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, and a spa where you can relax afterward.
Unfortunately, though, 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.
If the bedding wasn’t obviously dirty or smelly, we’d usually just make sure it looked nice and move on.
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.”
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.
This claim isn’t just anecdotal. 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.
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—including the final one.
“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). “They sign a fax that begins production on a factory in China. They 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 incidence rate of local residents fatally harming themselves 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.
We can also tell you that the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute does offer training for hotel security guards, and that training definitely includes procedure 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.
There’s always stories that the guests don’t hear about…
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. “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.”
John 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.”