A Q&A with Jacob Tomsky, Author of ‘Heads in Beds’

Here’s a roguish trick to try the next time you check into a hotel: Ask for a nonsmoking room due to severe allergies, refuse luggage help from a bellhop, go up to the room, empty out the minibar, fire up a cigarette, finish it, call the front desk to complain about the intense smell of smoke, get new keys, lay down on the fresh bed, and polish off the small bottles of booze and salty snacks. It’s on the house. The items won’t be billed to you. Moving rooms in the system on the same day you arrive leaves no confirmation that you ever checked in, no trace that you looted the fridge. Bottoms up!

This not-exactly-ethical advice comes from Jacob Tomsky author of "Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality". He’s a veteran of the hotel industry, having worked his way from the parking garage to management, soaking up the ins-and-outs of hospitality with every step up the ladder. "Heads in Beds" is an eye-opening look behind the curtain, knee-deep in the down-and-dirty insider muck about what goes on in hotel rooms. (Like you don’t know already.)

These days, Tomsky, 34, lives in Brooklyn following his literary muse, but that doesn’t mean he’s done with the hotel game. He says he “misses serving people.” In following well-rounded conversation, he serves up his thoughts on the importance of illicit sex, the frequency of in-room death, the beauty of Times Square, and why housekeepers deserve your respect, not too mention your tips.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “The great advantage of a hotel is that it is a refuge from home life,” all the more so if you bring a copy of "Heads in Beds."

Before we get into the hotel business, let’s talk about writing. When did you start?

There was a stretch in high school when I was ostracized from my peer group, and I just started reading novel after novel, the classics and everything in between. It started with reading, but it wasn’t until my freshmen year of college, after a friend told me he wanted to be a writer. I’d never considered that was something I could do. When he said that, I realized I didn’t need anyone’s permission and I started writing short stories.

When did you first consider writing as a career?

After I quit my job at the River Hotel in New Orleans and moved to Europe. I knew that writing was all I wanted to do with my life and if I had continued working at the hotel and moving up the chain, I never would have focused on my work. Looking back, I’m not sure if it was the right way to go, but I took all of my savings and moved to Paris. I felt that with no friends and no job, in a foreign city where I didn’t speak the language, I would be able to find out if I had what it takes. I wrote for six months in Paris, then moved to Copenhagen for the rest of the year. I wrote a few novels, but I never concerned myself with getting published. It was all about the craft. I didn’t have any success whatsoever. After the "Heads in Beds" contract, I wrote an Op-Ed regarding the Dominique Strauss-Kahn incident. Insanely, the first words I ever had published were in The New York Times.

How has working in hotels affected your writing?

I write literary fiction, which is also what I read, and I think there are traces of it in "Heads in Beds." There’s a focus on scene, storytelling, and dialogue, all the things that make fiction wonderful. There’s a long paragraph in which I list and describe everything on Bourbon Street and that was lifted from a novel I’d written about New Orleans. It's somewhat of an ode to Thomas Wolfe and his long lengthy lists.

Did you ever consider doing a fictional story of a hotel?

I spent all of my money-earning hours in hotels, so they seeped into my fiction. The three novels I wrote that I consider completed all have some aspect of it, the third one is told from the perspective of a man who works at a hotel. It’s always present in some way.

You’ve moved around a lot -- New Orleans, Paris, New York -- did you intentionally choose literary cities?

New Orleans was happenstance. I had a bad scene with a girlfriend, and a friend was moving there for college, so I just went with him. That was random, but I was lucky because it’s such a great writer's town. Paris was when I made the full-time commitment and that was intentional, the whole history of ex-pats living and working there, seemed like a tried-and-true method. When the money ran out and I moved back to the U.S., I chose New York because it’s the hub. I tried to get a job in the publishing industry, to work from the inside-out, meet people, make contacts, see how its done, get my writing out that way. I ended up back in the hotel industry, but eight years later, the reasoning paid off.

How did "Heads in Beds" come together?

I didn’t think of the idea too early on in my career, which I’m glad about, because I wouldn’t have gone as far as I did in hotels. I learned every aspect of the business. There was a moment when it hit me, “Oh, of course this is a book you should write.” I wrote a proposal with a query letter and sent them off to two specific agents. I knew the idea was sellable, so I sent the package to the agents for Anthony Bourdain and Steve Dublanica, who wrote the book "Waiter Rant." A month later, Farley Chase took me on and he was instrumental in shaping the book. My original idea was more of a coffee table book with pictures of guests and a series of vignettes, like a photo of a random man “most likely to cheat on his wife” kind of thing. Chase told me we needed to turn it into a narrative. Funny that he had to tell a fiction writer the importance of story. We worked on the new proposal and sold it six months later.

Your hotel anecdotes would have been perfect for a blog, did you ever think about going that route before you even started writing a proposal?

I think it goes back to my youthful idealism of wanting to be published in the old-world method of having a book come out first. I never even sent out short stories. I wanted to walk in through the front door.

You mentioned Bourdain, was the insider-y behind-the-scenes approach in "Kitchen Confidential" an inspiration?

I was always a fiction reader, so I wasn’t all that familiar with the world of memoirs. When I undertook the "Heads in Beds" endeavor, I read a bunch. "Kitchen Confidential" is an incredible book and I definitely looked to it for structure. "Eat, Pray, Love" is another, I thought that book was amazing in the ways it tells a personal story. And the British book "Hotel Babylon," just to make sure I wasn’t writing my book in the same way. I like to think there’s some literary fiction influences, maybe a bit of the cynical whiny thing like in "Catcher in the Rye"? William Faulkner is my favorite writer and "Absalom, Absalom!" is my favorite book. Maybe a little of it is in there, through osmosis.

One thing that comes through in "Heads in Beds" is that people really do seem to think that anything goes, like hotels are ground zero for some illicit second life...

People tend to get very primal when they enter a hotel. It starts with the notion that for the first time, people have servants, so they can throw things on the floor. They’re not responsible for anything, so they revert to childhood, often screaming if they don’t get their way. There’s also an anonymity when you walk into a lobby. You can change your name. There is no other institution where you can call yourself whatever you want. There’s nobody monitoring who’s going in and out of the rooms, so guests can invite anybody they want inside. Guests can reinvent themselves every night. It’s one of the primary functions of the hotel. As an employee, especially at the front desk, it’s my job to protect and provide whatever the guest wants. It’s integral to the work.

What is the main thing people get wrong about the hotel industry?

I don’t think people realize the difficulty of the job from the employee’s perspective. Housekeeping is one of the hardest jobs in the world. Not only are you cleaning up other people’s messes, but it’s also physically grueling. Scrubbing, dragging sheets, making beds, it’s demanding. And it’s thankless, because when a guest enters a room it’s magically in order. The room is suppose to look like nobody has been in there, but someone was, a hard-working woman with a family who did the same thing to fourteen other rooms that day. People like to be served invisibly, but guests shouldn’t forget that they are actual human beings doing the serving.

With restaurants, there’s deference to the work of the chef, but it seems like at hotels there’s expectations that everything should be seamless at all times...

Hotels are different than restaurants because there’s no art to it. Done right, a hotel doesn’t call attention to itself, and there are many employees who make that happen. You may have a great interaction with the front desk person, but it’s not the same as with a great chef. A restaurant provides a meal. At a hotel, it’s living life. Guests assume and expect everything to be perfect and there’s not really that single figurehead that they can complain to, or thank. A lot of guests enter the building with “air rage” from the flight, or anger from the hassle of traffic, and the lobby is the first place they can regain control. Nothing they can do on a tarmac, but at the hotel they can demand things and become gods again.

You advocate handing out money to grease wheels at the outset, who should get $20 and what will that buy someone?

Almost every job in the hotel is already tipped, from the bellman who helps with luggage to the concierge who makes a reservation, so I am talking about a gratuity for one of the few non-tipped positions. Give money to the front desk agent; it will go a lot farther because it isn’t expected. Front desk agents have the power in choosing what room you’ll get and what the hotel can and cannot offer, like say, late checkout. It’s not a science or a guaranteed upgrade, but it’s a kind thing to do, and there are all sorts of ways a front desk agent can help out.

Right, because an unused bed can never be reclaimed, so there’s a lot of wiggle room in where guests spend the night, correct?

Exactly. People may not realize that there’s a whole host of different-sized rooms. Sometimes, economy rooms get oversold so the hotel has to upgrade guests, but either way, it doesn’t cost the hotel that much more. If it costs $40 in labor to take care of a $300-a-night room, it’s probably not much more than $60 to handle the $10,000-a-night room. That’s why the front desk relationship is so important.

For lack of a better term, there’s been a rash of “hipster” hotels opening up in big cities. Is this here to stay? They can’t build them fast enough in Brooklyn...

(Laughs) I know, I was offered a general manager position at one of them. Hotels are always trying to serve the style of the day and the culture of their city. Right now, it’s cool to have a record player and a lending library of LPs, but the old-school stately luxury brands like Ritz-Carlton are permanent. That’s the anchor of the business. Everything else changes. There has been a rise in slick stylish edgy hotels, but it may be different in ten years.

It seems in the last few years that hotels have become places where young people hang out, is that the case?

It’s a bigger city thing, but hotels have become destinations for locals. It’s great for the hotel because we all know there is nothing more expensive than a hotel bar. It’s another example of reinvention, you can go to a hotel bar and be a stranger in your own town. I don’t understand it, I prefer cheap dives. Although, I do like hotel watering holes with history. I love Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle, one of my favorite spots in New York City.

Do all weekend guests have sex on the brain?

Hotels are very sexual places. It’s a new environment, a new bed, clean sheets that you don’t have to worry about. People get an immediate sexual charge because it’s a bedroom and it’s not yours. And of course, anyone can come in and out and the neighbors aren’t spying on you. It obviously happens during the week, but it’s more pronounced when the weekend clientele starts rolling in on Thursdays. It’s newlyweds, and people having affairs, and people getting prostitutes, and folks who meet at the hotel bar... There’s something in the air at hotels. No matter what you do behind closed doors, it’s erased. No matter what you do, it’s gone after check out, which leads to a lot of sexual experimentation.

Is there a twisted anecdote that didn’t make it into "Heads in Beds" that you’d like to share?

There’s one strange situation I heard from the head of security. A young kid from a wealthy family checked in, and later, security got a call from his father asking if they would look in to see if he’s alright. When they opened the door, he was completely naked and covered in blood. He had been slowly cutting himself, the blood was everywhere. All over the walls, carpet, and the television. His plan must have been to bleed out as slowly as possible. It was such a bad scene that police had to set up a crime scene in the room. The charges were $10,000. Fortunately, the young man survived.

I hadn’t considered how common deaths are in hotels...

It happens a lot. People commit suicide in hotels so their loved ones don’t have to find the body. It goes to the eraser characteristic, if you want to erase yourself from the world, you go to the place where you can erase yourself from society. Nobody knows your name. There’s also drug overdoses and murders. If hotel walls could give out statistics, I feel like the percentage that have had a death in them would be shockingly high.

On a more positive note, do you get a lot of people in New York where this visit is a trip of the lifetime and the hotel plays a key part?

That’s the part of the job that’s kept me enamored of New York City. Locals are always saying they hate Times Square and never go, but I love walking through there. Part of the reason is because I spent so many years working for people to whom Times Square is huge. It’s the centerpiece of what may be the best week of their lives. They’re going to Broadway shows, seeing a Yankees game, eating at great restaurants, and having amazing moments. As a hotelier, you get to be part of that, to influence it, and to help them out. People spend their life savings just to stand in the lights of Times Square. Their excitement always keeps the city fresh to me.

Let’s play a quick game of “better or worse.” A large family that’s generally friendly but has a lot of moving parts, or a single businessman with a lot of complaints?

I’d say the family is better. I’d rather deal with them because the difficulties of having kids is understandable. In that scenario, they’d probably be on vacation and want to be happy. The businessman might spend half his life in hotels, so he doesn’t care about the stay. He’ll demand a lot and never say thank you. The family will be grateful, the businessman will roll his eyes, sigh, and shut the door in my face.

An A-list celebrity who wants to remain completely anonymous, or a B-list celebrity who wants attention?

An A-list celebrity might crave anonymity, but they also may have a million requests. A non-annoying B-lister who’s excited to be in New York because they just got their first movie or a television appearance? They’re my favorite celebrities. In ten years, you know they’ll have a thousand things on their housekeeping rider, but for now, I’d take the B-lister.

Professional athletes or big-time musicians?

Big time musicians are better. Professional athletes don’t ask for much, but they don’t deal with people either. They come in off a bus and go to their rooms. Musicians may be more demanding, but in general, they treated me better than athletes who were ruder and meaner. Musicians are cool.

Famous politicians or major business executives?

You rarely see politicians. It’s for their protection, so someone else deals with them. There’s additional security, so finding adjacent rooms is extra work, and there’s always other considerations. CEOs are going to stay in the nicest rooms, but they often want to assert their VIP-ness. There can be huge problems. I’ll take famous politicians who know they’re VIPs everywhere they go.

Hotel reviews, whether they’re from professionals or amateurs are generally based on one person’s experience over a night or two, which is idiosyncratic, and thus in a lot of ways, useless. How does one find out if a hotel is worthwhile?

Management looks at TripAdvisor as a forum for individuals. It’s the Yelp of the hotel world. I’ve been applauded and punished for things people have written on it, but had the guest walked in five minutes later and gotten another desk agent, it could have been a completely different stay. Hotels are about service, not the building. It’s hard to have complete consistency. People should look for brand loyalty. If you like a corporate hotel, the training should be the same throughout. There’s also AAA, which sends in secret shoppers with people who test hotels for a living. Best to put the whole package together, an amalgam reviews from a variety of sources. But again, it’s people serving people, so one person’s amazing stay might suck for you if there’s a bad experience.

Lastly, what’s the feedback to "Heads in Beds" been like? Are managers pissed that you gave away the secret that they'll never charge for porn if a guest complains?

I’m not exaggerating to say that it’s been almost universally positive. I only retweet the negative responses, but I’ve mainly gotten nice emails and notes. The best ones are from the people I’ve worked with at the hotels. I did hear that the book was being discussed in a board room and they were none to happy that I explained the front desk will remove bar charges. That’s fine though, I wrote "Heads in Beds" for the servers, not the general managers.


Further Reading:

Getting Away with Candy and Cocktails: “Heads in Beds” by Jacob Tomsky

Stuffy Guests and Sweaty Chefs: Dirty Secrets in the Service Industry

Where Your Hotel Has Been: An Excerpt From Jacob Tomsky’s ‘Heads in Beds’