What really scares hotel managers? Fire. Just ask Kathy Tabora, General Manager of the Holiday Inn Express on Western Avenue in Albany. When employees alerted her to the presence of smoke coming from a room, she immediately took action.
Upon entering the room, Tabora discovered a group of young adults making hundreds of hamburgers on their hibachi grill to sell at a Phish concert later that day.
Tabora was stunned, to say the least. But she remained composed, walked over to the window, threw open the curtain and gestured to the picnic tables outside. The group scurried away, finishing their enterprising project outdoors.
In the end, the “fire” was no big deal —just part of a hotel manager’s job. In fact, most of what a hotel manager does involves putting out “fires”—big and small. You could say that a hotel manager must be a jack-of-all-trades.
For instance, a guest once called the front desk to complain of a barking dog. Tabora went to the room, discovered a very large dog and brought him back down to the front desk area.
“He just wanted to be around people,” she said, referring to herself as a “total sap”, especially when it comes to animals.
A few minutes later, the same guest called again, still complaining of the barking. Perplexed, Tabora went back to the room, but this time checked under the bed where she found a very small dog, the real “troublemaker” of the two. He, too, was brought to the front desk area. She left behind a note to let the owners know where they could find their dogs.
Dogs aren’t the only ones who get lost, either. Many people—and not just hotel guests—call the Holiday Inn Express for directions—to anywhere and everywhere.
One guest called because she couldn’t find “Spearl Street” in Albany. After going back and forth with the woman, it finally hit Tabora that she was looking for South Pearl Street.
And there was a man who called looking for directions to the Palace Theatre. Turns out he had tickets to a show.
In New York City.
Take that, Mapquest.
These incidents are just a few of many that Tabora has encountered in her 18 years in the hotel business. It’s a tough job, one that requires up to 55-60 hours a week, holidays and weekends, but she wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I decided to spend the day with Tabora, and see what life is like as a hotel manager.
I arrived at the hotel a little after 8am on a Thursday morning. Tabora was in the breakfast bar area (the formal name is Fresh Express Start Breakfast Bar), serving coffee and mingling with hotel guests. The breakfast area has the feeling of a homey kitchen—there is an island surrounded by counters with breakfast items and drinks displayed and about a dozen or so tables with chairs so cushy you don’t want to get up.
In other countries, Tabora told me, being General Manager of a hotel is considered “very glamorous”. It is a good job in the United States, but there is nothing glamorous about it. Having the title doesn’t excuse her from getting her hands dirty.
On any given day, Tabora can be found cleaning rooms, serving breakfast, or doing laundry. That’s in addition to the administrative duties she is in charge of—hiring, training, marketing, overseeing staff, etc.
“We all know each other’s jobs,” said Tabora, of the eight other managers. “The only thing I can’t do is fix an air conditioner.”
I wouldn’t bet on that.
Tabora, an Albany native (and a proponent for the city and its many offerings), was born and raised on North Lake Avenue and currently resides not too far away on New Scotland Avenue. She is the daughter of South American immigrants who started the South American Spanish Association 35 years ago. Tabora is currently president of the group, which has approximately 300 members.
Her love of the hotel industry came while she was attending Siena College as an English major.
“I took a part-time job at the Holiday Inn on Wolf Road and fell in love with the business,” she said. She started out working at the front desk and was quickly promoted to supervisor. A promotion to assistant manager soon followed.
The Holiday Inn Express, ranked number one in the region in customer service and number 42 out of 1,200 in the country, is owned by Michael Hoffman of Turf Hotels, who owns three other hotels in the area—two Holiday Inn’s and the soon-to-open Homewood in Albany.
“This industry will get under your skin,” she said, laughing.
After spending seven years at the Wolf Road location, she moved to her current location at 1442 Western Avenue. (Capital Region natives will know it as the spot of the former Tom Sawyer Motel.)
“Our customers have watched me grow up as the general manager,” she said. And many times, Tabora has been a part of her customer’s lives and the lives of their children. In fact, she has been privy to details about their lives that other people might consider “too much information”.
A typical day
Working in the hospitality business means every day is an adventure. Tabora works six days a week, arriving anywhere between 7:30am-9pm and leaving between 5pm-8pm. After checking her emails and voicemails, she adheres to her philosophy of “MBWA”, which means “Manage By Walking Around”. Her first stop is the front desk to see if any complaints need to be handled, and then she checks in on housekeeping, maintenance and the breakfast bar, helping out where needed. She also walks around the hotel and inspects rooms.
“It’s not what you expect; it’s what you inspect,” said Tabora, quoting owner Hoffman’s catch phrase.
“Cleanliness is huge,” she said. “People get bogged down with fluff like free long distance or free Internet, when what really matters is that a hotel needs to be clean.”
After a tour of the hotel, which included the back offices, laundry room, the pool and fitness room, I sat in on an impromptu interview for a housekeeping position.
Tabora started out by telling the young woman the hourly rate ($7.50), then asked a few questions about her previous job at a fast food restaurant—How did you deal with customers who weren’t happy with their meal? Have you ever been unsure of how to do something in your previous job? If so, how did you solve it? These were followed by questions related to the industry—Have you stayed in a hotel before? How long do you think it takes to clean a hotel room? How would you ensure customer service?
The interview was quick, lasting only a few minutes. I asked Tabora what she looks for in a potential employee.
“Experience isn’t necessary,” she said. “I look for someone who has a minimum of one year of consistent work in the same place.”
Personality is also crucial. “I can train a person to do any job, but I can’t give that person a personality.”
According to Tabora, there are “great housekeepers” and there are “good housekeepers”.
A great housekeeper will make a connection with the guests without seeing them. For example, if a guest turns the heat up, a great housekeeper will acknowledge that and leave it, while a good housekeeper will return it to where it was. A great housekeeper will leave things the way a guest left them or provide extra towels if she notices that there is a family of four in the room.
Currently, there are nine housekeepers, but Tabora is hiring four more for the upcoming summer season (in fact, she had employee orientation later that afternoon). A housekeeper’s workday is 8.5 hours and he or she is responsible for cleaning 16 rooms a day, in 30 minutes time.
Linens ‘n things
Fresh, clean, white towels neatly hanging on towel racks in a hotel room are always a welcome sight. And then you take a shower and those nicely folded towels end up straggling from the shower rod, strewn across the bed or dangling from a doorknob. If you ever wondered if there is a right or wrong way to fold towels, here’s your chance to find out. Once back in the laundry room, Tabora showed me how it’s done.
A large towel is folded in thirds, width wise and then in half. The same goes for the bathmat and hand towel, while washcloths are folded into triangles. Easy enough. (Incidentally, working in the laundry room is labor intensive. Between 8am-5pm every day, there is the non-stop whir of industrial washers and dryers. About 60 sheets are washed per hour. Imagine having to transfer that many wet sheets into the dryer dozens of times a day? It’s a workout in itself!)
My fun was only just beginning. We proceeded to a guest room so I could learn the “art” of making a bed. The room wasn’t left too messy—aside from an unmade bed, everything else seemed in order. Ever the germaphobe, I donned the optional rubber gloves and stripped the queen sized bed as per Tabora’s instructions. The bedspread and blanket were moved onto the couch; the sheets and pillowcases onto the floor.
Unless there is a noticeable stain on a bedspread or the blanket, most hotels do not wash them on a daily basis. Instead, Tabora explained, the “triple sheeting system” is used. This means that the blanket is sandwiched between two flat sheets, so that it never really touches your body.
“Everything on a bed that touches your body is washed just for you,” she said.
After making sure the sheets are wrinkle-free and pulled tight, we had to tuck them into the bottom corners, creating “hospital corners”. I’ll be honest: Tabora had to redo my side. I just couldn’t get the hang of it.
Next came the bedspread, then we put fresh pillowcases on the pillows, fluffed them up, and viola: a newly made bed! To my astonishment, however, Tabora stripped the bed (again!), saying that if a housekeeper had done this kind of work, it wouldn’t have been acceptable.
Well, I knew it. I would never hack it as a housekeeper.
Read below to learn more about Tabora.
Q: What is the most common complaint from guests? The most common complaint is related to the heating and cooling system or a tub that might be draining too slowly. That’s great, considering the scope of what the complaints could be.
Q: How many employees are there in total? We have 34 employees who speak a total of 14 different languages.
Q: How many rooms? There are 121 rooms, including four suites. In total there are 189 beds.
Q: What is the busiest time of year? May through October. Thanksgiving is the busiest holiday since most people travel.
Q: Who is your typical hotel guest? Our demographic is male. Most of the business we get is 65 percent repeat and is a combination of business and leisure. Many business people are in town for jobs relating to the government, technology or are on extended-stay business trips.
Q: Where do they come from? Most people drive from downstate and New Jersey, others come from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Western, NY and Ohio.
Q: How often does the hotel update their look? There are standards we have to follow from Holiday Inn Express, but typically we update our look every five years. Last spring we updated the entire first floor public space with new tile, carpet, furniture, wallpaper and artwork. Holiday Inn Express just established a new linen program offering a “fresh, clean, solution.” Every bed has a new duvet blanket, a decorative top sheet, a flat and fitted sheet, a throw and four pillows—two soft and two firm.
Q: What things have been left behind in the rooms? Pillows, televisions, video games, jewelry, a groom’s tuxedo, cameras, books, cash and cell phone charges—we have four boxes of them. A housekeeper once discovered wedding cake on the ceiling from a wedding party gone wild.
Q: What things typically “go missing” from a room? The most common things are coffee makers and irons. We expect things will be taken, but there is very minimal theft. I give guests a large amount of trust, and in general they are honest.
Q: What is the most challenging part of your job? It really depends on the day. But, mainly it’s keeping the employees informed with changes. We have quarterly hotel-wide meetings where I go over any issue, especially privacy, which is huge right now. Fire safety and security are always ongoing issues.
Q: What do you like best about your job? I love working the front desk. It’s my favorite part of the job. If I’m having a stressed day, I go to the front desk as an escape.
Q: Do you ever have thoughts of working at an upscale hotel or a resort? Sometimes the glamour of a Vegas hotel or a Ritz Carlton is appealing, but I don’t want to leave the guests. They are what make this job fun. Plus, Mike Hoffman is an amazing man to work for.
Q: What advice would you give someone who is interested in this industry? If you love people and like being hospitable, then this is your business. If you need things to be exact and the same everyday, don’t get a job in a hotel.
Q: Do you think a degree in Hotel & Restaurant management is needed to succeed in the business? No. In this business you can work your way up. You don’t necessarily need an education.
Q: If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing? I’d be a journalist or published author. I have written several short stories.