Who doesn’t love spending the night in a hotel?
You get to come back to a freshly cleaned room where it’s literally someone’s job to clean up after you, do your laundry, and make your bed. Friendly front-desk attendants and room-service workers go out of their ways to respond to your every need. Depending on where you stay, there’s a solid chance that you’ll have access to amenities like a high-end restaurant, a gym where you can work off the calories (at least, in theory—we never actually make it to the gym), and a spa where you can relax afterward (we always manage to hit the spa).
Unfortunately, the hotel industry isn’t some magical wonderland of crisp sheets and plush carpets. Hotel workers often work long hours doing unpleasant tasks (like cleaning up after you) for too little pay. Some owners and managers encourage employees to shirk on less obvious cleaning duties to save the business time and money.
In the interest of knowing what goes on behind the scenes where you sleep, we got in touch with a few past and present hotel workers and asked them to tell us about their lives in the hotel industry. We’ve changed their names to maintain their anonymity—since much of what they had to say wasn’t exactly something their employers would like you to know.
Here’s what we learned:
1. It may look clean, but…
One of the most common refrains from those who have spent time working in the hotel industry is that they just don’t have enough time to thoroughly clean every part of every room—and oftentimes, they’re explicitly instructed not to.
Lynn says she worked as a housekeeper in a “smallish chain hotel” in a “college town in Michigan.” According to her, managers there encouraged housekeepers to spend no more than 30 minutes on a given room, and that often meant overlooking some things.
“If the bedding wasn’t obviously dirty or smelly, we’d usually just make sure it looked nice and move on,” she says.
And unfortunately, things get even worse when the conversation turns to mattresses. Lynn tells us that the mattresses at the hotel where she worked were never cleaned. “We never really paid any attention to the mattress unless somebody peed on it,” she says. “And then, we’d just let it air dry and put it back pee-side down.”
To be fair, what else would we expect them to do?
Another housekeeper we talked to told us about some even less sanitary practices. Miranda explains she worked in a “high-end” hotel in California, and it that it wasn’t uncommon to see celebrities come through. Despite guests shelling out a ton of money for the hotel’s accommodations, the housekeeping staff wasn’t always diligent about maintaining best practices when it came to sanitation.
“I never did it, but I definitely saw some of the other housekeepers do things like wipe the sink with the towel they had just used on the toilet,” Miranda says.
She goes on to say that management probably wouldn’t have approved, but she didn’t think bringing it up was worth it.
“I thought it was gross, but I didn’t want anybody to lose their job over it,” she says.
Another common topic when it came to issues of cleanliness was one that you might not think about: the television remote. Despite being handled by just about every person who stays in a hotel room—not to mention the fact that most people don’t make a habit of washing their hands before and after watching TV—none of the hotel workers we spoke to said they ever disinfected the remotes. It wasn’t even on their radar; when you’ve got 10 rooms to clean in a relatively short amount of time, you can’t really obsess over things like television remotes.
However, in a perfect world, those remotes would at least get a quick scrub from an antibacterial wipe. A 2012 study conducted by researchers at the University of Houston and presented at that year’s General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology found that television remotes—along with the switches on bedside lamps—tended to have high levels of bacterial contamination.
“Hoteliers have an obligation to provide their guests with a safe and secure environment,” said Katie Kirsch, an undergraduate student at the University of Houston, while presenting the study. “Currently, housekeeping practices vary across brands and properties with little or no standardization industry wide. The current validation method for hotel room cleanliness is a visual assessment, which has been shown to be ineffective in measuring levels of sanitation.”
Kirsch noted that the average housekeeper cleans 14 to 16 rooms per 8-hour shift. That means that they don’t get much time per room, and logically, they should spend that time on the items with the highest risk of dangerous bacterial contamination. We asked Miranda whether that idea was feasible.
“I get the point, but no, not really,” she says. “People care if a room looks clean. I think most people would rather have a great-looking room than a properly disinfected remote control.”
2. People pass away in hotels, and it might have happened in the very room you’re staying in.
Considering the sheer number of people spending nights in a hotel room throughout the course of a year, it’s inevitable that a few of them might not wake up. And, unless the circumstances surrounding the tragedy are especially unusual or otherwise notable, chances are that you won’t see it on the evening news.
Jacob Tomsky literally wrote the book on the hotel industry’s seedy underbelly. His memoir is called Heads in Beds, and it includes a nice passage on the incredible variety of experiences that guests have in hotel rooms.
“They receive news of a loved one’s death from a blinking red light,” Tomsky wrote of hotel guests (as quoted by The New York Times). “[Other guests] sign a fax that begins production on a factory in China. [Yet other guests] receive a FedEx box containing everything left of their marriage.”
They also “propose, get married … turn 40, get divorced … and die in hotel rooms,” Tomsky wrote. “Sometimes in that order.”
Unfortunately—or very fortunately, depending on how you look at it—we couldn’t find national statistics on the number of people who lost their lives in hotel rooms. That doesn’t seem to be a figure that the American Hotels & Lodging Association tracks, so we can’t give you a percentage on the likeliness that your room was once the scene of a tragic event. Maybe it’s better that way.
But consider this: Researchers Paul Zarkowski and David Avery conducted a study to determine whether people are more likely to end their own lives in hotel rooms than elsewhere. They looked at King County, Washington, where they found the rate of local residents fatally harming themselves while registered at a local hotel was an appalling 223 per 100,000. Everywhere else in King County, that incidence rate was only 11.2 per 100,000.
“We found a 19-fold increased risk … among all local residents registering in local hotels, and conjecture that local residents registering alone have a much greater risk [of taking their own lives],” the researchers concluded.
The key word there is “local.” If you rent a hotel room in your own town, there’s a pretty decent chance that you don’t have the best intentions. Apparently, that’s an open secret among hotel workers; if you work the job long enough, you’re probably going to deal with some unfortunate circumstances.
We can also tell you that the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute does offer training for hotel security guards, and that training definitely includes procedures for handling the loss of a guest. If it’s really all that rare, why train for it?
Try not to think about that next time you lie down to sleep on your nice, fluffy hotel pillow.
3. Hotel workers like to have fun, too!
While the topics covered so far are either gross or grim, things aren’t all bad in the hotel industry.
John, who worked as both a bellboy and security guard at a hotel, shared a few stories about the fun that he and co-workers had on the job. After sharing one that’s a bit too graphic to be published here, he went immediately into another one involving a friend, a telephone, and a tank of helium. (John is quite the storyteller.)
In the story, John was working an overnight shift with his best friend.
“We were the only two staff working the building—it was a 13-story hotel. It was our second or third job together,” he says. “I was security; he was the reception clerk and in charge of doing the computer backups.”
After filling us in on the background, he launched into it: “One slow night, we were bored out of our minds, so we decided to drag this huge helium tank we kept in storage (for birthdays, parties, and to give to random children) into the back office and answer the phone with a high-pitched voice,” he says.
We should note at this point that you shouldn’t try this at home. Helium is an asphyxiant, and while it won’t immediately kill brain cells, it can cause long-term damage, particularly if you breathe it in several times in a row. With that disclaimer out of the way, we’ll let John continue.
“People would react as you’d guess, but by the time we spoke again, the helium was gone, thus leaving them wondering if they were going crazy—think of the Super Troopers movie and the ‘meow’ bit, I guess. That was a funny night.”
John added that he and his friend would regularly “back each other up so that one of us would be able to go swim in the indoor pool in-between calls from clients.” We’re just going to say it—we kind of want to work in a hotel now.
He also told us a difficult-to-believe tale of a fellow bellboy who was just doing what he was told. His co-worker was charged with parking a guest’s Lincoln Navigator in the hotel parking lot.
“He insisted that he would have to use the outdoor parking because the car was too tall to fit in the indoor garage’s entrance,” John says.
Unfortunately, the manager was having none of it. As John tells it, “The Manager told him to shut up and to do as he was told. Bellboy says ‘Okay’ and really came in fast into the underground garage.” According to John, when it was all said and done, “basically, he made a convertible out of the client’s Navigator, and the hotel had to pay for the damages.”
While it’s entirely possible that John did a bit of embellishing, plenty of the hotel workers we talked to had strange, interesting, and oftentimes funny tales of their time working in hotels.
Darius, a front desk attendant tells us, “There’s always stories that the guests don’t hear about—especially the stories about the guests themselves.”
4. Your reservation doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll get a room.
A decent percentage of hotel guests never actually check into their rooms. Maybe their flight was canceled or their plans change at the last minute, so they call ahead and get a partial refund.
Why is that important? It’s one of the many ways that hotels pinch pennies to increase their profit margins (it’s worth noting that profit margins are up slightly in recent years, so savvy hoteliers are certainly using every available tool to make money).
A hotel manager might decide to purposely overbook, using historical data to estimate the probable number of no-shows. It’s a delicate balancing act, and it doesn’t always work—sometimes, too many of the guests will show up, and the facility simply won’t have the room to accommodate all of them.
When this happens, the manager has to “walk” a guest. That means explaining the problem, offering an apology, and sending the guest…well, walking. It’s just as uncomfortable as it sounds.
As industry insider Ryan Sorensen wrote for Hotel News Now, the best practice is to book the guest at another hotel nearby and pay for their room. Managers look at a number of factors when determining which guests to “walk.”
“The best-case scenario includes walking guests who are staying only one night,” Sorensen wrote. “If you walk guests who have a reservation for multiple nights, try to bring them back to your hotel for as much of the remainder of their stay as possible.”
If you’re staying at an overbooked hotel, you’re more likely to get walked if you booked the room using a price comparison website, since the hotel stands to lose less money if they lose your long-term business. If you’re a member of the hotel’s customer loyalty program, you probably won’t get walked.
Oh, and if you find yourself being walked, realize that by the time the manager calls you, the decision has been made. Arguing won’t help you get the room you paid for, and in most cases, the hotel staff feels terrible about the situation.
“It is completely possible to win the loyalty of a walked guest, but it is done through a balance of communication, compassion, empathy and professionalism,” Sorensen wrote.
5. The minibar isn’t worth the money…but you don’t really have to pay for it.
Ah, the minibar. It offers a variety of cheap treats and drinks at exorbitant prices, but when you’re far from home and all of the local restaurants are closed, a $7 bag of peanuts can look like a bargain. If only there were some way to raid the minibar without actually paying the price.
Okay, this is a slightly unethical tip, but we’re telling you the dirty secrets of the hotel industry, so we figure it’s fair game: If you dispute a minibar charge, you’ll almost always get the charge reversed. That’s because the process for billing guests for their minibar purchases has an enormous margin of error.
Can we please get rid of the mini bar at hotels. It is just one more erroneous charge to be on the look out for on the CC statement. I just found a $185 mini bar bill (!) on my statement charged two days after I checked out.
— Matt Gershoff (@mgershoff) October 29, 2018
“You might never even see a minibar attendant,” Tomsky wrote. “They are like mole people. They peer into the confusion of bottles and bags, looking for something to be replaced, looking for something that is no longer there. They replace it and put a mark on their room chart.”
The attendants deliver those charts to managers, who enter them into computers. Human error can enter in at any point of the process; maybe an attendant miscounts the number of Dr. Peppers, for instance, or the manager hits the key for two Ding-Dongs instead of one.
Some hotel chains are trying to bypass this issue by installing high-tech minibars with built-in sensors, but they’re far from perfect; the sensors can go off accidentally, resulting in errant charges and angry guests, and because they’re automatic, if a person picks up an item and puts it back, they’ll likely encounter a hefty charge on checkout.
At some point, it’s basically the guest’s word against the manager’s, and the manager has a strong incentive to keep the guest happy. Minibar purchases are among the most commonly refunded charges at hotels, per Tomsky, so if you claim that you didn’t buy that $10 bag of pretzels, you probably won’t pay for it.