My first hotel job

Everyone has to start somewhere. For most of us in the hotel business, that first job in the industry can often define the next couple decades. It is your opportunity to prove to yourself that you have made the correct career decision. It is a validation exercise. Now that it’s 2013, start the year fresh by recalling your opening passion for the industry — what drew you, what allured you and what will help you stay the course.

My first hotel job was strictly unintentional. High school was ending for the year, and my father coerced me to earn some of my own money for the summer.

With my birthday in September, I was approaching 16 years old. I took the bus downtown, not really knowing how to go about getting a job nor what I would be doing. The day was extremely muggy for late June in Montreal, and my brief trek ended at the Journey’s Inn. (Thank goodness, the property has been re-flagged!) A relatively new property at the time, the building included two restaurants, several meeting rooms and four floors of underground parking.

In one of the buried, sub-basement offices, I met with the human resources manager, “Marcel” (name changed). Heavyset — I estimated he was well in excess of 300 pounds — and wearing a short-sleeve white shirt and thin dark tie, he sweated profusely, the air-conditioning being no match for the hotel’s laundry machinery easily heard from next door. Marcel was pleasant enough, and, judging from the job applications sorted into a shoulder-high pile on his desk, he seemed rather enthused to meet an applicant — or anyone, for that matter — in person.

Marcel advised me that, unfortunately, there were no jobs currently available for dishwashers, bus boys, stewarding, convention services, custodians, maintenance, bellmen, laundry, front desk or even housekeeping, which he described as a “job for the ladies.” Naturally, I was disappointed. Half out the door, he asked, “Oh, wait. Do you drive?”

Drive? Me, an adolescent, asked to operate a vehicle? Now, I ask you, how could any 15-year-old, self-respecting male teenager respond with anything but an affirmative? And so, I replied with bright eyes, “Of course!”

“Great,” Marcel said, “The summer season brings a lot of tourists from New York and Boston. We’ll need extra valet staff starting this holiday weekend. So, come back next Friday. Be here no later than 8 a.m. Pay is 90 cents an hour plus tips.” With that, Marcel dug back into his paperwork, leaving me in astunned elation before running back to catch another bus home.

Recognizing I had been living on a $5 weekly allowance, the prospect of making close to $40 — or more with tips — a week was exhilarating. Somewhat daunting, however, was the task of learning how to drive over the next week and a half!

Unlike most of our neighbors at the time, my family didn’t own a car. My father’s eyesight precluded him from driving. My mother had no real need to drive; everything we needed was within a short walk away.

A friend of mine had an older brother who had recently attained that coveted “age of majority” in the teenage world, acquiring his learner’s permit at the age of 16-and-a-half. Done in secret, my driving lessons consisted of several trips around the local shopping center parking lot and the unpaved, winding golf course road at the base of our street. A lofty estimate would put me at four or five hours of total training behind the wheel or the front passenger seat.

Arriving for my first day on the job, my uniform was an ill-fitting polyester jacket, name badge and a shiny, thin black tie — styled after Marcel, no doubt. And the training was non-existent. Looking back many years later, this was a liability nightmare.

But my few hours behind the wheel served me proud. Within a day or so, I was negotiating the up and down ramps of the garage and backing cars into their appropriate parking positions with relative ease — relative, of course, being the key word.

The days rolled by, and the summer was progressing well for the car jockey team. One of our pastimes was to accelerate cars through the garage then brake aggressively before the next down ramp, trying to see how fast we could nudge the speedometer forward. My colleagues were quite adept at this even though I never seemed to match their finesse. Perhaps the fact that I was about five to seven years younger and far less experienced might have had somewhat of a bearing on this proficiency.

One sunny Friday afternoon, a guest arrived in a magnificent Chrysler New Yorker — a forest green, four-door hardtop with a black vinyl roof. If you remember or are familiar with the late 1960s, these cars were true land barges. Exceptionally comfortable, the New Yorker offered ample room for three passengers in both the front and back seats, not to mention a humongous trunk. While this car had outstanding power from its 440-cubic-inch, high-compression V-8 engine, I was soon to learn that its drum brakes were not of equal caliber.

Steering onto the down ramp, I could feel the incredible torque and seemingly endless horsepower. I stabbed the gas pedal and the car literally roared ahead. Impressive, I thought for a fleeting second or two. The surprise came when I needed the brakes. Slamming them down with full force, the New Yorker acquainted itself with the concrete foundation wall at about 10 to 15 miles an hour, sufficient to knock the engine practically off its mounts and sandwich the radiator into where the engine was supposed to be.

I wasn’t hurt, but everyone easily heard the sound of the impact. One of the first to appear on the scene was my good friend Marcel. As panic immediately obfuscated his logic centers, he held it together long enough to inquire about my driver’s license — for insurance purposes, no doubt. Stammering out that I didn’t have one, with a not-so-subtle mention that I was still only 15 years old, Marcel’s mood turned from bad to oblivion with a quintessential beet red complexion. Using words in French whose translation would be obvious to any person from Asia or Africa, I was asked impolitely to vacate the premises, and fast.

Getting canned was fine, and before leaving, I asked for my pay for the past week. Audacious with a dab of teenage naiveté, perhaps? Marcel grabbed a $50 bill from his wallet and slammed it into my hand, warning me never to show up at his hotel again. For the time being, my short-lived career in the hospitality industry reached an abrupt conclusion.

Sadly, I didn’t renew my love for the industry until I started working as the advertising agency at the Four Seasons Inn on the Park Hotel in Toronto some 20 years later. Moving from the guest services side to behind-the-scenes strategic planning, I found the hotel world to be increasingly intriguing. Plus, by this point I was an MBA graduate and was more than keen towards issues larger than parking-lot bumper cars.

I am sure everyone has his or her own unique “entry” experience. Think back to what you’ve learned in the past 10, 20 or even 30 years. Reflect on your initial motivations and passions. Now, determine how you are going to make this profession better for those who are just starting out on your team. Make their first experience memorable for all the right reasons.