by Fairmont Hotels. I have been stung by assurances provided by a hotel chain reservation call centre on some point I have raised only to discover on arrival at the hotel that what I was told was wrong or misguided.

Tomsky explains why this can happen: "Outside [Internet travel] agencies know absolutely nothing about specific properties. In fact, even if it's a large [hotel] chain, it will have 'central reservations' which is some remote desk in India or Canada, and the agents there generate reservations for more than five hundred properties ... they will never, ever see. Certainly the [reservations computer] system lists the features ... but it is fallible. If you  truly want to know what you booked and what that means, you have to call the property itself."

When was the last time you read a really useful and candid review of a hotel in a newspaper or a 'travel' magazine? Probably not for a long time unless you read the New York Times.


A major reason is that the 'travel' articles about hotels and resorts (among other aspects of travel) are often if not mainly written by people whose stays have been paid for by the hotels or city tourist offices or other financially interested parties. Such logrolling by travel article writing freelancers and even publications' own journalistic staff is prohibited by the New York Times in its code of ethics, but by few others.

Sometimes a newspaper will allude to the inherent bias of such perks and payments to article writers by inserting a cryptic word or two at the end of a travel article relying on euphemisms like 'assistance' or 'subsidy' -- but often not. For the newspaper the bonus from such a 'journalistic' arrangement is clear -- lower costs. But such articles are too often little more than thinly disguised promotional pieces, and why not? What hotel or resort or airline  or tourist office or other interested party is going to pay someone's travel expenses to write other than positive articles?

Even major newspapers are so anxious to cut their costs and attract and please travel advertisers that the reader is most unlikely to read anything in them in the form of useful warnings that this or that hotel or resort is over-priced or inadequate or a place to avoid -- and why. The glossy travel magazines which populate newstands are in the main little more than uncritical platforms for ads from various travel-related interests.

Such realities make the candid and informed commentary provided in "Heads in Beds" by hotel business insider Jacob Tomsky a welcome and helpful bit of counterbalance to the usual gushing of the travel media.




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