It’s hard to surprise Liad Cohen, a food and beverage shift supervisor at Kedma Isrotel, a hotel at Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev. Even though he’s been in the hospitality industry for less than a year, he’s fielded a variety of requests from guests. “A few weeks ago, a group of women staying at the hotel came to me with a jar of Nutella they’d brought from home and asked us to make rugelach in the tabun oven for them – they had an urge just then,” he recalls.
Natalie Yurovich, food and beverage manager at Hilton Tel Aviv, has similar stories. “Sometimes you’re asked for things the hotel doesn’t have. Once there was a boy who liked only chocolate Dani, which we didn’t have,” she says, referring to a popular dairy dessert, “so I’d buy it for him on my way to work. When I worked in housekeeping there were foreign guests who left laundry behind, so I FedExed it to them.”
These simple whims are typical of the current period, in which Israelis account for most of the local hotel market. Industry veterans can only long for the pre-pandemic era, when they had their hands full supplying the requests of foreign bigwigs. Carlos Ben Harosh, a former concierge at the plush King David Hotel in Jerusalem, recalls that in 2006 Roger Waters performed at Neve Shalom, west of Jerusalem, and the roads in the area were completely backed up. A few VIP guests in the hotel asked Ben Harosh to find a way around the traffic jams and made it clear that money was no object. Ben Harosh decided to rent helicopters to fly the guests to the venue, but when he found the number of seats was limited he had to choose who would fly – Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman, for example, or a local politician.
Be it cookies or choppers, such requests are part of the job for hotel staff. Ben Harosh, now chief concierge at the Hilton Tel Aviv, has worked in hotels for over 20 years, and nothing a guest wants can surprise him. Requests range from filling the room with flowers and balloons ahead of a marriage proposal or snagging last-minute reservations at the most exclusive restaurants to organizing private performances by international stars.
Among the service industries, hotels are the extreme example of the encounter between employees who are not among the superrich and guests who come for a few days and expect an experience that is no less than perfect. They want first-class service from the staff, whether it’s food, drink, furnishings or entertainment. The encounter between workers and guests underlies the American TV series “The White Lotus.” Set in a luxury resort in Hawaii, the series portrays the disparities, and tensions, that can appear between the privileged rich and the working-class employees whose job it is to accommodate their every whim. Anyone who stays at an average Israeli hotel knows the experience there is very different from the atmosphere in the isolated, luxurious, quiet and spacious facility in the series. At the same time, the experiences recounted by Israeli hotel personnel evoke the series to some degree.
Class disparities are shown blatantly on “The White Lotus.” Staff are supposed to offer the guests the perfect experience – gourmet food at any hour, vast and sumptuous suites, each of which must offer a breathtaking sea view, spa treatments and entertainment – and always courteously, even if the requests are illogical or the guests are arrogant.
In the pre-pandemic era, recalls Ahmed Abu Nada, deputy housekeeping director at Hotel Yehuda, in Jerusalem, the media dealt much with the substandard cleanliness in Israel’s hotels. “Guests would enter the room and test the place, checking for dust, looking to see if the sheets were fresh. The problem was that they complained even when the room was completely clean. I gave instructions to call me in every case of an unjustified complaint. I would come to the room and check out the problem. In most cases it wasn’t so, but if the guests insisted, I would bring in a room attendant and have him change the sheets in their presence. That didn’t happen just once.”
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Ben Harosh says he’s encountered more than a few entitled people. “People who have all the money in the world ask you to get a table at Eyal Shani’s restaurant immediately – and there’s no way to get a reservation. The guest will say, ‘You tell me how much, and I’ll pay,’ but with all the connections in the world I won’t be successful. How do you get out of a situation like that? It’s hard. I try to get them reservations at a different restaurant and to show that I really made an effort, in the hope they’ll understand.”
Some requests go beyond the bounds of morality, says an employee at a luxury hotel. “There are two things that I won’t arrange for anyone: an escort service and drugs. I’m not willing to deal with that – and it’s not that I don’t get asked. A businessman with plenty of money who was celebrating his grandson’s bar mitzvah in the hotel asked me to get 12 escorts for the kid. I didn’t know how to get out of it. Luckily for me, the reception manager was standing next to me and overheard the conversation. She told him the hotel wouldn’t be able to help him. He reacted in a disgusting manner, asking her to open a button in her blouse. Looking back, I should have reported it, but it happened a few years ago, when there was less awareness.”
B., a reception clerk in a small hotel in the north of the country, also had to deal with a guest who thought he was entitled to everything. “A French businessman, whom I would describe as a dubious type, made all kinds of requests while plying the waiters and the reception staff with 200-shekel notes [about $60]. From me he wanted kosher champagne. I told him there’s no such thing, because it’s made in the Champagne district of France, but I got him sparkling wine from an Israeli winery and he was pleased. Later he asked me to arrange an escort for him, and I asked him whether he wanted her to be kosher, too. Of course it was a joke – I don’t do things like that.”
Hard work, wage gaps
According to the Israel Hotel Association, the average wage in the industry is 8,200 shekels a month ($2,590), including senior managers. Junior staff, such as room attendants, waiters and kitchen staff, earn minimum wage (5,300 shekels, not including tips), though it rises with promotions. There is a collective bargaining agreement and additions to that, which regularize the employees’ conditions and work relations. But the work is intense: 12-hour shifts, including evenings, weekends and holidays.
At present there are 29,000 employees in the industry, down steeply from 42,000 two years ago, in the pre-coronavirus era. The industry is suffering from a severe personnel shortage, especially in such junior positions as kitchen staff and housekeeping. The hoteliers maintain that the shortfall is due to the fact that Israelis aren’t willing to do blue-collar jobs.
The workers we spoke with point out that in most hotels, particularly the large chains, promotion is possible if the employee displays good personal skills and motivation. “It’s not an easy industry,” says Liad Cohen. “I started at the bottom, busing tables. After that I worked as a lobby waiter and was promoted to head waiter, shift leader. Long hours, Shabbat and holidays mandatory. When the whole Jewish people is on holiday, you’re at work.”
Starting salary is minimum wage, Cohen says, but it increases as the employee rises in rank. “You start at a low wage, certainly relative to what you give up on the personal side, but I’ve only been in the profession a short time and I’ve already gone from 31 to 33 shekels an hour. I’m not putting the emphasis on the salary, because I want to develop with the company and I see a future.”
Abu Nada began in hotels 15 years ago as a room attendant and in housekeeping. “I tidied up and cleaned public areas,” he says. “After six months, I was promoted to rooms supervisor. I held a variety of jobs until I reached my present position.”
Management, too, is hard work. The hours are long even today, says Natalie Yurovich, who began as a waitress after her military service and rose to her present position as food and beverages director. “I get to the hotel at 7 A.M., when breakfast service begins, and I finish at 6:30 P.M. I’m no longer required to work Fridays and Saturdays, only when there are special events or very high occupancy.”
Anat Peled-Levy, lobby director at Beresheet Mitzpe Ramon, has been with the Isrotel chain for 25 years. She too began as a waitress, at 19, and has been on her feet ever since. “I get to work in the morning, see to the orders and work assignments, I’m in charge of the team. I like working with the guests and I prefer to work from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M. During my years on the job, I got married and had four children. Until the third child I worked Saturdays, holidays and evenings, and when the fourth was born I switched to mornings.”
If significant promotions are available in the chains and the big hotels, where workers can change jobs, in small hotels the situation is less flexible. B. talks about salaries that don’t change, especially in the small and medium-size hotels. “I’ve been working in reception off-and-on since 2001. The salary in the business is wretched. My base pay is a bit above the minimum wage and it’s only inflated if I do night shifts.”
Because the hotel in which B. works is small, there are also few options to move up; junior staff can be mired in a poor-paying job for years. “There is a group of disadvantaged workers here – chambermaids who are stuck in their jobs for decades, just because they are good at what they do. The work requires skill, so if you’re good you’ll be left in that job and the salary will be stuck accordingly. Even if the salary rises, it’s not a dramatic leap, and you get more tasks and responsibilities.”
Absolute majority of Israelis
The onset of the epidemic in the first months of 2020 had an impact on tourism worldwide. The industry operated on an off-and-on basis under the regime of lockdowns and restrictions. For long weeks, hotels were in a state of limbo. When domestic vacations became possible again, in the summer of 2020, Israelis were quick to reserve hotel rooms. The recovery was felt primarily in the hotels of Eilat and at the Dead Sea.
Hotel employees recount a difficult period in which many feared for their jobs. They have since returned to the old routine, but many report a change in the style of work in the wake of the fact that tourists were barred from entering Israel for such a lengthy period. The status of managers was also transformed. Says Yurovich, of the Tel Aviv Hilton: “Our hotel did not shut down, but it operated at a low occupancy. The guests were diplomats and certain groups from abroad that had received a permit to enter the country. The staff was reduced to the manager, myself and three chambermaids, and everyone did everything – cleaning, receiving goods, whatever was needed. Work with no ego and no titles.”
The reopening of hotels was accompanied by a dramatic change in the composition of the guests. “Before the pandemic half the guests were Israelis and the rest foreign tourists, Peled-Levy notes.
“Today there is an absolute majority of Israelis. We love Israelis, but there’s no doubt that there are differences. The foreign tourists are politer, quieter, they are gentle and don’t complain much. The Israelis are raucous, the pressure is more obvious and so is the level of cleanliness. Let’s just say that when there are [foreign] tourists, the buffet table remains clean even if the restaurant is full.”
“An argument with a foreign tourist is something that hardly ever happens,” Abu Nada says. “Even if there is a problem, the tourist approaches politely. Unfortunately, Israelis behave differently, and they will complain even if they get everything. An Israeli can claim that he was promised a room overlooking the pool, even though we don’t have rooms like that. He won’t believe you until you take him to the hotel roof and show him.”
The difference in the guests also makes a difference in the component of the tips in their salary, the employees say. The Israelis aren’t great tippers, they note, and if they do leave a tip, it’s usually on a personal basis, because of good service from a particular employee. Concierge Ben Harosh relates that tips were severely affected from his point of view. “Israelis aren’t aware of my position, so their requests are relatively simple: Where’s the nearest Super-Pharm? How do you get to the sea? That means that my salary is affected, because tips and commissions from outings and special requests that I fulfill are an important part of it. Americans usually give the best tips – one time I received a $2,000 tip from a family for which I organized a Passover seder in the hotel.”
Despite the difficulties, many hotel personnel display professional pride and a sense of mission. “There is a dimension of responsibility toward the guests,” Yurovich explains. “From the moment a guest enters the hotel, our role is to provide them with a good experience. It starts with small gestures – addressing guests by their name, remembering their room number, making a note of what they like to eat.”
Ben Harosh agrees with that description and adds that his role is to supply the guests’ needs from head to toe. “It is a job that requires comprehensive, all-embracing service. You help the guests get everything they want, in order to provide them with the ultimate experience. It starts even before their arrival at the hotel: arranging pick-up at the airport with VIP service, having flowers put in their room, reserving tables at restaurants, organizing outings, coordinating between the hotel’s units so that everything goes as planned, and being attentive to every request, no matter how strange.”
As to whether class disparities affect their work, most of those I spoke to said they don’t make a big deal out of it. “I like my job, and that’s what’s important to me,” Yurovich says. “I don’t make millions, I earn a respectable wage and I have no problem with rich guests. Everyone in their place.” Abu Nada agrees that envy is irrelevant. “Everyone does their job. When I go to the supermarket or to a clothing store and look at the employees there, I feel that they are like me. It’s the same in our field.”
In contrast, Cohen admits that for him, the green-eyed monster does occasionally arise. “Sometimes I meet very affluent people, and I think about the life they lead while I have to work Saturdays and holidays. On the other hand, I dreamed of being a hotelier since the age of four. My father was in the career army, and on vacations we used to go to good hotels, which looked to me like the glory of creation. It’s an optimistic industry.”