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Class Acts

Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels

Rachel Sherman
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 373
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  • Book Info
    Class Acts
    Book Description:

    In this lively study, Rachel Sherman goes behind the scenes in two urban luxury hotels to give a nuanced picture of the workers who care for and cater to wealthy guests by providing seemingly unlimited personal attention. Drawing on in-depth interviews and extended ethnographic research in a range of hotel jobs, including concierge, bellperson, and housekeeper, Sherman gives an insightful analysis of what exactly luxury service consists of, how managers organize its production, and how workers and guests negotiate the inequality between them. She finds that workers employ a variety of practices to assert a powerful sense of self, including playing games, comparing themselves to other workers and guests, and forming meaningful and reciprocal relations with guests. Through their contact with hotel staff, guests learn how to behave in the luxury environment and come to see themselves as deserving of luxury consumption. These practices, Sherman argues, help make class inequality seem normal, something to be taken for granted. Throughout,Class Actssheds new light on the complex relationship between class and service work, an increasingly relevant topic in light of the growing economic inequality in the United States that underlies luxury consumption.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93960-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-23)

    When Mr. Jones, a guest at the five-star Luxury Garden hotel, began to prepare for an early business meeting, he realized he had forgotten to pack his dress shoes. Panicked, he called the concierge desk. Not to worry, said Max, the concierge. Max called a local department store, asked the security guard to help him contact the manager, and convinced the manager to open the store two hours early for the desperate guest. At the same hotel, room service workers know that when Mrs. Smith orders breakfast, they must slice her papaya along a straight line, forgoing the usual serrated...

  5. ONE ‘Better Than Your Mother’: THE LUXURY PRODUCT
    (pp. 24-62)

    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...

  6. TWO Managing Autonomy
    (pp. 63-109)

    Luxury service, as we have seen, depends largely on the commitment of the workers who provide it. Managers thus face a difficult task. They must convince their employees, especially those in the front of the house, to go out of their way for guests, satisfying and surprising guests in largely intangible ways. The managers I interviewed and worked with were all too aware of this dilemma. Their chief complaint was that it was too hard to find workers, especially workers who would provide highlevel service. The food and beverage director at the Luxury Garden described his greatest challenge as “without...

  7. THREE Games, Control, and Skill
    (pp. 110-153)

    If you were a fly on the wall of a luxury hotel, you would not ordinarily observe workers standing around talking about managerial standards of service or about delighting guests or about being themselves on the job. You would see themworking:the reservationist and telephone operator intently scanning computer screens as they rattle off rates; the concierge writing a message to a guest confirming her reservation at the city’s fanciest new restaurant; the door attendant whistling for taxis; the bellperson straining to move heavy bags into rooms. What you might not notice at first, though, is that workers are...

  8. FOUR Recasting Hierarchy
    (pp. 154-183)

    At the Royal Court and the Luxury Garden, guest desires and behaviors not only provided the foundation for workers’ games but also constituted a main topic of their conversations. Listening closely to their talk, I was struck by contradictions: workers told disbelieving stories of guest extravagance, occasionally commenting that “people have too much money,” but they also laughed at guests who seemed cheap. Concierges poked fun at guests who wanted “the fanciest restaurant” but then bragged about the free meals they themselves had consumed at the city’s top eateries. Workers proudly repeated that some guests were VIPs and CEOs but...

  9. FIVE Reciprocity, Relationship, and Revenge
    (pp. 184-222)

    When I first started working at the Royal Court, at the telephone operator station, I was shocked by how friendly callers were. They were gracious, sympathetic, and funny: for example, one guest commented jokingly when I answered the phone, “You were on last night, Rachel! Do they make you work every night?” They even seemed to usemyname more often than I, not having quite figured out the telephone display, used theirs. Over time, I saw guests express gratitude to workers, tip them, and even go out of their way to bring them gifts or do favors for them....

  10. SIX Producing Entitlement
    (pp. 223-256)

    In Garry Marshall’s 1990 moviePretty Woman, wealthy executive Edward (Richard Gere) hires a street prostitute named Vivian (Julia Roberts) to spend a week with him in a Los Angeles luxury hotel. In the course of her stay, Vivian is transformed from tacky hooker to upper-class lady. This transformation is mediated by the luxury hotel. Initially, the hotel’s general manager, Barney Thompson (Hector Elizondo), threatens to throw her out, but he emerges later as the primary agent of her metamorphosis. While Edward is occupied with his business deals, the avuncular Barney acts as her tutor in the ways of the...

    (pp. 257-270)

    In 1918, Herbert L. Stewart, a professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, published an article in theAmerican Journal of Sociologycritiquing luxury consumption, especially among the idle rich. Taking wealthy people to task for judging “the poor man who debases himself with liquor,” he argued, “It may turn out that the life of idiotic ostentation makes humanity quite as despicable as the life of a drunkard, and that the image of God is less defaced in a saloon of the Bowery than in those jeweled birthday parties for dogs with which the New York Four Hundred disgust all...

  12. APPENDIX A: Methods
    (pp. 271-286)
  13. APPENDIX B: Hotel Organization
    (pp. 287-290)
  14. APPENDIX C: Jobs, Wages, and Nonmanagerial Workers in Each Hotel: 2000–2001
    (pp. 291-294)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 295-324)
  16. References
    (pp. 325-340)
  17. Index
    (pp. 341-366)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 367-367)