“Heads in Beds” Book Review: Reckless Sensationalism?

Judging from the title above, you probably already know which way I lean towards the new firsthand hospitality chronicle entitled “Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality” (Doubleday 2012) by Jacob Tomsky.


Never mind the outcome; after a bundle of lofty Amazon recommendations and high praise from esteemed newspapers like the New York Times, I dove into Tomsky’s book about the inner workings of a big city hotel with a clear conscious. I knew it was going to veer off the sparkly yellow brick road, but my hope was that there would be enough solid lessons for hoteliers to dilute and sluice what could otherwise be deemed pure hotel-bashing smut.
I yearned for a proper introduction to the struggles and strife of the line staffer so we could elucidate even a few opportunities for management to improve. Instead, what I got was unbridled sensationalism to cover the tracks of what appears to be an envious personality.
This thematic spine was wholly visible only a few chapters in. Tomsky, through some sort of perverse guise of candid tell-all, unleashes a diatribe of frustrations and indecent behind-the-scenes accounts, all apparently following years of abuse from guests and sleazy managers alike. Throughout, he’s clearly disinterested in helping the hotels he has worked at; we’re not the target audience.
Rather, Tomsky provides gory details on the relationships between the front desk staff and bellmen, all designed to extract the most in personal tip revenue from guests. In providing supposed consumer cost-savings tips, he describes how guests can ‘cheat’ the hotel system, and thereby extracting vengeance on not just his past employer but all hotels. It doesn’t take a marketing expert to know that this premise, no matter its veracity, will sell thousands of copies.
The author’s approach does have a few elements of humor which makes for an easy read (the entire book can be digested in an evening or two). But, are Mr. Tomsky’s experiences at the (name changed) Hotel Bellevue endemic to our industry? Are your front desk team members taking tips to modify guestroom assignments? Is your bellman corps in cahoots with the front desk? What goods are ‘leaking’ through the back-of-house? And what is your valet team really doing with guests’ vehicles?
The prose would have you believe that these immoral slights pervade all properties everywhere. Maybe I’m just a hopeful optimistic with profound tunnel vision or maybe, just maybe, through my 30 odd years peering into the back-end of hotel operations I somehow turned a blind eye to these hidden systems of bribery, chicanery and lechery. Either way, it’s very hard to believe that what supposed transpired at the Hotel Bellevue was true for other properties, or even true for the one in question.
Yes, I believe that Tomsky may have somewhat exaggerated his claims in order to sell more books. And the simple fact that he changed the name of the hotel he worked out means that he intends to get away with it – avoiding blatant libel through anonymity. Such a tactic might be appropriate for the blogosphere or TMZ, but in manuscript form, it paints the author as – dare I use the word that all writers hate – hack.
After all, if everything he wrote was indeed accurate and 100% bona fide, then why hide the hotel’s name? He obviously has a bone to pick; why not wedge it in there once and for all?
On a separate note, I wonder if the IRS has read “Heads in Beds” and reviewed Tomsky’s personal tax returns to ensure that his annual, cash-only tipping stipends were fully documented and accredited.
Sadly, Tomsky does not write disclaimers or exclusionary language to clue the reader into the fact that his stories pertain to only the Hotel Bellevue. Instead, from the title and the synopsis onwards, I believe it was at least partly his goal to write this as a statement which stereotypes the entire industry.
No one is denying the right of line staff to earn a fair wage in tips. But where is the line drawn between what is ethically correct for the hotel and guest as well as for the employee? Looking at the book from a management point of view, one of the few takeaways is that the dialogue between senior managers and line staff has to be thorough and sincere.
“Heads in Beds” reinforces the notion that employees must be screened from the start to ensure that they have a passion for hospitality and acting in a morally proper manner.  Employees must be trained and retrained to ensure that they understand the rules of the business and so they know the hotel is acting with their best interests at heart. Above all, a hotel is a family and every member of that clan, be they directors, senior managers or line staff, must work to get along.
In retrospect, I’m left feeling less so that Tomsky scribed this work as an altruistic endeavor to help hotel operations and more inclined to think that he may be extending a personal grudge against one or two past employers into the public domain. It’s revenge writing at its finest. There’s also the strong sense from his words that the author never truly liked working in the hospitality industry; the regret from a wasted youth leaks off the page.
Once again, this underlines the importance of hiring individuals who truly appreciate the value of service and are there because they want to be there, not just because it’s a paying job.
So, should I recommend “Heads in Beds”? Given the fact that it supports a person harboring an unsubstantiated ill will towards our industry, I cannot recommend this 250-plus derision. This conclusion is only exacerbated by the book’s lack of insights and wisdom for hoteliers to actually better themselves. The only real lesson here comes as a warning shot fired across the bow: treat your employees well and make sure they know you care, because it may just come back to haunt you.
(Published by Larry Mogelonsky in eHotelier on February 9, 2013)

Larry Mogelonsky“Heads in Beds” Book Review: Reckless Sensationalism?