For the guests who stayed at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington's West End a few weeks ago and found service sagging a tad, I can explain.
That goes for the nice woman who asked a housekeeper for a spare blanket in her room and was greeted with a blank stare. Or the couple who watched an employee take 10 minutes to polish a tiny mirror. Or the man who waited patiently while a worker frantically tore apart a linen closet searching for a down pillow.
The housekeeper in each case was me. After staying in hotels around the world, I wanted to see what life was like for the unsung employees who clean the toilets, fold the towels, iron the sheets and perform all the other tasks that make hotel stays go smoothly for travelers. So I approached the management of the luxury chain with a proposal to work in one of its properties.
Never mind that I'm a writer by profession and wasn't exactly the star pupil in my eighth-grade home economics class. Or that my desk at work is so notoriously cluttered that a colleague once offered to call in an archeologist to find a document I had "filed" there.
So there I was, in the corridor on the hotel's eighth floor, struggling to keep hold of a vacuum cleaner as it lurched ahead like a terrier going for a T-bone.
At least I had the look down: a Ritz-issued vest and black pants, freshly ironed white shirt and gold-plated "Gary" name tag. In my vest pocket was the "Ritz Credo Card" bearing the company's principles of service, which every employee must carry.
Still, any casual observer could see that this forty-something guy tripping over the Hoover had no idea what he was doing. A security agent standing sentry at the door of a diplomatic delegation stared pointedly at the specks of dirt I missed. Finally, he broke into a snicker.
During my time at the Ritz, I also spent a day lugging suitcases and opening taxi doors as a bellhop, and helped out in the hotel kitchen. But I found my housekeeping stint to be the most challenging.
That assignment started with the 8 a.m. "lineup," a meeting of the entire morning housekeeping shift. The gathering is held daily by every department in the 59 Ritz-Carlton properties worldwide, the main purpose being to share information about guests. The profiles included quirky details. One housekeeper noted a guest's musical preferences, signaling that his radio should be tuned to a country station. Another mentioned that a guest had complained during an earlier stay that too much air freshener had been sprayed in the room.
Hazel Davis, the hotel's fortysomething director of housekeeping, ran the session with military efficiency. As two dozen room- cleaners listened intently, the Jamaican offered details about the hotel's special guests. One guest from Miami, whose 45 nights in Ritz properties had earned her VIP status, should get fruit, truffles and Pellegrino water in her room. Another frequent patron from New York required a cheese plate and a bottle of chardonnay upon his arrival.
Davis then warmed to her staff, discussing the recent hospital stay of a member of the housekeeping crew, and a few other "family" items. By 8:20, we had fanned out, carts loaded with cleaning supplies, from the service quarters in the basement to the grandly appointed guest areas.
Luis Peche, 25 and originally from Peru, was assigned to break me in. As we walked, he pointed out where spare pillows, bedspreads and other supplies were kept. Every few steps, he stopped to pick up a piece of lint or paper. Other housekeepers began to call him on their two-way radios to announce their needs.
The requests came quickly. The guest in the stately presidential suite wanted the king- size foam pillows in his room replaced with feather ones. Another room needed to be stocked with extra amenities. Another guest was allergic to feathers and his room needed to be stripped of down pillows and bedcovers.
By mid-morning, under the tutelage of Peche and Minerva Liriano, 44, a staff veteran from the Dominican Republic, I had mastered the tricks of a good Ritz housekeeper. Or so I thought.
In all, Liriano and I had 14 rooms to clean. The first had been left pretty neat, even though the occupants seemed to be a parent and a toddler. Liriano demonstrated the routine she used in every room. Her first step: Strip the beds of all sheets and covers, taking care not to let them touch the floor. Even though they would all be washed, it was best to avoid dirtying them any more, she said. Then she made the beds, cleaned the bathrooms, dusted the floors and walls, and vacuumed.
My first job was to change the duvet cover. Liriano showed me how, then watched as my efforts to insert the down comforter into the crisp white cover left both as wrinkled and twisted as a Shar-Pei.
"Hmmm," she said, handing me a cloth. "Let's start you off dusting, okay?"
Half an hour later, we were through. The room seemed spotless, but just before turning out the lights, Liriano paused to look around. "Once you have been doing this for a while, you know right away when something is not right."
One room down, 13 to go.
Along the way, Liriano shared a few secrets of the trade -- such as giving feather pillows a karate chop to help fit them into pillowcases without a wrinkle. She also likes to make a note of items a guest has indulged in, so they can be added to the hotel's record of his or her preferences.
Just as I was getting used to shining the desks and night tables until I could see my reflection, a call for help came from Room 942. The housekeeper assigned to the ninth floor needed some assistance. Peche and I rushed up.
The place resembled the morning-after scene of a slumber party for 13-year-olds. About three dozen soiled towels were strewn on the floor. The sheets had been snatched entirely off one bed. Magazines, newspapers and dirty laundry were tossed everywhere. My new colleagues were usually stoic about their duties, but now one muttered, "Usually it takes three rooms a couple of days to dirty this many towels."
One staffer worked on the beds while another tackled the bathroom. Peche and I pitched in by taking away the towels and garbage, then moved on. A bit later, when we peeked in, order had been restored.
With room rates at its D.C. properties starting at $395 a night, the Ritz is vying with the Four Seasons and a few other deluxe brands for the top 3 to 5 percent of the travel market. In order to attract and retain guests of that level, employees are expected to exceed guests' expectations for superb service. "If we don't take care of guests' needs," Ritz-Carlton general manager Paul Westbrook had warned in an orientation session the day before my housekeeping stint, "some other hotel will."
At that all-day session, a parade of managers had briefed a dozen new hires, ranging from an assistant manager to a dishwasher, on the company's service principles. One trainer walked step by step through the Ritz Credo and the 20 rules of daily service. "Uncompromising levels of cleanliness are the responsibility of every employee," reads No. 11. "Be an ambassador of your hotel in and outside of the workplace" is No. 15.
The company's folklore is filled with tales of employees who have gone way beyond duty's call to please guests. There was the housekeeper who noticed that a guest had ripped her sweater and went to the nearest mall shopping for a duplicate. My favorite is of the bellman who, on learning that Larry King had forgotten his running shoes, handed over his own pair and drove home barefoot.
My own miracle was getting through the day. By 3 o'clock, when Liriano and I entered our final room, I was flagging. Fortunately, these guests had been relatively neat. Liriano stripped the bed and I helped her change the sheets, then began dusting and vacuuming. A half-hour later we were done, and on time.
One of the guests had given Liriano a $2 tip, but none of the other 13 guests in the rooms she had cleaned had left a gratuity. "You know, the extra money is nice," she told me. "But I almost prefer it when they don't make a mess of the room. That makes my day easier."
Liriano's modesty aside, tips are an important income supplement for housekeepers, bellmen and other hotel service workers. Hotel housekeepers nationwide are paid an average of $9.50 an hour, according to Beth Risinger, CEO of the International Executive Housekeepers Association. The hourly wage for Ritz housekeepers is typically three to four dollars more an hour than that, she noted.
By the account of Ritz spokeswoman Vivian Deuschl, $3 to $5 a night is a fair amount to tip housekeepers. "But keep in mind that tips should be a way of saying thanks for good service," she said. "If a guest doesn't think that service was good, they should not feel uncomfortable leaving nothing."
Not this guest. As I changed into my street clothes in the employee locker room, I made a vow: Never again will I check out of a hotel without leaving an envelope with a few dollars on the nightstand. And although my desk at work is probably a lost cause, I'm going to apply a new standard to my hotel rooms.