London : The management of an affordable hotel at one of the busiest junctions in Essex involves singular challenges. Howto remove spray tan from lavatory seats, for instance? “Lemon juice,” replies Hayley Mundy. “That’s a headache along with glitter spray on the bathroom walls.”
Mundy, 32, manages the Travelodge at Thurrock Services where endless streams of trucks and cars stream along the Dartford Crossing to fork out along the M25, left into London or out east to Southend. The service station is surrounded by a confusion of large roundabouts, each one clogged with lorries grinding back and forth from the nearby docksides. It’s a random landscape of expressways, flyovers, pylons and the distant dome of the Lakeside shopping centre all knitted together with wild tracts of bindweed.
The hotel entrance is in a grey concrete wall jutting from a corner of the Moto services centre. It looks like a fire exit for Burger King. And down a flight of steps, in the bowels of Moto, isthe tiny reception area.
It’s hard, when descending, to think of a less glamorous kingdom. But I am in for three surprises. The first is the immaculateness of the corridors so redolent of those on a cruise liner that staff refer to them as decks. The second is the vista from the bedrooms: an untrammelled outlook over a lake and more bindweed swathes below the windows. Even the loo has a view.
The third is Mundy herself. For Mundy, who trained as a beauty therapist, visibly loves her job. “I’ve never,” she says, “woken up and thought I don’t want to go to work today.”
And the evident reason why she relishes it so is because she loves people; the hauliers who double and triple up in one room on their way to and from the continent; the exhausted business people breaking a commute; the stressed hordes who descend when gales close the Dartford Bridge over to Kent and thereby all access south along the motorway; and clubbers who collapse in the 19-a-night rooms.
Even the little boy who ran vomiting to his mother down the carpeted corridor. “I wasn’t sure whether to catch it as it fell or scoop it up after him but, poor little chap, my heart went out to him,” she says. “I really like to get my hands dirty.”
By which she means that she prefers to embed herself in the nitty-gritty of hotel life rather than reign over her staff in a business suit. “When Istarted at Travelodge I got a job as a cleaner because I wanted to start at the bottom and work my way up,” she says. “Cleaners are the bread and butter of ahotel and you need to experience how hard their work is in order to understand their contribution.”
She, like the cleaning staff she now manages, was taught how to polish a mirror, remove dog hair from carpet pile and fit on a duvet cover in 60seconds. She learned to make the beds and close the windows before dusting the rooms, how to position the wastepaper baskets under the desk so people don’t aim their used tea bags and miss and she was drilled in mantras that the staff mutter daily to themselves mantras such as “Pink [cloths] for sinks, blue for loos”.
The extraordinary thing is that she describes the process with such joy that I listen raptly, inspired to start on my own cobwebbed corners. “How many of us,” she says shamingly, “ever dust our lightbulbs at home?”
Each morning she assigns her team of cleaners an extra ‘job of the day’. “In every room, for instance, we’ll wash the walls, shower curtains and mattress protectors and Hoover under the beds each week.” And they fumigate the lifts. “Did you realise,” Mundy says, “that when you share a lift up four floors with someone you inhale their whole surface area of dead skin?”
Her thoroughness (“I drive my team mad because I like to know everything”) is displayed in the paper-smooth bedlinen and unblemished carpets. She knows the inside of every drawer and the grouting of each tile. She resembles, in fact, the chatelaine of aprivate mansion rather than the manager of a motorway stop-off.
“It’s very homely here,” she says. “There are 13staff and we’re all the best of friends. Every day we take it in turns to bring in lunch for everyone and we celebrate every birthday.” Guests, one-off or regular, are absorbed into the “family” in discreetly canny ways. Their stay is logged and flagged up along with any previously identified needs or preferences should they check in again one day.
“If someone comes to reception to ask for a hairdryer, we’ll make a note on the computer and if they stay again we’ll make sure there’s one in their room,” says Mundy, who believes that all guests are regarded as potential regulars because the aim is to tempt them to return. “There’s one lorry driver who works nights and can’t sleep in the day if the corridor light is on so we always give her a room at the end and remove the lightbulb outside her door.”
Mundy’s route, via beauty, into hospitality began in 2005 when she decided she wanted to do something utterly different and work in a company with a defined ladder of progression. And so she cleaned for four months at a Travelodge in Basildon, before her charisma was harnessed for the reception desk. Since then she’s worked her way through seven Travelodges in and around the London sprawl and was quickly identified as a candidate for the company’s management training programme.
She arrived at Thurrock two years ago and relishes its relative smallness. “In smaller hotels you’re much more hands on,” she says. “You can raise an issue with someone quite openly while you’re out and about, instead of having to call a formal meeting and, if a couple of staff are off sick, you don your overalls, get down on your knees and start scrubbing the rooms yourself.”
It’s this hands-on approach that puts her off a career in a grander hotel. “Starred accommodation can be very hierarchical and impersonal,” she says. Instead, her ambition is to move to Travelodge’s head office and devote herself to a role in health and safety, an area of expertise gained from her training as a cleaner. “People scoff at it,” she says, “but it’s essential: knowing about the cleaning chemicals you use, for instance, and what to do if you accidentally get some in your eye.”
Although Mundy’s empire is a small one, her routine, she says, is endlessly varied. “When I arrive, I get all my banking and payroll stuff out of the way,” she says. “I’ll prepare cleaning rotas and pick up any issues with the staff, then I organise my 10-at-10: it’s 10minutes at 10am every day when we all meet and have a chat about the day. I’ll do safety checks round the hotel then inspect all the rooms, which takes up the majority of the day and is the most important task. But in between anything can happen and often does.”
That “anything” was once a man ringing up to ask if he could bring his pet alligator. “He said he’d keep it in the bath and put towels on the bed.” In this instance the company adjusted its “pets welcome” policy. Or it could be the guest who realised, on his return home, that he’d left his signed copy of a Gordon Ramsay book in a heap of discarded newspapers by the bin. “He’d stayed at the hotel expressly to get Ramsay’s signature,” says Mundy who, on discovering that the cleaners had binned papers and book, clambered inside a skip of 190sacks of rubbish with her staff and sifted through until they’d located it.
Although she spends much of her working life in the minute windowless reception lobby (she has no office of her own) and is stranded on a service station in the middle of nowhere, she doesn’t feel isolated. “There are too many people coming through the door,” she says. Plus there’s the significant comfort of a Krispy Kreme doughnut machine up the stairs in the Moto area and a circle of fast-food chains dispensing saturated fats to motorists. “I’ve put on two stone since coming here,” she says. “Every time I go upstairs I just melt at the sight of it all.”
She admits, however, to a regular itch that she reckons will start making itself felt soon. Whereupon she’ll be up for a move, but only within the company. “Cut me open,” she says, “and I’ve got Travelodge right through me like a stick of rock.” I know a PRcliche when I hear one but, when I survey her joyous face, I realise it’s true. Inside her, amid the Krispy Kremes, is aheart that is wedded to her work.