Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels

Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels

by Rachel Sherman

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520939608
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/17/2007
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 373
File size: 731 KB

About the Author

Rachel Sherman is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Yale University.

Read an Excerpt

Class Acts

Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels
By Rachel Sherman

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 Rachel Sherman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-24782-6

Chapter One

'Better Than Your Mother'


Then I pick up the telephone and call Room Service. Ooooooooo I absolutely love Room Service. They always know it's me and they say "Yes, Eloise?" Kay Thompson, Eloise (1955)

One of my first interviewees was Martha, a white woman in her early fifties who frequently stayed in luxury hotels with her husband, the chair and CEO of a large recycling company. Asked to describe "incredible service," she mentioned a particular hotel, calling it "great" for the following reasons:

Well, their linens, and the services, and they bring things, they're just so accommodating. They go out of their way to make you feel, y'know, like you matter. "If you weren't here, we would be very unhappy about it." ... They zero in on you, and they make you feel like you're not lost in this huge crowd. And I think that's really the nicest thing, because all of us, when we're traveling, we're not home. And to be taken care of and to have somebody who's gonna do things for you in a way that's, like, better than your mother! ... It makes you feel good.

Martha starts by mentioning material items-the linens-but she quickly shifts to identifying the workers' treatment of guests as the main element of luxury service. She describes personalized,genuine attention, the exertion of extra effort, and the legitimation of needs. She is talking about a sense of being cared for and made to feel special in a way beyond what she might expect even from her mother.

Though they usually use different language, managers' comments echo Martha's intuitive emphasis on "positive human interactions" as the crucial feature of luxury. For instance, Isadore Sharp, chair and CEO of the Four Seasons chain, stated that luxury "isn't just building a different kind of building and adding more amenities; it comes through the service element." Although managers I interviewed mentioned the physical aspects of the hotels-sophisticated, distinctive design; unusual, high-quality amenities; and comfortable rooms-managers saw distinctive service as the key to separating luxury from nonluxury hotels and to distinguishing luxury properties from one another.

This chapter explores the defining elements of luxury service as they emerged implicitly and explicitly in interviews with guests and managers, in industry literature, and in ethnographic observation. These aspects include personalization; anticipation, legitimation, and resolution of guests' needs; unlimited available physical labor; and a deferential, sincere demeanor on the part of workers. Interactive luxury service entails more than broadly conceived "emotional labor," which Hochschild defines as "the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display" that is sold for a wage. It is, in fact, akin to intersubjective "recognition," which Jessica Benjamin terms "that response from the other which makes meaningful the feelings, actions, and intentions of the self." Luxury service entails recognizing a person's "acts, her feelings, her intentions, her existence, her independence."

Guests prefer to interpret luxury service as care, akin to that provided by the idealized mother Martha invokes. But this service is also similar to the labor of another kind of reproductive worker: the domestic servant, who provides both physical labor and deference while lacking authority. I explore the twin issues of care and subordination in the context of structural inequality. I also describe the organization of luxury service, showing how its production is divided up among workers with radically different jobs and personal characteristics, and I analyze what this division of labor means for worker consent and the normalization of inequality. I begin with a short history of the luxury hotel.


The word hotel came into use in the United States in the late eighteenth century to designate taverns and inns that served upper-class clients, a new distinction in hospitality practices. The upscale Tremont Hotel, which opened in Boston in 1829, has long been considered the first "modern" hotel in the United States. The Tremont and other hotels that followed it during the nineteenth century demonstrated impressive technical achievements in architecture, services, and amenities. In the early years, these included gas lighting, private rooms, and indoor plumbing; later, hotels introduced electricity and elevators to marveling guests. Luxury hotels were defined by their large size, tasteful aesthetics, cleanliness, high-quality food, and prime location, as well as the privacy and security they afforded and service marked by "faultless personal attention." The "highest achievement of the first class hotel" was that "each guest may easily fancy himself a prince surrounded by a flock of courtiers." These "public" institutions were seen to represent modernity, technological innovation, and progress. Important social and political figures frequented or even lived in these hotels.

By the 1930s, personalized service, replacing the earlier obsequious, racialized servitude, had surpassed technological innovation as the key selling point for and main managerial concern in grand hotels such as the Waldorf-Astoria. But after midcentury, palace hotels declined in importance. In the 1950s, development of the "motor hotel," spurred by the growth of the national highway system and suburbanization, as well as the increasing importance of chain hotels and franchising, shifted the focus of the industry to midrange hotels in cities and on the road. In the 1960s, convention hotels boomed; in the 1970s, limited-service and budget hotels emerged. Although luxury hotels did not disappear during this period, they were not especially prominent in the industry.

In the 1980s and 1990s, however, upscale hotels returned to visibility and growth. Rising international travel, for both business and pleasure, spurred demand. Intense competitive pressures in this period led to diversification of the whole industry through segmentation and branding, which further codified the luxury segment. Favorable tax laws led to the building or acquisition of upscale "trophy hotels," even when they might not have been profitable. In the 1980s, a period of increasing income inequality, demand for "high-priced" lodging, including luxury, outpaced that for lower-priced hotel rooms.

New ideas of luxury came to the fore, including innovations in design and available services. One general manager I interviewed attributed the "invention" of the "perfect luxury bathroom" to a particular hotelier in the 1980s, for example. Concierge services, twenty-four-hour room, laundry, and business services, flexible arrival and departure arrangements, fitness centers and spas, and a range of upgraded room amenities became widespread. International luxury chains expanded in this period. The Ritz-Carlton company, for example, had closed all but one of its six properties by 1940. This Boston hotel and the rights to the Ritz-Carlton name were sold in 1982, and the company (owned by Marriott since 1998) now operates over sixty hotels globally. The Four Seasons chain likewise began with one nonluxury property in Toronto in 1960 and has expanded, especially since the 1980s, to over sixty-five hotels and resorts worldwide.

The national recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s and the savings and loan debacle brought crisis to the highly cyclical hotel industry. Like other segments, however, luxury rebounded by middecade when the industry reorganized itself to increase profitability and efficiency. Developers began again to build luxury hotels. Thanks to Internet startup millionaires and stock market high rollers, these hotels reaped record profits during the boom of the late 1990s, gaining more value than other industry segments. In 1998, 5 percent of newly opened hotels were classified as upscale. Demand led to rate inflation; in 1999, hotel rooms with rates of five hundred dollars or more per night had increased threefold since 1994, and upscale hotel rates had risen by 31 percent since 1996. Rates and occupancy declined in luxury hotels in the economic downturn after 2000, but luxury suffered less than other segments and has largely recovered. For example, both occupancy and room rates in the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons increased significantly during 2004, and luxurious concierge floors were increasingly popular.


Since the crisis of the late 1980s, service has become the watchword of the hotel industry as a whole, as a significant source of distinction and profits. Rejecting the old philosophy of "heads in beds," according to which the objective was simply to sell room nights to any client, hotels now devote significant attention to who is sleeping in the bed and how the hotel can maximize its profit from that particular customer over the long term. Yet service is defined differently in distinct industry segments. In luxury, it takes the form of extensive personalization; needs anticipation, legitimation, and resolution, including a willingness to break rules; unlimited physical labor; and deferential, sincere workers.

"They Zero in on You": Personalization

Consistent with the luxury hotel's emphasis on distinctiveness, service in these hotels is highly personalized. First and foremost, managers and workers literally recognize the guest; consistent name use is one of the main tenets of service at any luxury hotel. The Luxury Garden's first service standard, for example, was "recognize guests personally through the use of their name, naturally and appropriately." Management in both my sites encouraged workers to learn not only guests' names but also the names of their children or pets. (Another dimension of luxury service, of course, is to know when the guest prefers not to be recognized, at moments when he might want privacy or would be embarrassed at being acknowledged by staff.)

Workers customize contact in other ways as well. To individualize their conversations with first-time guests, workers use information they already have or whatever they can glean. They might remember where the guest dined the previous night or that he is in the city for the first time. Or they might wish him a happy birthday or a happy anniversary. Luxury hotels also mark special occasions by providing complimentary champagne or other amenities.

For frequent guests, personalization goes even further. Workers greet returning guests on arrival with "welcome back." They remember details about guests' lives, families, and preferences. Upscale hotels devote significant energy to gathering and acting on information about the desires of repeat guests, including the type of room they want, particular services they require (such as ionizing the room to purify the air or not using chemicals when cleaning), special requests for blankets or pillows, favorite newspapers, and food preferences. These hotels also keep track of guest conditions such as alcoholism and diabetes in order to avoid offering inappropriate amenities.

Beyond customizing these basic elements of the guest's stay (some of which are also noted in nonluxury hotels), the staff of upscale hotels observe preferences spanning a wide and unpredictable range. At the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong, for example, a frequent guest's toy monkey always awaits her on the bed; in another Hong Kong hotel, workers iron one guest's shirt near his door "because he likes the feeling of warm cloth when dressing in the morning." One repeat guest at the Royal Court required that a rented red Jaguar convertible be waiting when he checked in; another guest insisted on always being addressed as "Doctor." A guest at the Luxury Garden requested that laundry workers avoid putting starch in his clothes; another demanded that the head of his bed be elevated six inches off the ground; still another thought of a particular chair as "his" (he had reportedly carved his initials on it) and requested that it always be in his room when he was staying in the hotel.

Sometimes preferences are observed as a result of the guest's explicit request, as in the examples above. Yet luxury service also means fulfilling preferences when the guest has not explicitly articulated them. One manager at the Luxury Garden said that for him, luxury service was exemplified by a housekeeper's noticing that a guest had eaten a peanut butter cookie provided for him one evening but had left the chocolate chip one untouched; the next night she left him two peanut butter cookies. In fact, workers there were given forms to record any guest preferences they became aware of, to keep them on file for future stays. A Royal Court standard of the week exhorted workers hotelwide to "please tell the front desk anything you know to put in the guest history."

Many luxury hotels use additional strategies to recognize repeat customers. Some offer frequent guests gifts to mark significant stays (such as the fifth, tenth, twentieth, and so on). Often these emphasize the guest's individuality, such as personally monogrammed stationery at the Luxury Garden and monogrammed pillowcases at the Ritz-Carlton and the Peninsula Beverly Hills. These hotels even make major structural modifications in order to meet the needs of repeat guests. For example, one Ritz-Carlton hotel installed a wood floor in a room for a frequent guest who was allergic to carpeting. The Royal Court provided a shower curtain for Ms. Parker, a frequent visitor who did not like the open shower in the recently renovated bathrooms.

Research suggests that personalized attention is indeed an important element of creating customer loyalty. One industry study found four factors related to recognition, personal attention, and customized service to be among the top eight factors (of eighteen) that clients said engendered loyalty to a particular hotel; 87.5 percent of clients surveyed rated "the hotel uses information from your prior stays to customize services for you" as either 6 or 7 on a 7-point scale of important factors (with a mean rating of 6.4). The factors "the staff recognizes you by name" and "the staff recognizes you when you arrive" achieved a mean score of 5.6. Other research has identified personal attention and recognition as two of the three factors determining the choice of a hotel brand. Marketing research reveals that affluent frequent travelers in particular look for recognition by name and, in making reservations, "a direct line to the general manager, who inquires about a recent family triumph or tragedy, as any old friend would do."

Most guests I interviewed likewise described personal attention as important to them. Many enjoyed being called by name; Christina, a young leisure traveler, appreciatively told me that at a Four Seasons hotel the staff had remembered not only her name and her husband's but also the names of her two dogs. Tom, a business traveler, had been "dumbfounded" when his preferences were observed at another Four Seasons hotel; upon arrival, he had received plain strawberries instead of chocolate- covered ones, because on an earlier visit he had mentioned that he was "a low-fat eater."

Guests appreciated being distinguished from others and having their personhood acknowledged, often describing this treatment in terms of "care" and feeling "at home." Betty, a training consultant, preferred luxury hotels because, she said, "they treat you like you're a person" and "they respect me as a person." Adam, a retired businessman, said of himself and his wife, "We feel [being called by name is] more a guest relationship and a human thing, that you're not simply a number or a unit. You're a person who is recognized and you can have a little conversation." Andrew, the president of a major manufacturing firm, echoed these ideas: "I think that that changes the whole equation for the entire hotel, when somebody who's at the door in the lobby-there's at least a sense of recognition. If he doesn't know your name he might say-like if you are coming back from dinner, he says, 'Did you have a nice evening this evening,' like he really cares, 'I care about you as a person.'"


Excerpted from Class Acts by Rachel Sherman Copyright © 2007 by Rachel Sherman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Luxury Service and the New Economy

1. "Better Than Your Mother": The Luxury Product
2. Managing Autonomy
3. Games, Control, and Skill
4. Recasting Hierarchy
5. Reciprocity, Relationship, and Revenge
6. Producing Entitlement
Conclusion: Class, Culture, and the Service Theater

Appendix A: Methods
Appendix B: Hotel Organization
Appendix C: Jobs, Wages, and Nonmanagerial Workers in Each Hotel: 2000–2001

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