Luxury hotels feel the pinch and struggle to maintain standards

Around the clock at a luxury hotel

As lam nears on a sultry Hong Kong morning, most of the 1000 or so guests of the Hilton hotel have retired. The hotel’s seven restaurants and two bars are closed. Shopping arcade, sauna, gymnasium, tennis courts and swimming pool are deserted. Staff in the administrative departments – buying, sales, accounts, personnel – have long since gone off duty.

In the front office, where a staff of up to 75 are busy during the day, only night clerks and a handful of receptionists remain. Lights in public rooms and corridors are dimmed. Yet great hotels never sleep. And the organised frenzy of yesterday merely yields to a brief night of preparation for tomorrow.

So it is at the Hilton, a 25-storey, glass-and-concrete tower perched beneath Victoria Peak. While most of the 1250 staff – from the general manager downwards take their rest, the 50-odd night workers prepare the hotel for the coming day.

This is the side of hotel life that the guests do not see.

lam-7am: kitchens and cleaners

In the kitchens, where some 3750 meals must be prepared in the next 24 hours, the baking of bread and pastry for breakfast has been under way since midnight. Altogether, almost 550 people work at preparing and serving the hotel’s food and drink.

The overnight cleaning team is washing and scouring kitchen equipment and polishing the breakfast silver. Room-service employees are preparing overnight orders, and standing by for the occasional insomniac’s call for a headache pill, a glass of Bourbon, or a full, five-course dinner for him and his friends.

In the basement, the engineering team which maintains the hotel’s life-support systems – air-conditioning, refrigeration, light and power, hot water – is well into its night shift. Altogether about 180,000 gallons (819,000 litres) of water are used on a peak day. And some 4.5 tons of rubbish awaits daily collection.

In the housekeeper’s department the last supply baskets containing changes of bed linen and towels for the guest rooms are being filled.

Bell service – the 43-strong network of porters and bellhops – has checked its records of departures and arrivals. Morning newspapers are put out for room deliveries, and notices of the day’s events in the hotel are posted in the main lobby.

The floor staff clean the public areas and arrange the rooms needed for early morning functions, such as working breakfasts and business meetings.

7am-9am: action stations

The hotel is wide awake – and so are many of the guests, eager for breakfast and a new day. The kitchen is in full swing. Pastry baked overnight has been set out, and room orders are fulfilled.

In the front office, the tired night clerks give way to the day staff. Check-ins and check-outs are organised, rooms assigned, mail distributed. Bookings are taken, arrival and departure times verified.

Stewards make certain that public rooms have been cleaned properly. Night attendants on the housekeeping staff hand over to their daytime counterparts, and the cleaning and replenishment of the 750 bedrooms begins.

The night engineering shift gives way to the morning shift, with a list of maintenance work to be tackled. The change is marked by adjusting the public-address system from its soft, night-time volume to the level needed to be heard above the noise of the day. 9am-noon: the administrators arrive

As the bustle of early morning departures begins to ebb, and the last leisurely breakfasts are being eaten and cleared, the hotel’s backroom administrators start work.

In the buying department, staff start to run a last-minute stock check to ensure they have all the food and drink needed for that day. This includes 3250 eggs, 700lb (316kg) of meat, 1451b (68kg) of fish, 200 bottles of wine, 70 bottles of spirits, 790 bottles and cans of beer, and various other items – including almost 1200 flower arrangements for the various rooms. But for most of their time the staff are planning at least 24 hours ahead.

Accounts clerks take their places behind calculators and computers to scrutinise and control the hotel’s finances. Personnel staff prepare for a day that may include hiring or firing, or simply looking after the job welfare of employees.

Sales executives meet to develop strategy and tactics for marketing the hotel and its facilities – not only the overnight accommodation, but its resources for exhibitions, conferences, receptions and banquets. Complementing their work, the five-strong public-relations team develops its themes for keeping the hotel in the public eye.

Meanwhile, the 62 engineers make their daily full inspection of the hotel, carrying out routine maintenance and repair, as well as checking the swimming pool and the equipment in the health club – where a staff of eight looks after the sauna, steam bath and massage facilities. The chief steward puts the final touches to arrangements for the day’s special functions – for example, a local firm’s lunch.

In the shopping arcade, the 60 or so shops, drugstore and beauty parlour – with its staff of six – are open for business.

Just off the ground-floor lobby the Business Centre has also opened its doors. It can provide secretarial help, cable, facsimile, 24 hour telex, photocopying, worldwide courier services and a business reference library.

Noon-3pm: time for lunch

In the kitchens, the last breakfast remains have been cleared away. Preparations for lunch for some 1500 people are well-advanced, though replenishments for the buffets will be needed at 1pm. In the restaurants, tables are laid and reservations checked. In all, about 200 cooks, waiters and dishwashers will be involved in preparing, serving and clearing-up the meal. Meanwhile, room service prepares trolleys and trays for guests who prefer to eat in their rooms, and organises fresh supplies for fruit baskets in the bedrooms.

At the front office, new guests are being checked in. The 30 bellboys deliver incoming luggage and usher guests to their rooms, opening the doors with computerised security cards rather than the traditional keys, which can be stolen and copied.

3pm-6pm: afternoon tea

As the restaurants and bars empty, guests on the Executive Floors take afternoon tea, housekeepers replenish ice-buckets in the bedrooms, waiters and barmen prepare for evening opening time, and in the kitchen, dinner is well under way.

Once a week, around 3pm, the afternoon shift of engineers tests the fire alarm, the guests’ lifts and the public-address system. And by 4pm the 72 bedroom attendants and 14 public-area cleaners will have completed their tidying up.

Meanwhile, front-office clerks check the daily reports from the housekeepers’ department – after food and beverages, the second biggest in the hotel, with 217 employees. So any irregularities in the guest rooms are quickly dealt with by the floor staff. The hotel laundry, which washes, among other things, 10,000 towels and 500 shirts a day, gets ready to close.

6pm-8pm: cocktail hour

For most of the administrative staff, the working day ends around six, just as most guests begin to think about cocktails and dinner.

In the bars, the Hilton’s 17 security guards discreetly step up their floor patrols. They are on the lookout for bar girls, known or suspected criminals, pickpockets, conmen and crooks who impersonate members of hotel staff.

8pm-midnight: dinner is served

Most of the 1500 guests and visitors dining in the hotel are eating their meals. In the Eagle’s Nest restaurant, on the 25th floor, the orchestra is starting its four-hour stint. In the kitchen, food for the next day is already being ordered amid the bustle.

In the front office, clerks prepare registration cards for the next day. By 11pm, they will have drawn up and printed tomorrow’s arrivals list.

Midnight: the working night begins

The wind-down from the day has started. It is signalled almost surreptitiously by the engineers, who switch the background music and radios to their quieter night-time level. In the early closing restaurants, tables are being laid for tomorrow’s breakfast, as they are in the kitchens.

The hotel gradually adjusts to its small-hours mode as the guests go to bed. Room-service staff collect door-order menus for breakfast. A group of the hotel’s 90 accounts staff tots up the previous day’s takings of some HK$1.2 million (US$ 154,000). Another night of preparation is under way.