Jacob Tomsky is a hotel expert, but don’t ask him for advice on where to stay the night. Sure, he’s spent 10 years in hotels — but most of that time was racked up behind the front desk. He saw plenty from that vantage point, though, and in 2013, he published his laugh-out-loud memoir, Heads in Beds, which many have compared to Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Through the memoir, readers get a glimpse into the inner workings of a luxury hotel…and some of the late-night antics Tomsky witnessed – plus tips and tricks for scoring free minibar snacks and upgrades, and just how much to tip the bellman. Today, he’s busy working on the follow-up to his New York Times bestselling book. We caught up with the author in the lobby of the Trump SoHo New York to get his take on hotel reviews, robot bellmen (why not?), and more.
Well, unfortunately that’s not my suit. I worked in hotels; I never really get to stay in them. I know the hotels I’ve worked in and I’m not sure I’d recommend staying in them. Editor’s note: For legal reasons, Tomsky cannot name the New York hotel — fictitiously titled The Bellevue — much of the book is based on.
Do you read user-generated reviews? Have you ever written any?
I do read them, and I wrote a few while in Africa. I did a paragliding situation in Botswana and wrote a review for them.
What do you think about user-generated reviews?
You never really know what someone’s personal experience is. You can walk into a hotel and have an absolutely terrible experience and it’s because the person behind the front desk is getting a divorce. Or you can walk into a hotel and have an absolutely terrible experience because you’re getting a divorce. That same person in different situations will post a subjective review. Taken as a whole, you can get a good sense of the hotel. I like thinking of it as a macro-level and not a micro-level to get a general sense. Specific experiences are impossible to recreate.
What do you think about Aloft’s new robot employees? Good or bad for the service industry?
Everything is becoming automated in general. It’s sort of sad but I try not to fight technology. I think there will always be human interaction in a hotel. You need someone to complain to. If the robot bellman brings the wrong bag, it’s going to be very frustrating to deal with a robot. You have to have employee and guest interactions no matter what. In the future there’ll be apps and you’ll be able to select your room and input your credit card; maybe even your phone will unlock the door. I can see people getting from the airport to their room without having a human interaction. I love a classic hotel and always recommend people talk to the bellmen. They’re probably born and raised in the city where they work and can tell you quite a bit about the area and the hotel. You’re not going to get that from a robot, ever.
Do you get special treatment when you stay at hotels now because of the book?
I usually mention I’m a front desk agent. Of course I follow my own rules: I tip, I’m patient, and I’m kind, so usually I get treated well. The book is banned in certain hotels. Employees are not allowed to read it or talk about it. I’ve heard that some hotels have posted notices about how to deal with guests who ask questions about the book. For obvious reasons, management has a bit of a backlash.
You’re currently writing the follow-up to Heads in Beds. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
There are plans for a follow-up to Heads in Beds, but it will be an independent book. It can be read individually of the first one. It picks up where we left off. My plan is to continue the thread because it’s very much a narrative arc. There was quite a bit that happened that got cut off in the last chapter. The next book won’t be called Heads in Beds Two; it will have a different title and an introductory section as a sort of hilarious rocket through the first book so readers can catch up to where I am in the narrative and then continue on with topics I didn’t deal with in the first book. This one is more about the service industry and how you can burn out after a certain amount of years.
Any advice for readers about getting a room upgrade?
Call the hotel two or three days before you arrive, even if you booked with a discount site. Let them know that you’re arriving and checking on the room. Make a personal connection to someone at the desk prior to your arrival.
Celebrities are a big theme in your book. Do you have any stories that got edited out?
Yes, tons. I could write a whole new book just about celebrities. I’ve been screamed at by some of the best and treated kindly by celebrities you wouldn’t expect. Legally, I’m not allowed to say much.
Do you miss working in hotels?
Yes. I miss serving. Service comes in your blood. I miss being helpful, I miss being active, and I miss my coworkers. That’s a close bond. Once you’re no longer working there you’re always on the outside. You can hang out for a beer and catch up but you’re never on that day-to-day with them. I miss the celebrities. The Bellevue is still a magnet for celebrities. When I walk by, it’s exciting to see the ropes holding back paparazzi. I’m sad to be away from that world — I do miss it.
Do you think you’ll ever go back to working in hotels?
I don’t know if I’d be allowed back. Certainly not in the capacity of a front desk agent, but perhaps as a consultant or some larger external capacity. When I was publishing this book I really wanted to get out of the hotel business. I’ve done well so far, but who knows. Never say never.
You write about high roller clients contacting you directly for upgrades and perks at The Bellevue. Do they still contact you?
It’s kind of trickled out now. I’ve got a few of them who have hit me up because of the book. I’ve met with a few old clients who have become friends despite the fact that it’s a business arrangement. I could still definitely get people hooked up at my old hotel if I needed to, but most clients have moved on to contacts with active access. If they called me, I still would help them out.
In two words, sum up how you feel about the hotel industry today.