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Travel Book Review: "Heads in Beds" by Jacob Tomsky

Where I currently live in Mexico, there's a fabulous little multilingual used book store / exchange, where I go every couple of months and walk out with a bag full of random titles in English, many of which I've never heard of. Being a foreigner who is also a starved reader, you don't get the luxury of picking the precise book you had in mind – you make do with what's available in your native language and hope at least some of it's good.

I've grown to love this approach as it always results in gaining a new perspective on life or a wealth of knowledge about people, places, professions and industries I'm clueless about. Which ends up expanding my world significantly (plus you never know when that random tidbit of insight or trivia will come in handy in making new friends or attracting new clients).

This last book exchange visit yielded a clean little copy of Jacob Tomsky's Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-called Hospitality (2012). I realize I'm nearly a decade late to the game of writing up this title, but it was new to me – and I liked it – so here's my review.

Jacob Tomsky is a hospitality world veteran, having filled a multitude of staff roles, from the valet parking attendant to housekeeping manager -- and he'll be darned if he doesn't get real about the pros and the cons on running a luxury hotel. You'll read all about the crazy working shifts, the after-hours drink fests, the quirky clients, the crappy bosses, the minibar and porn channel hacks, the mind games, the stained sheets, the inflated egos and the endless flow of “benjamins” that lubricates the whole scene, making impossible requests suddenly possible.

Here are a few things I appreciated about Tomsky's “Heads in Beds”:

It's interesting / informative. You learn a lot about the behind-the-scenes operations of luxury hotels. Because Tomsky is an insider, you get to not only better understand the logistics of how things work but also get a grasp on the multi-layered human element dynamics and staff hierarchies.

By providing all the “backstage” insight, the book essentially teaches you how to be a real hotel “high-roller”, if you ever have the budget to toss around. By being able to recognize different staffers and their roles and functions – and knowing how to ask for what and whom to slip how much – you can garner no end of perks and VIP treatment, if you care about that sort of thing. And even if you don't care about that sort of thing, understanding the hospitality industry tipping (*ahem* bribery) system serves any traveler well. At the very least, you'll see the hotel scene through an enlightened perspective. Since I've read this book, I've spent time in a couple of hotels and it's crazy how insider information opens your eyes to a whole new dimension of “hustle” going on around you.

It's well-told and entertaining. Informative as it may be, this book can be read for the fun of it. The voice of the narrator is intimate and personable enough to feel a personal affinity for the author and his trials and errors through the fast-paced, cutthroat business of hospitality management. Tomsky is perceptive with a sense of humor about the job and about himself. Here and there, he weaves in funny / wild anecdotes or drops famous names, to make sure the reader stays intrigued.

The narrative is easily digestible, yet the author knows how to paint a picture with words, with a few poetic moments sprinkled in. You don't need an advanced degree in English Literature or Hospitality Management to wrap your mind around what is being conveyed – but you walk away having learned a lot and having enjoyed the reading experience.

It's not squeaky-clean. Neither the author nor the story nor the language are. And that's appropriate in this particular case. It's a memoir, after all, not a hotel management instruction manual.

Sociologists differentiate between “ideal” vs “real” culture. Ideal culture is what we're all aspiring to as a nation while real culture is what we're really like despite our highfalutin' values (e.g. “People should be honest” vs “It's OK if I cheat on taxes just this once”). Well, when I'm learning about an industry, I'd like to not just read the corporate brochure (the ideal veneer) but dive into the grimy social machinery that makes it run (the real picture). This book does not hide the greed, politics, incompetence and indifference that lurk behind the polished front desks and stretched smiles. Nor does the author give any breaks to rude, entitled patrons that walk around acting like they own the place and the staff that comes with it (sheesh, those people are the worst!!)

It's clear that Tomsky doesn't harbor any naivete or particular loyalty toward the brutal hotel business (though maybe a tad of Stockholm syndrome, since he keeps coming back despite the burnout...) He doesn't mind spilling a few “hacks” how frugal / cheap hotel guests can score some free stuff, avoid extra charges and enjoy late check-outs. Sure, it involves ripping off the hotel. But, as Tomsky justifies it: the hotel is ripping you off – the whole hospitality industry is a racket – so you might as well get yours. Agree or disapprove – it's certainly a perspective that is shared by many.

It's honest. In telling his own story, the author boasts in some parts and humbles himself in others. It's clear that he does not see himself as any sort of “hero”, that he is not necessarily proud of some moments or attitudes he's had in the past – and he accepts them as part of his journey through life and career without blaming others or trying to make himself look better. I can appreciate a narrator with some self-awareness and a lack of sentimentality toward themselves. I consider it to be a measure of trustworthiness in what they have to say.

All in all, Tomsky's “Heads in Beds” was an enjoyable read that significantly boosted my understanding on the hotel world, which is valuable to me as a sociologist and a traveler. As such, I would recommend it as a travel book – obviously because it covers topics relevant to travelers -- but also because of the undeniably restless spirit of the author who is clearly addicted to the energy of movement.

And when I have some extra cash to spread around, I'm going to test out some of his tipping strategies to get the biggest bang out of the luxury hotel experience – and make some staffers happy in the process.

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