WEST ORANGE, N.J.—You can tell a lot about people from the way they respond in a crisis: Six hours before I was scheduled to arrive at the Wilshire Grand Hotel, an independent property in West Orange, N.J., a car accident damaged electrical lines and cut power to approximately 40 square miles in the area. The hotel was operating on a single generator, and while (some of) the lights remained on, other systems were down, and the team members were rallying to do everything they could with limited power.
And while GM Edward Reagoso said that he considered canceling the visit, I was glad that he didn’t. This challenge would make my day performing various hotel jobs that much more unique. A good story, after all, needs an obstacle for someone to overcome.
10 a.m.–11 a.m.: Front Desk
As I walked into the lobby, departing guests were demanding comped rooms because the water heater wasn’t working and the showers were all cold. The front desk staff responded quietly and calmly, making the best of a rough situation and making sure the guests were as content as they could be.
With several systems down due to the power outage, some elements of the guest check-in experience were not available. However, with front-desk supervisor Mario Cajas guiding me through, I filled out the (virtual) form for a reservation and learned how the teams use codes to keep track of what guest is with what company, who is booking through an online travel agency, who is here for an event and what price has been promised.
That done, when a guest arrived, the team walked me through the process of checking him in, running a credit card and making a set of keycards. With a team cheering you on, it’s actually a fun process, and technology makes it all fairly intuitive. (The guest, for his part, seemed amused to be part of the experiment, and took it all with grace and good humor.)
11 a.m.–1 p.m.: Sales & Marketing
With 20,000 square feet of event space, the Wilshire Grand is a popular option for weddings and formal functions, and the sales team works to keep the groups coming in.
Nelsey Payano-Diaz, director of social sales, focuses on bringing bridal parties to the hotel. This is no small challenges: While brides used to consider two or three venues for their ceremonies and/or receptions, she said, they now look at as many as 15 in any given area, making the competition much more fierce.
“Everyone has a product, and everyone offers similar amenities,” Payano-Diaz said. “What sells is yourself, the people in your location, your connections. Reputation is everything.” While their main system was down, Payano-Diaz showed me how she takes reservations and fills out forms for incoming groups, including the agreed-upon group rate and any special requests.
Reservations manager Amanda Perez oversees all of the incoming reservations and adjusts the rates as needed, for OTAs and traditional bookings alike. When groups are staying, she schedules transportation with either the hotel’s own vans or with local shuttle companies, making sure that the right car is there for the right group at the right time. She also creates promotions with Stash, a loyalty program for independent hotels like the Wilshire Grand, and organizes “little personalizations” for VIPs, like a sign at the doorway greeting brides. At her desk, I filled out a reservation form for a guest from Booking.com, making sure the rate was accurate across all fields.
Larry Benus, director of corporate sales at the hotel, is a former GM himself, and maintains relations with local businesses to keep their employees coming in. (This involves maintaining preferential rates with the businesses and putting in special requests for these guests at the regular group huddles.) With Benus, I looked over numbers from this year compared to last year, and we determined how the corporate bookings were affecting the property’s revenue.
1 p.m.–1:30 p.m.: In the Kitchen
“I’d like to show you how we make mashed potatoes,” Travis Weiss, director of catering services, said as I walked into the kitchen. “Unfortunately, the steamer won’t work with the power out.”
With limited features available, and since I could not saute anything (my speciality), I chopped some carrots and potatoes, learning how to properly hold a knife and how to quickly julienne peppers. (There’s a whole technique involved—I’d been doing it wrong all these years. I’ll know better next time!)
Executive Chef Donald Roe showed me the kitchen’s industrial-sized refrigerator (which was, fortunately, hooked up to the generator) and explained how the team prepares certain dishes to a certain point, and then keeps them on ice (metaphorically and literally) until they’re ready to cook. The 12-foot-by-7-foot closet can hold enough food for a week, and when I looked through it, the team was preparing to feed 700 people over the next two days.
2 p.m.–4 p.m.: Maintenance & Housekeeping
After lunch, housekeeper Maribel Rodriguez guided me through her cleaning routine in each guestroom: Starting in the bathroom, we cleaned the tub, then the toilet, then the vanity, making sure the tissue dispensers had little paper flowers, the washcloths were folded into fans and the toilet roll was sealed with a sticker.
We then stripped the bed and Rodriguez showed me how quickly she can remake it: two sheets, a blanket, a top sheet, fold down the sheets at the head of the bed, tuck the corners in at the head, tuck the sheets in along each side, tuck in at the foot, fold the corners in, put the bed scarf back on, run a broomhandle over everything to make sure that there are no wrinkles. Done!
When Rodriguez finishes a room, she leaves all the bureau drawers—and the coffeemaker—open. This is so Maritza Alarcon, executive housekeeper, can make sure that everything has been cleaned properly when she conducts her inspection, the final step before the team opens the room up for the next guest.
With Alarcon guiding me, I followed her steps for inspecting a guestroom’s cleanliness: Knock three times (just in case), run a rag over the top of the mirror, lean sideways to look at the mirror and make sure there are no smudges, look at the sofa bed and make sure there’s nothing behind it and that the folding bed has been made, check the microwave (making sure the rotating plate is clean) and the minifridge (making sure the rubber seal hasn’t collected any dust), tip the floor lamp on an angle to make sure no cobwebs have formed around the shade or on the bulb, look behind the armchair to make sure nothing was left behind, make sure there’s no lipstick on the bedside phone receiver (and that there’s no dust in any of the little niches) and check the lampshades by the bed for dust. She then goes on to make sure the pen on the nightstand is at a convenient angle to grab for taking quick notes, runs a finger over the headboard for any dust, makes sure the topsheet and bedscarf are even and wrinkle-free, checks the windowsills for any dust, checks all the bureau drawers to be sure they’re clean (and that they are stocked with spare pillows, if needed), looks behind the air conditioner for anything that might have been left behind (glasses often wind up there, Alarcon said), makes sure that no dust has settled on any of the TV’s buttons or in any of the little niches, makes sure the remote control is at an easy-to-grab angle in front of the TV, runs fingers over the desk lamp, makes sure the electrical outlets aren’t dusty, checks the coffee carafe to make sure it’s clean and dry, and turns off all the room lights (except for the ones by the bed, so that the next guests can see that the bed is clean). This routine has to happen for each of the hotel’s 84 guestrooms each day in just a few hours, so there’s no time for delays.
Seymour Swan handles maintenance at the hotel, and brought me to a guestroom to show how he fixes problems across the hotel. He knows at a glance what kind of bulb fits into what kind of lighting fixture, and has buckets of paint in the maintenance closet tagged for each of the hotel’s areas for quick touchups: guestroom accent wall, hallway, suite bedrooms, etc. This way, he knows exactly what is needed for each request and does not need to examine the room before bringing the right item to fix the problem. We swapped out a bathtub stopper and made sure that everything worked correctly before disappearing again, leaving the guestroom exactly as we found it (except for the new stopper).
People were still checking in as I finished my day at the Wilshire Grand, and the staff was still explaining the challenges with the limited power. No one was complaining, though, and everyone seemed calm and ready to begin their weekends. We said our goodbyes, and I received a lovely card with signatures from many of the team members, along with a certificate declaring me an official intern at the hotel. I'm getting a frame for it and it will live over my desk as a reminder not only of the wonderful people who took the time to show me how they do their jobs, but of how challenging those jobs can be, and how this team pulled together during a crisis to keep everything running as smoothly as possible.
A few days after the visit, Reagoso emailed to let me know that the hotel’s power was finally restored that night at 7 p.m.—one hour before a 250-person banquet was scheduled to start.