Working at a hotel is great, for the right people

We’ve been watching the BBC’s ‘Behind Claridge’s’ – a documentary charting a year behind the scenes of that super-luxury British institution. We see the incredible work that goes into keeping this the “annex to Buckingham Palace” ticking, and meet the personalities behind the scenes. The general manager, butlers, doorman, housekeeping – they all open up to the camera.

It’s a fascinating bit of documentary, drawing us into a world of elegant traditions and expensive luxury that I don’t have much experience with. But it also reminds me of something I do have some experience in: working in hotels. Though I was let go well in advance of my trial period and hated every minute of it.

They said my attitude ‘wasn’t right’

I briefly held the post of ‘busboy’ at a downtown Vancouver edition of an international hotel chain. The actual title was ‘Food and Beverage Service Associate’. Read that job title again and you can immediately flag up a problem – when you give the guy who polishes silverware and folds cloth napkins a jumped-up title like that, your hotel has issues with straight talk. I was never sure who that title was supposed to impress, and it was just the beginning of the madness and frustration. I ended up not working out my probation period because my attitude “wasn’t right for this ‘family'”.

Not right!? My attitude?! Well fuck you and your stupid hotel and your dumb procedures and ridiculous pomposity of titles and need for every tiny detail to be done a certain way, (I thought at the time).

Craftsmanship, spontaneity and duty

Watching ‘Inside Claridge’s’ I see people who are of such a temperament that they thrive in the type of environment I found so horribly stifling. At one point in episode two they describe someone folding or polishing doorknobs as being a ‘craftsman’.

I thought that was funny for about a second, and then I realized there is both merit and truth in that perspective. Taking pride in what you do is the cornerstone of success in any field, and dedicating yourself to a task – even a simple one – can be rewarding.

The thing is, I just really hate being told what to do. By anyone. At anytime. I suppose there are exceptions of course, (I’m married, so I do get told what to do by my wife pretty frequently, but I made that choice, and the rewards I get are commensurate with the sacrifices).

But, outside of the home, any job I’ve enjoyed and done well at – or any achievement that’s been linked to a professional environment – has been the result of me being given (or having taken) the freedom to pursue something faintly ridiculous and develop it into something awesome. It almost always involves lots of collaboration and input. The easy and willing flow of communication is part of the process. And improvisation is by nature communicative and spontaneous. But hotels don’t work that way.

Buy into the project

Hotel working seems, especially for underlings, to be a top-down communication process almost exclusively. the traditions are developed and passed down, questions preferably not asked.

One of the most startling things I learned about Claridge’s was learning how many of the staff have been there for a long time. Like more than twenty years long! I didn’t last three months in the industry. When I was let go it was not only my lack of attention to detail – it was the fact I couldn’t buy into the overall project, no matter in what terms it was presented to me.

Shortly before being let go Axel, the ‘Food and Beverage Service Manager’ called me into his office to show me a couple of side plates I had been charged with polishing. One of them had traces of a fingerprint on it. Another had a smudge. These were on his desk in the basement of the hotel, and the talking points for our meeting.

Throughout the course of our discussion I had trouble deciding whether I wanted to laugh in his face or punch him in it. Of course I did neither, I just listened. Even when he used my dreams of being an actor – quite potent at the time – as fodder. Describing everyone in the hotel as directors, producers and co-stars, and explaining how it was like we were making a movie.

It irritated the shit out of me then, comparing selecting a balanced array of rolls for a breadbasket to working on a feature film. Although of course, watching ‘Inside Claridge’s’ I realize that, in a way he was totally right.

Working in the luxury hotel industry you are creating this seamless, edited-together experience for your esteemed guests, and the personalities of the players need to shine, as do the set details, the plot and every aspect to create a particular experience. And the better the hotel, the more they pay attention to all of these big and small picture details. That’s what they do so well at Claridge’s. That’s what I was unable to do as a busboy.

Personal pet project or sweeping epic

When I think about the type of ‘movie’ I’m willing to dedicate myself to, it’s rougher, more personal, with a sense of humour about itself. A rough-around-the-edges small set-piece, and not playing in this grand epic. I can accept that. But I am finally learning to appreciate the details and people who can and do work on the big productions. I’m discovering the value, the warmth, and the pride in the people behind the scenes.

I only remember being incredibly frustrated and irritated by the whole experience. I suppose I’m not much of a craftsman in those same ways, but I do take pride in my work. It’s just that, at this point, my work tends to be individual bespoke things – often improvised – and not playing a well-rehearsed part in the grand movie or symphony that is these classic elegant hotels.

That’s really what this has done for me, reminded me of my youth struggling to make myself a career and finding out what I don’t want. And what I do want: creativity, collaboration and freedom.

As it turns out the magnificent Claridge’s has creativity built into via its Christmas display, the food preparation and presentation and even in the form of an Artist in Residence. But there’s a big difference between an ‘Artist in Residence’ and a ‘Food and Beverage Service Associate’.