When I was first hired as a bartender by the W hotel in Seattle, the brand was still owned by Starwood, an indistinct consolidated corporation that has since been subsumed into the ravenous belly known as Marriott. There was a lengthy process involved in getting the job. I interviewed twice: once in the HR office and then a second time downstairs with the manager of the hotel restaurant and lounge. After being hired, I attended a mandatory, introductory eight-hour job training that was quite similar to the one I’d experienced prior to beginning a regrettable stint at Starbucks. I was stuffed into a room with about twenty other new hires—everything from housekeepers to sous-chefs to servers to maintenance workers—and we were each inundated with Starwood history. Starwood business policies. Starwood subsidiary family trees.
We watched videos. We read dense packets filled with glowing customer surveys and reviews. We broke into small groups, and we were quizzed about the things that we learned. We won prizes—Starwood-engraved keychains, W Seattle pens, and the like—for each answer we got right. These gifts would be tossed about the room by the two HR workers who gave these training sessions, and they would clap with absurd enthusiasm each time. Their gusto was on brand with that of a game-show host or some seasoned motivational speaker as they shouted into their blouse-pinned microphones.
“And you get a prize!”
“And YOU get a prize!”
As when I worked at Starbucks, the oddest portion of this arduous training session had to do with language. There were particular ways in which we were trained to speak, both with patrons and coworkers. Example: The elevator isn’t an elevator, it is “the lift.” The bathroom or restroom is neither, it is “the WC.” Even our various job titles were sometimes tied up in this peculiar rebranding. Maître d’s were “W insiders,” room attendants were “W stylists,” and maintenance workers were “W engineers.” The dishwashers were still dishwashers, and the bartenders were still bartenders, and the chefs were still chefs—though there was still that portentous prefix, W, that was always present to remind you that this job wasn’t just like any other job. This was a job at the W.
“But what, exactly, does the W stand for?” someone inevitably inquired, pausing in their vigorous notetaking, in their Starwood-embossed notepad, with their hot pink W Seattle pen.
“We are so HAPPY that you asked!” the game-show hosts from HR exclaimed—and jumped up and down. And then, they took turns speaking, alternating one after the other, as if this were some odd, obsessively rehearsed performance that they had been eagerly waiting to unleash.
“W stands for WOW!”
“W stands for WISTFUL!”
“W stands for WHIMSICAL!”
“W stands for WONDERFUL!”
“But more than anything …”
In unison now, pointing at all of us like we were meant to sing along, ending on a line that seemed vacant of meaning altogether:
“W STANDS FOR W!”
As a newly hired bartender for the W, the first step began with uniform (designer jeans, fitted black button-down) and extended to everything from mixing lavish cocktails to serving high-priced meals. But we were more than just bartenders, remember: we were W bartenders. Not only did I need to do everything that a normal bartending gig required, I also had to aim for something extraordinary in the lives of my customers—something that would really Wow them. Sometimes this meant recommending things that only a Seattle local would know about, like taking the foot ferry to West Seattle for a weekday lunch on the beach or dining at a hidden local restaurant on the quiet north end of Capitol Hill. Sometimes it meant phoning across town for an uncommon spirit or a wine that a customer wanted and having an overeager brand rep deliver it to our front door. But this is a customer philosophy that exists in any brand of high-end service, and it was a detail of the job that I was more than happy to deliver. I liked to make people feel happy and appreciated. And I was, for the most part, proud of where I worked and what I did.
Starwood was—I must admit, when I was first hired there—one of the better corporations that I’d ever worked for. Healthcare packages were generous and affordable and had relatively low deductibles. There was an employer-match commitment for contributions to retirement, and low-risk stock investment options. Employee discounts for Starwood-brand hotels were likewise very generous, sometimes shockingly so, and one could routinely secure drastically reduced rates for rooms at even high-end properties around the world. One of my coworkers at the time, whose brother worked for a major airline, took such advantage of this particular perk that the two of them frequently tag-teamed airfare and lodging benefits, paying little more than taxes and processing fees for trips to places like Paris, Bangkok, Oslo, and New York City.
But the W itself was still a strange, strange place. Everything was about “brand identity,” and managers were always neurotically preoccupied with doing things to reinforce our not-like-the-other-hotels trendiness. We hired DJs to spin house music during lunch on weekdays and brunch over the weekends. We served meals on narrow wood planks. And every year, around Thanksgiving, we erected some truly bizarre monstrosity in the middle of the lobby and were told that it would be our W Christmas tree.
One year, this “tree” was a tentacled mess of pink and yellow fluorescent string with an elongated, pulsing white strobe in its center. Another, it was a series of circular glass sheets, in total maybe one hundred of them, which were layered like a cake from base to peak and made me think of a tornado. Then there were the mirrored boxes filled with mirrored balls, stacked like presents, and crowned, where the angel might normally go, with a blinding, neon pink W.
In retrospect, I suspect that all this was a selling point when it came to the Starwood portfolio and to Marriott’s decision, ultimately, to purchase it. Prior to the merger between these two companies, Marriott didn’t have trendy properties; they were the no-frills business brand. They were the hotel you stayed at when you had a conference on a Monday and Tuesday before you flew out early Wednesday morning. They had no hotel trendy enough to have the nerve sufficient to erect a precariously leaning tower of glass and call it a tree—so this tree, and everything it stood for, was what Marriott International, Inc. wanted for Christmas.
In celebration of the historic Starwood-Marriott marriage, it was announced that a three-day celebration would be hosted by a W hotel somewhere in the world so that all the eclectic W eccentricities could be brazenly on display. All the bigwigs would be invited: general managers, regional directors, international overseers; and because our hotel was one of the original hotels in the W brand, and because we had recently undergone a significant and distinct renovation, the W Seattle was selected as the location for the weekend reception.
The entire hotel was tirelessly entrenched for the weeks leading up to the celebration. The cooks designed and redesigned countless rainbow-colored hors d’oeuvres and entrées, served on leather, clay, and latex. The managers paced the lobby, trailed by an army of W engineers, pointing to this or that couch or chair and moving it slightly to the right or somewhere out of sight in the basement. And the bartenders created cocktail after cocktail, encouraged again and again by supervisors to “really let loose with these. Experiment. WOW us!”
In some ways, it was like being written a blank check. As a bartender, especially when you work for a larger business, you’re generally expected to do things a certain way, over and over again; rarely can you deviate from a predetermined formula. In our hospitality microcosm, this was like landing a Guggenheim fellowship or a MacArthur grant. Pour costs, food costs, money, was no longer of concern. We could experiment and create without any restrictions.
“Yeah, okay,” we smirked. But we crafted elaborate, absurd concoctions. We layered amaros and ports in medicine vials. We strained purple-and-pink spirits into empty salt-and-pepper shakers. A particularly memorable drink from this period of unadulterated Whimsy involved the hollowed-out carcass of an Anaheim pepper, filled with blanco tequila, pineapple and strawberry shrub, a touch of salt, and a splash of champagne. I’m not sure how we propped the pepper up. I think it was sort of corkscrewed into a Mason jar filled with dyed seashells.
Two days before the big weekend, a cartoonish character with a job title like manager of magnificence or ambassador of amazing checked into the hotel unannounced and immediately began to survey the scene. He critiqued everything from the fur-upholstered furniture to the dining room’s stark, minimalistic design. Soon, he made his way to the food and drinks. He sniffed and then dumped a viscous and fluorescent cocktail directly into a spotless sink. He spat out an amuse-bouche in disgust. Constructive criticism is one thing; across-the-board dismissal is another. Normally, I would have been offended by somebody telling me that every drink I made them was awful, that everything coming out of the kitchen was garbage. But it was hard to take the guy very seriously.
“This is all wrong!” He tugged at his pin-striped pajama bottoms and rolled up the sleeves of his yellow corduroy bomber jacket. Then he ran his fingers through his bleached mohawk. “Look at yourselves! This will be a disaster if you don’t step it up.”
Almost everything that we had come up with as a hotel was scrapped. New furniture was wheeled in. Lighting was accented with blue and purple and yellow wherever possible. And our menu, insofar as the bar and kitchen staff had drafted it, was reenvisioned. All with the director of disappointment peering always over our collective shoulders.
The obsessive director was not an anomaly in corporate culture, though he was, certainly, an extreme. I had seen many like him before—people whose entire job description is to go from property to property and find things wrong with them, or, as he might put it, ways to optimize. But the trouble with this common corporate philosophy is that sometimes there isn’t really anything wrong. Some of the most beloved, successful restaurants and bars exist for years, decades, generations, simply because they don’t change. And some of the finest recipes—in food and drink—are astounding in their simplicity. The Negroni has three equal parts: campari, sweet vermouth, and gin. Béchamel, essentially, consists of butter, flour, and milk. That corner restaurant that is still standing, and thriving, and that you love so much, they do it because that same dish you fell in love with several years ago is still just the way you remember it. And it’s still the same because it is perfect just the way it is.
But try telling that to the commandant of change.
We did as we were told. And when the three-day extravaganza began, the hotel looked like a demented peacock: shockingly colorful, shrieking shrill music, posing however possible.
The top-tier management from Marriott were collectively delighted. They slurped the gold-dusted oysters with champagne mignonette. They sipped their steel horns filled with an otherworldly blend of cucumber soda and chartreuse. And they paused one after another to deliberate over the “meaning” of a mural above their cocktail tables depicting a creature who was half octopus, half fighter jet.
Our chief critic remained apprehensive, though he would retract his hand at times when he instinctually reached out to identify another glaring fault. Instead, he zipped up his lambskin jacket with gold-studded shoulder pads, straightened his spine, and gulped a tincture of sparkling wine and caviar, coughing as he finished.
After the congratulations were imparted, and the illustrious three-day event was through, we settled back into something resembling normalcy. Over-the-top drinks, but not so absurdly over-the-top. Over-the-top food, but not served by people wearing embroidered gloves or on dishes forged with seal bones. It felt like waking after a frenetic night of fever dreams or some epic night of partying: the staff in a daze; all of us moving a little slower than usual, regaining our bearings one drink or food order or new customer at a time. Eventually, I mixed someone something mundane like a Manhattan or a cosmopolitan, and when nobody shouted at me to serve it in a jeweled goblet or to garnish it with a lit sparkler, I breathed a long sigh of relief.
But when the fiscal year drew to a close, we soon discovered other unfortunate changes as Marriott employees. Our healthcare plans became less generous and comprehensive. And it was rare now to secure significant hotel discounts in any destination, domestic or abroad, and when you did it was usually at an affordable property: almost never at any of the luxury lines.
As much as we were told that we would remain the same W property, the Marriott powers that be couldn’t resist making some changes to the restaurant and bar menus as well. Our mostly locally sourced beer-and-wine list was largely exchanged with the same boring selections that populate every other Marriott-property menu. The kitchen stopped seeking out local, high-quality meat and produce in the same way, and suddenly the menu was inundated with many of the same generic sorts of things that you will find at every standard business hotel in every city in America.
What remained was the shell. The veneer of W. We could no longer keep good people in the kitchen, because the pay was poor and the work was boring. But that beef patty puck on our once-delectable burger was still presented on that same wooden plank. My coworker could no longer tag-team discount rates and globe-trot to wherever he and his brother wished to go, but now he could shrug and admit that there were—technically—more properties in the world where he could stay. I could no longer tell my friends and family that I had amazing healthcare, “even as a bartender!” But I could still tell them that I was insured.
One evening, I had to tell a regular who spent a lot of money at our property that we were out of all his favorite wines because of changes to our menu and distributors, and his exasperated sigh, the way he shook his head, will always stay with me. We’ve all felt this way before, I think, when corporations consolidate to expand their profit margins and businesses we like suffer the consequences. It’s not just that things change and that one has to adjust to something new. It is that things change, almost uniformly, for the worse: to the detriment of regular people; to the benefit of corpulent corporations.
From what I gathered from the staff who were hired after the merger, the HR training sessions remained largely the same. It was still W this and W that. Except, now, the notepads were embroidered with the word Marriott rather than Starwood. There was still the same song and dance of corporate history, but now it was largely the story of the Marriott family tree, with the W hanging like window dressing. HR kept up their enthusiasm, regardless, from what I heard. There were still quizzes. Gift giveaways.
“And you get a prize!”
“And YOU get a prize!”
But I like to imagine a different version of this routine, replacing a lot of what I was told in that training meeting with the colder, corporate truth. I imagine that HR duo, with their robotic smiles and blouse-pinned microphones, posturing like old times, only to say something like “Try not to get sick while you work here!” before admitting that thousands of Marriott employees were, in fact, at that exact moment, on strike in several major cities around the country. They demanded fair pay. Protection against sexual harassment. Decent health care. They wanted that Wow! that the W, and other properties, promised them. And they wanted it Now!
“But what, exactly, does the W stand for?” someone would inevitably inquire, pausing their vigorous note-taking in their flimsy Marriott notepad with their faded pink W Seattle pencil.
“We are so HAPPY that you asked!” The game-show hosts from HR would exclaim and jump about. And then they would launch into their familiar, fatigued refrain, their list of all the wondrous adjectives and positive connotations that the letter W apparently stood for all at the same time. But here I imagine them reaching the end of this strange tautology, and something suddenly occurring to them for perhaps the first or the thousandth time as their postures soften and their smiles fade: that a letter means nothing, inherently; that a corporation will never own nor mass-produce sincere human emotions; that to believe a W stands for anything, besides being an arbitrary character, is both bizarre and inane.
Still, they will lean forward, their eyes laden with lethargy.
“But more than anything …”
All together now.
“W STANDS FOR W!”
Stephen Haines is an M.F.A. graduate of Western Washington University and the former managing editor of Bellingham Review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at The Los Angeles Review, Invisible City, Pacifica Literary Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Seattle.