12-hour work days and centimetres of cocaine: the secret side of luxury hotels like The White Lotus

Written by Amy Beecham

HBO’s The White Lotus has skewered and satirised the beyond-belief world of luxury hospitality – and we can’t get enough. But is serving the wealthy and powerful really as scandalous as the show makes out? Stylist’s Amy Beecham investigates.

Warning: the following article contains spoilers for season one and two of The White Lotus.

From dramatic fan theories to exciting season three speculations, The White Lotus has quickly become the show that nobody can stop talking about. The shock-filled second season of the hit HBO show attracted more than 9.5 million viewers, a 60% increase on the 10-time Emmy-winning first season.

It’s no wonder we were hooked. Following season one’s medley of honeymoon bombshells, family revelations and drug-fuelled orgies, creator Mike White plunged us even further into the wildly problematic luxury hotel industry, with yet another intriguing whodunnit and even more complex character dynamics.

Alongside the likes of Succession, Industry and Riches, The White Lotus has made a name for itself within the genre of“eat the rich’” cultural commentary taking over our screens. The show opens our eyes to the absurd behaviour of the unimaginably wealthy (a ‘romantic’ cruise with a stranger’s mother’s ashes, anyone?) in an unflinching but darkly funny way.

But as unbelievable as guests kicking off about The Pineapple Suite not being luxurious enough for a spoiled honeymooner and the idea of upscale escort fees being added to guests’ rooms may be for most, for many who’ve worked in the world of luxury hospitality, the happenings in The White Lotus don’t look wild at all.

Catherine* witnessed all the pomp, privilege and private liaisons of The White Lotus and more during two years working as a front of house staff at a five-star west London hotel. From working for Hollywood A-listers and royalty to discovering hotel suites decorated with “centimetres of cocaine on every surface”, there was something new to be shocked by every time she clocked on for her shift.

The most famous faces in the world checked in under pseudonyms such as “Princess Cupcake”, extramarital affairs were conducted between hotel suites and room charges of upwards of £100,000 were often racked up over months-long stays.

“For the highest profile guests, we always knew they were coming beforehand,” says Catherine. “Pilots would tell chauffeurs who would tell bell-boys so we’d be able to greet them by name upon arrival. They were never allowed to be left on their own, they always had one of us assisting them at every moment they were out of their rooms.”

But the experience wasn’t always pleasant. “I’ve had irate guests literally screaming inches from my face because we were too full to upgrade their room,” she admits.Perhaps most memorably, Catherine recalls the time a famous actor’s room was left covered in excrement after a night of sexual activity.“The thing is, because you know who these people are, the next time they’d come back and check in, you’d be wondering: what are they going to get up to this time?” she adds.

In an industry where discretion and personalised service are prized, guest relations agents, whose roles are to help meet demanding guests’ every whim, are commonplace. For Aaron*, 30, who worked at a high-end Manchester hotel this involved everything from booking dinner reservations to more covert assistance. 

“You can imagine the wealth of some of these people, so eyebrows didn’t raise behind the scenes when they asked for more controversial services such as drugs. I was never asked to source that in particular but it’s not unusual in this world. If a guest asks you for something, you’re there to provide it, no matter the consequences,” Aaron says. 

“You are expected to go above and beyond, and no expense was spared on the small gestures that were supposed to ‘surprise and delight’ valued guests.” This often included champagne, fruit baskets and chocolates, but for celebrity clientele, Aaron says that they would go above and beyond, decorating their suites with their own records, films and memorabilia.

“The baskets and wine rarely got touched and just went to waste, but that particular guest really did take notice of their entire discography being laid like a shrine in their room,” he adds.

Serving the rich and famous is unsurprisingly big business. In 2021, the global luxury hotel market was valued at $93.4 billion, with the market expected to grow to $238.4 billion by 2030. But in a world where such excess is so commonplace, how is true luxury even defined?

In hospitality, it is increasingly defined as “a focus on authenticity, establishing real one-on-one relationships and the importance of service and personalisation”, according to a report on the future of luxury travel by Horwath HTL, the world’s largest and most experienced hospitality consulting brand. 

Naturally, the Covid-19 pandemic had a hugely damaging impact on the global hotel industry, with occupancy rates falling by over 30%. But as of this year, London has found itself in the middle of a luxury hotel boom.According to Bloomberg, more than 10,000 new hotel rooms have come online since the pandemic started, almost half of which are at premium price points.

The swift and strong recovery of the UK’s hospitality sector only proves that while the cost of living crisis is impacting millions within the country, the 1% are still enjoying the lifestyle satirised and skewered in The White Lotus. But just as in the series, this post-pandemic boom has had the biggest impact on hotel staff.

Pali*, 32, spent a year working at a five-star resort in New Zealand, where she says that the enjoyment and fulfilment of guests was “prioritised over staff wellbeing”. “We were completely worked to the bone,” she says, describing days which started at five in the morning and ended after 4pm with not even a 30-minute break in between.

In New Zealand, the Employment Relations Act dictates that for individuals working more than eight hours, they must legally receive two 30-minute meal breaks and three 10-minute rest breaks within that time. While in the UK, all employees across sectors have the right to an uninterrupted break of at least 20 minutes if they work more than six hours in a day. Within the hospitality industry, regulations enshrined in law in 2003 give workers the right to 11 hours of rest a day between shifts and one day off each week.

“I’d be so tired that I would trip over things by the time I was able to go home,” Pali continues. “It was quite hard to accept that we would be slaving away serving guests but the hotel management would have no remorse for how it might be impacting us. It got to a point where I just couldn’t keep going.”

Season one of The White Lotus was set in Hawaii

But while long hours and poor treatment undoubtedly contribute to the disrespect and dehumanisation of hospitality staff, this is felt even more acutely by workers of colour. Season one of The White Lotus features a particularly poignant storyline, where Native Hawaiian hotel employee Kai (Kekoa Kekumano) tells wealthy hotel guest Paula (Brittany O’Grady) that his family is fighting for hereditary rights to the land the hotel was built on and that he’s working for the enemy because there are no other jobs around. 

Protests against indigenous people being displaced by luxury developers is extremely pertinent in the real world, too. In 2019, hotel chain Vila Galé came under fire over plans to build a luxury resort within indigenous Brazilian territory. Over 80,000 people signed a petition to block the erection of “a large resort with around 500 rooms, six restaurants, a conference and events centre, swimming pools, children’s club and water park, reception, bars and Spa with indoor heated pool” on land that is native to the Tupinambá people.

Pali, who is of Asian and Polynesian descent, also recognises the experience of indigenous people and land being sacrificed in order to further the experience of guests. She says that in the resort she worked at “lower level” staff such as cleaners and kitchen workers, who were mostly locals of Polynesian and Samoan descent, were sidelined in favour of white European workers for customer-facing roles.

“There was definitely inequality,” she says. “The ‘prettiest’ people – which usually just meant white – would always be sent to greet and house guests. If you didn’t fit that category, you were given a literal map of areas of the hotel that you weren’t allowed to go to, like the guests’ quarters. And we were told that we couldn’t interact with or talk to guests unless we were spoken to first.”

Even in the UK, this ‘seen and not heard’ mentality exists, and disrespect and dismissal by wealthy guests is another common theme.

“When you’re working all the hours that god sends and not getting a huge amount of reward or recognition, it drives you to reach for ways to cope,” says Aaron. “In hospitality, you have to be a bit two-faced to really climb that ladder and say yes to everything through gritted teeth. It’s about meeting those requests and exceeding guest’s expectations, no matter the cost to yourself.”

The White Lotus has captured our imagination with its acerbic portrayal of how the other half live. But while we can laugh at the absurd requests and jaw-dropping rudeness when it happens on our screens, it’s important to remember that workers around the world are dealing with this kind of behaviour every day. Wherever Mike White chooses to take us for season three, there is sure to be a modern-day morality tale at the centre that is much closer to fact than it is to fiction.

*Some names have been changed to protect anonymity.

Images: HBO

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