“Anything At All:” Servility and the Luxury Hospitality Industry

IMG_0428_2Though I don’t get paid for my column/podcast at Go Girl Travel Network, my hard work is certainly amply rewarded. I’ve attended 2013’s WITS (Women in Travel Seminar), taken a press tour of Chicago’s Skydeck, and been granted access to multiple online educational sessions . . . all at no cost to me.

And, while I’d seen fellow go Girl staffers jet off on trips, all-expenses paid, through the ‘Bring a Go Girl to You’ program we offer to corporate sponsors, I’d yet to be offered the opportunity myself.

So, when the Starwood Hotel Group was looking for a Go Girl to review their Minneapolis, MN properties — including the Sheraton Bloomington, Westin Edina Galleria, Sheraton Minneapolis Midtown, and The Hotel Ivy — I didn’t even put my hat in the ring until our CEO, Beth Santos, specifically asked if I would be interested (Starwood was intent on keeping airfare costs down and the flight from Chicago to Minneapolis is fairly inexpensive).

We went through months of e-mails, phone calls, and meticulously ironing out the details before the trip was approved — and then scheduled within a week.

I would be taking a mini ‘tour’ of Minneapolis as I reviewed these four Starwood properties — one hotel each night for a total of four nights. My tentative itinerary included the possibilities that the concierge at each location would be contacting other local businesses (restaurants, museums, tour companies, etc.) to set up additional ‘freebies’ for my exploration outside the hotel.

peoples-organic-gift-bag

I always appreciate some colorful tissue paper! Inside, Peoples Organic had also included their signature coffee mug (designed by a local, 16-year-old artist).

The Starwood Group kept my expectations low regarding these add-ons, and I wasn’t anticipating anything more than (hopefully) a couple of comp-ed meals.

By the time I arrived at The Hotel Ivy, on my last night in the city, I had experienced a variety of concierge engagement. Some nights, I was greeted with a goodie bag and gift cards (thank you Peoples Organic and Good Earth!); other times, I was just left a fruit and nut basket in my room.

It was not that even these smaller amenities weren’t appreciated (especially given the low-cost, bare-bones manner in which I usually house myself when traveling on my own dime), but the juxtaposition between this level of effort and what The Hotel Ivy had planned for me was stark.

the-hotel-ivy

Proof of the price tag!

So, when I stepped off Sheraton Midtown’s free shuttle, that had taken me to the doorstep of The Hotel Ivy, and was met immediately by a luggage porter (who knew me by name), I was more than a little taken aback — likewise when the manager of the property was waiting inside to escort me upstairs to my $3000-a-night penthouse suite.

When this woman, who by virtue of her high position at such a luxury property, was probably making double the salary I had collected at my last job (and, with my current unemployed status, definitely more than my current monthly take-home pay of $0.00), asked my permission to sit down while we went over the details of the complimentary services her staff had arranged for me I was gob-smacked.

Who was I to merit such deferential treatment? I wasn’t a celebrity or visiting royalty. And even if I had been — why should my ‘success’ (and I use that term very lightly) inspire a revival of ‘upstairs downstairs’ mentality?

A bellboy brought this nummy dessert tray up to my room at the Sheraton Bloomington on my first night in Minneapolis.

A bellboy brought this nummy dessert tray up to my room at the Sheraton Bloomington on my first night in Minneapolis.

I mean, I was already uncomfortable with having my town-car driver, Joel, get out of the car to hold the passenger-side door open for this 21st-century, independent woman (yes, the hotel had hired me a town-car and driver to chauffeur me to dinner at Harriet Brasserie and back and to circle the neighborhood for the two and a half hours I was sipping prosecco and nibbling on lobster and pork belly).

But, before I went to bed, the night manager (an older, French man named Gigi) called my room to request my order for breakfast the next morning (before I would fly out back to Chicago) and I couldn’t find my copy of the room-service menu.

He promptly rushed up to my penthouse with a copy of the menu and brushed away my profuse apologies for the inconvenience with repeated refrains of ‘no, no, it is my pleasure!’ And, when he reached into his breast pocket and realized that he had forgotten a pen by which to mark my selections, shock and horror was painted all over his face.

Before he left me for the evening (I had solved Pen-Gate 2014 by grabbing mine from my purse while Gigi waited, with proper Downton Abbey deference, in the doorway), Gigi informed me that, should I need “anything at all,” he would be working until 11pm before going home for three hours to sleep and returning the next morning, I kid you not, to ensure that he would be there to see me off to the airport.  I tried to convince him that I didn’t need such special treatment, but he wasn’t budging.

I bedded down for the night, in the lap of luxury, thinking about an industry built upon an unquestioned servility — an enforced division between “us” and “them.”

But who really had the better life?

Joel had come to America from Cancún, Mexico — illiterate and working his way through a succession of low-paying hospitality jobs — until a hotel guest, who taught local ESL classes, demanded he enroll and learn to read and write in English.  Now, decades later, he owned his own driving business (which employed several, younger drivers), two homes, and was investigating colleges for his two teenaged daughters.

What had I done with the amount of privilege (though small) I had been born into?

Even if I was just a pretender in this $3000-a-night world, I had still gone to college for my B.A. . . . trapped in the lower-middle-class delusion that the prestige of an education would grant me admission to the American Dream.

It was true that my bodily limitations preventing me from taking a physically-vigorous, yet potentially high-paying, blue-collar job.  The one time I had tried (as a ‘party host’ for a local bowling alley), I came home every day aching all over.  But — though I’m ashamed to admit it — it was also true that I thought I was intrinsically better than that.  My friends and I would never even consider working at a job like Joel’s.  Instead, in our pride, we bounced between unpaid internship to graduate school loans and credit card debt.  In trying to be better than our parents, were we really just spinning our wheels?

Soon, I was back home and back to ‘regular life:’ job-hunting and paying bills.  But these questions still linger with me.

What about you, dear readers?  Have you seen similar sights of disparity while traveling?  What does success mean to you?  What about the ‘American Dream?’

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One response to ““Anything At All:” Servility and the Luxury Hospitality Industry

  1. I stayed at the “best” hotel in Chicago, the Langham, for one night last summer, and experienced similar luxuries and forms of servility. Sitting outdoors, outside the back of the hotel next morning and watching all the trucks delivering things, I thought about how many people had to do menial jobs in order for me to have my night of luxury, and how distasteful the whole thing was. But now after reading your post, I’m rethinking that a bit: the issue is really more complicated. Thanks!

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