Challenge: I came to the Westin Jekyll Island to work alongside the bell service team to check-in and check-out guests. It was taxing work, a balance of brawn and grace. It’s also a young man’s job and one I left with a better appreciation of how to operate a successful hotel.
Let’s just say I needed Gatorade and a towel when it was all said and done. That’s the result of pushing, pulling and maneuvering a luggage cart stacked with guest baggage up, down and over the five floors of the Westin Jekyll Island in Georgia.
I came to this oceanside resort with my orders in hand, working side by side with the hotel’s bell team, which I quickly recognized is the heart and soul of the resort—the first face you see at check-in and the last at check-out. The team there is led by Paul Meredith, whose youth (a 20-something) is belied by aplomb often not found in a kid that age. When it comes down to it: multimillion-dollar investments can succeed or fail on the back of those just barely the legal drinking age.
My duties at the hotel were split into two shifts: Friday (work check-in) and Sunday (work check-out). Donning an official Westin Jekyll Island moisture-wicking work shirt and a walkie-talkie with earpiece, I met Paul the morning of my first day, raring to go, although, to be perfectly blunt, nervous. At that moment, I literally forgot how to talk to people, to carry on small talk—which, as I came to understand, is a huge part of what a bellman does. Paul showed me the valet process (because of liability concerns I was not permitted to park cars), a highly choreographed exchange of keys that involved paper clips (trust me, it made sense), where to locate luggage carts and supplied me with what I quickly found to be the bellman’s most important tool: a rubber doorstop.
Then, I waited. Being a bellman comes with downtime. And on this day—I was told it was an aberration—check-ins were not aplenty, or at least not in shotgun succession. In that way, a bellman’s job can resemble summer camp, interrupted by waves of toil. So, when a car isn’t pulling up to the porte-cochère, there is the usual idle talk to pass the time.
A bellman is like a quarterback: you have to read the defense. In this case, the guests. When they arrive to the hotel, you have to instantly surmise if they want to be chatted up or need assistance with their bags and this is usually identified by non-verbal cues, such as body language or countenance. This, like anything else, takes practice, and once you have it down, makes the job that much easier. To help foster interaction, employees at the Westin Jekyll Island where passion pins on their shirts, which denote something special or important in their lives. They are meant to elicit conversation. Luke, one of the bellman, has a passion for basketball. (He was 6’4.) Mine was Washington Capitals hockey since we just won the Stanley Cup. Alas, it didn’t produce conversation (not many Caps fans down south).
At the bellman level, the harder you work or better engaged you are, the better chance for a bigger tip. In a great day, a bellman could pocket $250 or more. (One gentleman from Florida gave me $5 for carrying a duffle bag 100 feet.) And while tips matter, Paul, who never once checked his phone during his shift (I did), made it clear that a positive mention on TripAdvisor is just as nice. The kids are all right.
Friday’s torpor gave way to a frenetic Sunday. I was on my toes from the instant I clocked in to the second I clocked out. The crux of my job was simple, though the execution sometimes difficult. It went like this: a call comes through notifying the bell staff that room so and so is ready to check out. A bellman then secures a luggage trolley and wheels it up to the room ready to load it with everything from normal luggage to capacious coolers filled with ice (they are heavy). This was my afternoon at the resort, back and forth, up and down, rinse and repeat. It took time to get into a groove: luggage carts are tricky to steer and stacking luggage is akin to a game of Tetris. After becoming proficient, the true joy, I found, is chatting with the guests, learning about their stay and asking them where they were off to next.
At the end of the day, I made a new set of friends (thank you Paul, Carlos and Luke!), got a keen understanding of what it takes to run a successful hotel and even made $40 in tips—which I hope bought the guys a nice lunch!