Breaking Down The Fourth Wall

By Bashar Wali

In hospitality, from your very first property, you’re taught a few basic principles: Learn how your regulars like their martini. Don’t talk to the Chef until he’s had a coffee. Don’t assume that is Mr. Smith’s daughter. Always befriend the Chief Engineer. Never piss off the Controller. 

You pick up the vocabulary along the way—86. From the pass. Turndown. Amenity. RevPAR. ADR. Code Black (that’s poop in the pool, in case you were curious). And of course, back of house. 

An old colleague of mine used to end every morning standup meeting with the same send-off: “Let’s have a great day. And remember, never let our guests see the back of house, on your face or otherwise.”

As I walked through the housekeeping office on a particularly low-staffed Thursday, the whirl of commercial dryers competing with old school radio fuzz, eased me into a sort of waking meditation. 

We need to take care of our guests. Of course we do. We’re understaffed. The whole world is understaffed. But this team. These people. Are we doing enough to care for them?

At first, the term back of house doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. It’s where towels get put in the bin and housekeeping credits are tracked on whiteboards. It’s where the onions get chopped and the chocolate gets tempered. It’s where the occupancy percentage is displayed next to the mission statement. 

It’s not for guests, that part I get. But why does it tend to feel like it’s our dirty secret?

Turns out, there has been a sea change over the years. HR Departments now coining “the heart of the house” knowing that “back of house” feels dated among other things. To me, heart of the house seems artificial, trite—this isn’t a crossword puzzle, it’s a livelihood.

When I started Practice Hospitality and This Assembly, I wanted to do well by doing good. Everything stemmed from a basic principle–take care of others. Practice humanity in order to practice hospitality. Look inward before looking outward. 

As I take inventory after a year of Practice—have we, have I, really done that? Has others meant our hotel team members, as much as our guests? Have I forgotten where it really starts and ends?

The “back of house” is more visible than ever thanks to hygiene theatre. We’re all working to prove ourselves as the most sanitary hotel in the bunch. The disinfectant once hidden beneath the housekeeping cart’s cloak, now a public tool of the trade—symbolic of safety—a sword going into battle. Add the masks, the wipes, the hydrostatic sprayers, the self-check in, are we overdoing it? Great, then it’s probably working.

What if we applied this idea to our staff? What if we had something to prove? What if we took care of our employees first, instead of worrying about the star ratings and guest reviews? What if, instead of tracking out TripAdvisor ranking, we tracked everyone’s mental health? 

It’s true—hoteliers live and die by ratings and reviews—the guest surveys, the customer chatter, the loyalty. Every star brings us closer to the top. Every star gives our revenue manager the guts to push the rate higher. Every star gives the hotel owner bragging rights as he enters the nearest Soho House and scans the room for his Cornell brethren. 

But where does it really start? 

Can a truly preferred hotel get there with unhappy employees who feel like they themselves are secondary to the guest? That what ends up online is more important than their well being?

 Why do our guests bathe in marble bathtubs with rain showers, while our employee bathrooms don’t have space to bathe at all? Why are we serving the freshest, farm-raised ingredients in our lobby bar, and frozen burgers to our staff? 

We're working on doing better at all of our hotels. While the shift takes time, and I'll be the first to admit that we haven't perfectly executed on this vision just yet, that time is now. Our entire leadership team is aligned with this vision for the future.

When the pandemic laid bare the grave inequities across our teams, we opened our pantries and our hearts. We listened. At last, we understood.

We need to see all of our employees eye to eye. Not eye to chin, with them looking up at the leadership, while we direct from our ivory tower (fine, our “back of house” office with windows, ironically). 

If we really want to compete in an increasingly tough recruiting market, we have to be more than the place that offers a free meal a day and healthcare after three months. We must take care of our people. 

The hospitality industry is formed out of humanity. It’s formed from people. Individuals. What works for one, does not in fact work for all. Do well by doing good starts with taking care of all. 

Where will you begin?