Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hospitality and Me: The Beginning of a Messy Divorce

Dear John:

   After fifteen years of our relationship and eight years of marriage, I regret to tell you, it’s finally over. For you I’ve been a front desk agent, bartender, night auditor, cook, tour guide, sales assistant, banquet manager, room service server, restaurant manager, concierge, and event planner. On two occasions I have worked twenty-four-hour straight shifts for you. I have sacrificed relationships, time with friends and countless holidays for you.
   You have taught me life skills, work ethic and the value of diversity. You’ve tested the limits of my stamina and perseverance. You’ve shown me that when you feel have no more energy left to give, no more time, no more patience, that you’ve only begun to tap your inner resources.
   You’ve taught me to deal with stress. You’ve taught me to juggle difficult clients, angry staff and a tight budget. You’ve taught me that your staff, your clients and your employers will grade you equally, and that each scorecard is as important as the other.
   Despite all you’ve given me, I no longer love you. You deserve somebody who can give you the love I once did, and who truly wishes to be in this marriage. I no longer have the need for it, and feel it’s truly time for me to move on.

Warmest Regards,

William E. Shealy
Various Hotels, Usually Marriott International
DIRECT: 843-867-5309

Okay, so it’s been years coming. I’ve tried so many aspects of this business, and have found some grade of fulfillment or another in each of them – until now. I’ve decided that it’s finally time to move on. It wasn’t that it was an easy decision to make, either.

I’ve devoted so much time and energy, sacrificed more than I care to admit, to the pursuit of one day becoming a general manager and perhaps moving on to a corporate position. It was all simply because I knew this was an attainable goal, and with ach position I learned more – and yet always felt like I could be learning even more some place else, in another field. Walking out of various hotels at 2am, wondering what it would be like to actually go to work and leave while the sun was up, I thought I could finally find a life balance by changing fields within the field and become an event planner.

Now that I’m there, I’ve run into the same situation – a sort of boredom. Not the kind of boredom that equals not having enough to do, the kind that comes from wishing you were someplace else a little too much throughout the day. There’s a certain appeal to maintaining relationships the hotel has with its clients, to planning events, a certain creativity to working with banquets to pull off a wonderful event within the confines of a tight budget.  But again – I feel like it’s wrong for me. I feel like I’m cheating myself, and my employer.

There’s also a certain dishonesty that revolves around being different people for different clients, to painting any picture in the light required to convince the clients that we are always exactly what they need. It’s fun – but I’ve been doing the same thing in one sense or another for way too long.

It’s time to move on.

But I still struggle with it. I love this business enough to have engaged in a serious debate over the past several months. Is it really me?

Several months ago, when I was deciding between a few different jobs, Bio-Dad suggested I write out a list of my likes and dislikes with each opportunity, so I might better see the positives and negatives on paper, and more clearly debate them. (I paraphrase his exact words). So I did that here – here are my results:

The Good:

1)      Diversity! There is so much diversity in the workplace. In any hotel you’ll find about half the employees are from other states, other countries. It brings such a wonderful dynamic, to have so much perspective available to you for each decision. You find little racism, next to no xenophobia, so much acceptance of various backgrounds, that it’s very easy to be yourself, if only around your team.

2)      It’s Rewarding. Particularly in events, you can see the fruit of your labors right in front of you. Be it with an event you’ve planned or set up, or the success of an associate you’ve trained and helped work through their individual challenges – your success is tangible and visible.

3)      People. You cannot work in this industry unless you appreciate people. And if you do, it’s a wonderful place to be. There are countless opportunities to help people, to help show them their potential, to learn from people whose experiences are so much more vast than your own, that you cannot help but to grow. You grow from those you teach even more from those who are teaching you. You grow from getting to know your guests, you grow from learning to anticipate others’ needs. It’s a true, continuous learning environment. You learn and grow, or you get left behind.

4)      Life Lessons! You are forced to develop a work ethic, to learn to juggle priorities, to sort said priorities, to succeed or fail with no middle ground. You learn to act creatively, to improvise, to be honest, to stand up for your successes and acknowledge your mistakes. In acknowledging your mistakes you learn to grow from them. If you don’t acknowledge your mistakes, someone else will. And you have to acknowledge them, and fix them fast. There’s no time for floundering when everything you do is on a timetable.

5)      Days go by fast! If I’ve learned nothing else from hospitality, it’s this: give somebody one task and all day to do it, and it will likely get it done to your satisfaction. Give them ten things to do, and give them a time limit, and they will amaze you with the results. This goes both ways – I function better with a stopwatch now, and I’ve learned that most people, when presented with a hurdle, jump higher than when presented with a speed hump. Fifteen hours feels like eight. An hour feels like a few minutes. A week feels like a few days, and a year feels like a few months. Yes, the days fly by, and often way too fast.

6)      The Food! Working in a hotel, it’s easy to get spoiled by the food. As I eat my grapefruits, pleaches, (yes, pleaches) and raw vegetables, undoing the damage of so many years of hotel food, I know that I ate better than most. I’ve sampled innumerable wedding cakes, delicate pastries, tailored oils, fine rare meats, exotic sauces, fruits from around the world. These, mind you, were mostly leftovers in the staff caff. We have better day-old leftovers than you might find in many excellent restaurants.

7)      Creatvity. You have next to no storage space. You have a team making far less than you know they deserve. You have a laughable budget to give your team the tools they need to do their jobs, but your team rates you twice a year on your performance. You’re also rated monthly on your spending. And you have to make sure each guest is smiling when they walk out the door, because they rate you as well. In event planning, you have to work with the chef to create menus that are memorable, and yet inexpensive to produce. You have to decorate with old, oft-broken equipment. In catering you have to work with beat-up hot-boxes that work only with a dozen lit Sternos, out of a catering van that probably can’t be washed due to being held together by the dirt, (there’s an unwritten rule that catering vans must be dented, old, fuel-guzzling beasts. Oh, and they must have a rear door that does not open unless you hit it a certain way, kick the bumper at the right time, and simultaneously push a hidden lever on a  door that’s about to rust out if its hinges). The plates must be chipped, and the silverware must need constant polishing. And not only does each event have to appear a shining, flawless, unique vision, but you have to ensure each associate is smiling as brightly as you, as hard as that may be. Yes, you have to be creative, and you have to be creative on a budget.

      The Bad:

1)      Angry Guests. You are a front desk agent. You come into work, clock in, arrive at the desk, and start to review your day ahead – suddenly a guest is screaming at you. Any onlooker will assume this is either a complete butthole, or that the hotel has royally screwed up. (Usually they assume the latter). You have to make it right, because it is your fault. It’s your fault, if for no other reason than your nametag has the hotel logo printed in the corner. The customer may not always be right, but they damn well better believe they are before the conversation is over. And even if it’s the fault some other associate (who may not even work there anymore), it’s your fault now. Any problem becomes your problem. Any negative situation is your doing in the eyes of the guest. Perception is reality. Some people come in angry. Some know that anger equals rewards points, free rooms, and the occasional meal. Some can never be pleased. But they have to appear to be, and even if you’re not, they have to believe you’re truly sorry.  And you have to do something about it. There and then. On a budget.

2)       Getting sick all the time! Hotels are breeding grounds for illness. Viruses are born on airplanes and mature in hotels. You shake hands constantly. You take money. You touch used linens. You pick up used glasses. You carry dirty plates. If there’s a new strain of flu, you will get it. If you hear someone talk about a nasty cold going around, you just hope you don’t get it before the next big event. Because you will get it. And you cannot miss work, so you will give it to your team. And later you will cover for them when they can't come in.

3)      The Other Side of Diversity. You have to ensure that associates from various nationalities, religions, life experiences, work well together, because they do not do so naturally. You have to do this when they have not slept, have not had time for breaks, (though it’s the law they take them), and they have to work with an equally diverse clientele. Given enough sleep deprivation and stress, anyone’s maturity level becomes that of a three year-old. It’s your job to ensure they interact well before you end up in a meeting in human resources. Once again, if associates fight, it can be construed as your fault. Arguably, any negative situation can be diffused before it escalates. Therefore, if you don’t catch the lit fuse and snuff it before it reaches the gun powder – and you saw its ignition – (and even if you didn’t) it very much is your fault.

4)      No Life. Working in hospitality is being married to hospitality. You do not leave until the job is done, period. Anything in your private life takes a back seat to your job. The moment it doesn’t, people notice, and people talk. Once again, perception is reality. You’re excellent at your job or you’re poor at it. If you’re mediocre, you don’t change positions, and if you don’t move up, you’re more likely to be laid off. If you’re still, you’re a sitting target, and if you leave early to catch dinner with family or go home for a holiday – and something goes wrong while you’re away, the question of why you were not there bounces around the hotel like a pinball. You simply have to be there.

5)      From the outside, your job is easy. From the outside, people might ask: How hard is it to serve food to a group? How hard can it be to plan a meeting? A monkey can check guests in. I won’t even begin to touch this one, it’s a blog entry in itself.

6)      The pay. Hotels are expensive to operate. It’s so prohibitively expensive to operate a full service property that sometimes I’m amazed prospective owners are interested in the business to begin with. I recently heard a couple pass an ATM machine in the lobby. The (presumable) husband said to the (presumable) wife, “they don’t miss a penny.” Well, he was right. Insurance, food cost, labor, maintenance, mortgage, marketing – all these things are more expensive than you can imagine. It’s no wonder salaries are lower than you might think.

7)      The superficiality of it all. Front-of-house people need to be pretty. In event planning and sales, you need to be whoever your client thinks you should be. And it’s your job to figure that out pretty quickly. Smiling ear to ear during a crisis, kissing babies, stroking egos at client luncheons – you have to make it all look seamless, happy, and easy. If you don’t, you’re not doing your job. A guest should never see you sweat, or be distressed. If they do, you’re apparently disorganized and in the wrong field.

      The bads outweigh the goods for me.

      I have met so many wonderfully creative, talented people in this business. And if it’s their life’s goal to become a general manager of a full-service property, or to move up in their specific field, or just continue to master what they do, then that’s wonderful. Anyone who chooses a hospitality career for life should be applauded.

      I am not one of those people. I said in a previous blog that I can do more in my life. This is not meant to demean those who are pursuing this career for life. Quite the contrary, I am in awe of them. Hospitality workers are among the most patient, people-loving people you can ever meet. If they’re not, they won’t be in the industry very long.

      General managers who have worked their way up through the ranks are some of the most dynamic, intelligent, intuitive people you will ever meet. Servers who have waited banquet tables for decades are people you could teach anyone about patience, stamina, creativity, and discipline.

      I will probably miss this business, but not for a while. I maintain a pipe dream that maybe one day Eric and I can open a B&B. I hope I can get plenty of rest between now and then.

Hospitality, I love you. But it’s time for me to move on.


wah said...

Thanks for the beautiful article.Love it. It gives me strength to move on when I stress, depress, angry and under pressure.

Warm Regards,