10 Hotel Secrets from Behind the Front Desk

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By Jacob Tomsky

Jacob has worked on the front lines of hotels for more than a decade, starting as a lowly valet in New Orleans and ultimately landing at a front desk in New York City. He’s also the author of Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality and a man with some hospitality secrets to spill.

1. HOTELS ARE RAKING IT IN.

The fact that a hotel could fail to be profitable astounds me. Why? The average cost to turn over a room, to keep it operational per day, is between $30 and $40. If you’re paying less than $30 dollars a night at a hotel/motel, I’d wager the cost to flip that room runs close to $5. Which makes me want to take a shower. At home. That $40 turnover cost includes cleaning supplies, electricity, and hourly wages for housekeepers, minibar attendants, front desk agents, and all other employees needed to operate a room as well as the cost of laundering the sheets. Everything. Compare that with an average room rate, and you can see why it’s a profitable business.

2. STAYING FOR JUST ONE NIGHT? YOU MIGHT GET “WALKED.”

The term “walking a guest” sends shivers down any manager’s spine. Since the average no-show rate is 10 percent daily, hotels will overbook whenever possible. The sales and reservations departments are encouraged to book the property to 110 percent capacity, in the hopes that with cancellations and no-shows they will fill every room. What happens when the numbers game doesn’t play in the hotel’s favor? Someone gets walked. The hotel will now pay for the entire night’s room and tax (plus one phone call—how cute is that?) at another comparable hotel in the area.

A guest is more likely to get walked if:
1. He booked using Expedia, hence he has a deeply discounted rate and is less important.
2. He never stayed here before and may never visit the city again.
3. He’s a one-nighter.
4. And this one is so much more important than all the others: He is acting like a jerk.

3. SMART COMPLAINERS WIN.

Though most complaints should be delivered to the front desk directly, in person or on the phone, keep in mind that most issues will not have been caused by the front desk at all. So briefly outline your problem, offer a solution if you have one, and then ask whom you should speak with to have the problem solved. “Should I speak to a manager about this?” “Should I speak to housekeeping about this?” Those are wonderful and beautiful questions to ask. Most of the time, the front desk will be able to solve the problem immediately or at least act as proxy.

Want to make sure that the agent doesn’t nod, say “certainly,” and not do a damn thing? Get his or her name. Nothing tightens up an employee’s throat like being directly identified. You don’t have to threaten him or her either, just a nice casual “Thanks for your help. I’ll stop by later to make sure everything has been taken care of. Tommy, right?” Whatever you asked me to do I am doing it. (Will screaming get you what you want? Well, probably. But it’s not nearly as effective.)

4. THERE’S A BETTER WAY TO CASE A PILLOW.

To put on a pillowcase, the housekeepers throw a solid karate chop right down the middle of the pillow and then shove it in, folded like a bun. This method is preferred to the civilian method of tucking it under your chin and pulling up the pillowcase like a pair of pants because these ladies have no interest in letting 50 pillows a day come into contact with their faces.

5. ENJOY YOUR LEMONY FRESH GLASSES.

You know what cleans the hell out of a mirror, and I’m talking no streaks? Windex? No. Furniture polish. Spray on a thick white base, rub it in, and you’ll be face-to-face with a spotless, streak-free mirror. However, I am not recommending you take this tip and apply it in your own home. Though using furniture polish is quick and effective, over time it causes a waxy buildup that requires a deep scrub.

The housekeepers kept this move behind closed doors along with another dirty secret I didn’t discover until I walked in on ladies with Pledge in one hand and a minibar glass in the other. Keeping those glasses clean-looking was also part of the job. So the next time you put a little tap water into the glass and wonder why it has a pleasant lemon aftertaste, it’s because you just took a shot of Pledge.

6. NEVER, EVER PAY FOR THE MINIBAR.

Minibars. Most people are appalled at the prices. However, you never have to pay for the items in the minibar. Why not? Minibar charges are, without question, the most disputed charges on any bill. That is because the process for applying those charges is horribly inexact. Keystroke errors, delays in restocking, double stocking, and hundreds of other missteps make minibar charges the most voided item. Even before guests can manage to get through half of the “I never had those items” sentence, I have already removed the charges and am now simply waiting for them to wrap up the overly zealous denial so we can both move on with our lives.

See Also: 19 Secrets of UPS Drivers

7. BOOK ON A DISCOUNT SITE, GET A DISCOUNT EXPERIENCE.

Reservations made through Internet discount sites are almost always slated for our worst rooms. Does this seem unfair? First of all, we earn the slimmest profit from these reservations. And honestly, those guests didn’t really choose our property based on quality; they chose based on value. We were at the top of a list sorted by price. But the guest behind them in line, the one with a heavy $500 rate, she selected this hotel. When she comes to New York, she goes to our website to see what’s available. 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 of their own volition.

8. BELLMEN HATE YOUR SUITCASE—BUT NOT BECAUSE IT’S HEAVY.

Bernard Sadow: the man all bellmen hate, though they’ve never heard his name. In 1970, he invented the wheeled suitcase, the bane of the bellman’s existence. Before that, the bellman was a necessity, a provider of ease and comfort, a useful member of society. When Sadow sold his first prototype to Macy’s in October 1970, he instigated a catastrophic change in the hospitality environment, causing the once noble species to retreat, rethink, and reemerge as a hustler fighting for survival. Sadow might as well have invented the phrase no bellman wants to hear, the phrase that leaves bills unpaid and ruins Christmas: “No, thanks, I got it.” Or that surprisingly prevalent and ignorant phrase: “I don’t want to bother him.” Don’t want to bother him? The man has a family. No one is being bothered here!

9. FRONT DESK AGENTS CAN ALSO BE AGENTS OF KARMA.

Any arriving guest should receive what are referred to as initial keys, which are programmed to reset the door lock when they are first inserted, deactivating all previous keys. Not until the keys expire or a new initial key enters the lock will the keys fail to work. With a “key bomb,” I cut one single initial key and then start over and cut a second initial key. Either one of them will work when you get to the room, and as long as you keep using the very first key you slipped in, all will be well.

But chances are you’ll pop in the second key at some point, and then the first key you used will be considered invalid. Trace that back to me? Not a chance. Trace that back to the fact that you told your 9-year-old daughter to shut her mouth while harshly ripping off her tiny backpack at check-in? Never.

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10. THERE’S ONE SUREFIRE WAY TO GET AN UPGRADE.

Here is one of the top lies that come out of a front desk agent’s mouth: “All the rooms are basically the same, sir.”

Bull. There is always a corner room, a room with a bigger flat screen, a room that, because of the building’s layout, has a larger bath with two sinks, a room that fits two roll-aways with ease, a room that, though listed as standard, actually has a partial view of the Hudson River. There is always a better room, and when I feel that 20 you slipped me burning in my pocket, I will find it for you. And if there is nothing to be done room-wise, I have a slew of other options: late checkout, free movies, free minibar, room service amenities, and more. I will do whatever it takes to deserve the tip and then a little bit more in the hope that you’ll hit me again.

Some people feel nervous about this move. Please don’t. We are authorized to upgrade for special occasions. The special occasion occurring now is that I have a solid 20. That’s special enough for me!

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

The Surprising Reason Hotels Have Ice Machines

Ice machines can be found in virtually every American hotel.
Ice machines can be found in virtually every American hotel.
Imageegaml/iStock via Getty Images

For some, there is no bigger thrill while traveling than to discover an ice machine close to their room. Taken for granted at home, ice becomes a precious commodity in hotels. It’s become part of standard lodging accommodations, along with a clean set of sheets or an ironing board.

But ice wasn’t always a gratuity. In fact, the reason hotels have made free ice machines permanent fixtures is because ice once came with a price tag attached.

Back when the Holiday Inn was a burgeoning franchise in the 1950s, founder Kemmons Wilson noticed that rival hotel operations charged extra for ice. As someone looking to break into the hospitality industry, Wilson was looking to improve the guest experience and thought that gouging his lodgers for ice was a poor way to go about it. At a Holiday Inn, ice could be fetched for free.

Because the Inn was a franchise with a uniform set of standards, each new location that opened brought with it the same policy about free ice. Other hotel chains looking to compete with the increasing popularity of the Holiday Inn began to concede. Soon, ice was a no-charge benefit for virtually all hotels.

(Wilson had other thoughts about hotel surcharges. Some chains tacked on $2 extra for each child, a policy he did away with. The Holiday Inn became a massive success, though not all of his ideas landed. Wilson once wanted to install a trampoline in each location, an ambition that ended when a child hopped on one and crashed through a window.)

Of course, a machine handled by multiple guests needs regular cleaning and maintenance, and not all hotels necessarily keep up with the task. A 2012 CBC investigation found bacteria, including E. coli., on ice machines at six major hotel chains in Canada. Ice machines and dispensers should be cleaned monthly.

[h/t Reader’s Digest]

9 Royally Interesting Facts About King Cake

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It’s Carnival season, and that means bakeries throughout New Orleans are whipping up those colorful creations known as King Cakes. And while today it’s primarily associated with Big Easy revelry, the King Cake has a long and checkered history that reaches back through the centuries. Here are a few facts about its origins, its history in America, and how exactly that plastic baby got in there.

1. The King Cake is believed to have Pagan origins.

The king cake is widely associated with the Christian festival of the Epiphany, which celebrates the three kings’ visit to the Christ child on January 6. Some historians, however, believe the cake dates back to Roman times, and specifically to the winter festival of Saturnalia. Bakers would put a fava bean—which back then was used for voting, and had spiritual significance—inside the cake, and whoever discovered it would be considered king for a day. Drinking and mayhem abounded. In the Middle Ages, Christian followers in France took up the ritual, replacing the fava bean with a porcelain replica engraved with a face.

2. The King Cake stirred up controversy during the French Revolution.

To bring the pastry into the Christian tradition, bakers got rid of the bean and replaced it with a crowned king’s head to symbolize the three kings who visited baby Jesus. Church officials approved of the change, though the issue became quite thorny in late 18th century France, when a disembodied king’s head was seen as provocation. In 1794, the mayor of Paris called on the “criminal patissiers” to end their “filthy orgies.” After they failed to comply, the mayor simply renamed the cake the “Gateau de Sans-Culottes,” after the lower-class sans-culottes revolutionaries.

3. The King Cake determined the early kings and queens of Mardi Gras.


A Mardi Gras King in 1952.

Two of the oldest Mardi Gras krewes (NOLA-talk for "crew," or a group that hosts major Mardi Gras events, like parades or balls) brought about the current cake tradition. The Rex Organization gave the festival its colors (purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power) in 1872, but two years earlier, the Twelfth Night Revelers krewe brought out a King Cake with a gold bean hidden inside and served it up to the ladies in attendance. The finder was crowned queen of the ball. Other krewes adopted the practice as well, crowning the kings and queens by using a gold or silver bean. The practice soon expanded into households throughout New Orleans, where today the discovery of a coin, bean or baby trinket identifies the buyer of the next King Cake.

4. The King Cake's baby trinkets weren't originally intended to have religious significance.

Although today many view the baby trinkets found inside king cakes to symbolize the Christ child, that wasn’t what Donald Entringer—the owner of the renowned McKenzie’s Bakery in New Orleans, which started the tradition—had in mind. Entringer was instead looking for something a little bit different to put in his king cakes, which had become wildly popular in the city by the mid-1900s. One story has it that Entringer found the original figurines in a French Quarter shop. Another, courtesy of New Orleans food historian Poppy Tooker (via NPR’s The Salt), states that a traveling salesman with a surplus of figurines stopped by the bakery and suggested the idea. "He had a big overrun on them, and so he said to Entringer, 'How about using these in a king cake,'" said Tooker.

5. Bakeries are afraid of getting sued.

What to many is an offbeat tradition is, to others, a choking hazard. It’s unclear how many consumers have sued bakeries over the plastic babies and other trinkets baked inside king cakes, but apparently it’s enough that numerous bakeries have stopped including them altogether, or at least offer it on the side. Still, some bakeries remain unfazed—like Gambino’s, whose cinnamon-infused king cake comes with the warning, "1 plastic baby baked inside."

6. The French version of the King Cake comes with a paper crown.


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In France, where the flaky, less colorful (but still quite tasty) galette de rois predates its American counterpart by a few centuries, bakers often include a paper crown with their cake, just to make the “king for a day” feel extra special. The trinkets they put inside are also more varied and intricate, and include everything from cars to coins to religious figurines. Some bakeries even have their own lines of collectible trinkets.

7. There's also the Rosca de Reyes, the Bolo Rei, and the Dreikönigskuchen.


"Roscón de Reyes" by Tamorlan - Self Made (Foto Propia).

Versions of the King Cake can be found throughout Europe and Latin America. The Spanish Rosca de Reyes and the Portugese Bolo Rei are usually topped with dried fruit and nuts, while the Swiss Dreikönigskuchen has balls of sweet dough surrounding the central cake. The Greek version, known as Vasilopita, resembles a coffee cake and is often served for breakfast.

8. The King Cake is no longer just a New Orleans tradition.

From New York to California, bakeries are serving up King Cakes in the New Orleans fashion, as well as the traditional French style. On Long Island, Mara’s Homemade makes their tri-colored cakes year round, while in Los Angeles you can find a galette de rois (topped with a nifty crown, no less) at Maison Richard. There are also lots of bakeries that deliver throughout the country, many offering customizable fillings from cream cheese to chocolate to fruits and nuts.

9. The New Orleans Pelicans have a King Cake baby mascot—and it is terrifying.

Every winter you can find this monstrosity at games, local supermarkets, and in your worst nightmares.

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