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Times of the Islands Magazine

Way Past Checkout Time

Jun 30, 2023 10:24AM ● By Ken Burgener

A lifetime spent in hotel rooms yields some life lessons. Remember when keys came with a plastic tag that had the address of the hotel and the room number printed on it? Now you get a credit-card-size key, which opens your door electronically—unless it doesn’t. ILLUSTRATION BY DAVE DROTLEFF

Hey, Ken, when the buzzer sounds, your job is to go to the front door and let them in.” So begins my story of more than 4,500 nights in hotels, from Lake Wawasee in Indiana to Cairo, Egypt, and
many other locations. I have seen many changes in the hotel industry—some good, some not so good. So, check in and let me take you on a long and far journey… here is your key.

The night I graduated from high school, I moved into a hotel—not because I was mad at my family, but my family was the reason that I was living in a hotel for the summer. My great-great grandfather was a minister and helped buy a church camp on Lake Wawasee. My parents had met there, and I was lucky to have both sets of grandparents still living there. I got a job as a lifeguard at the camp and was paid $50 a week plus room and board at the hotel on the property. I was surprised to find out that I was not only the lifeguard but also night watchman,
painter, cook, cleaner, and anything else that the boss wanted me to do.

My first official day as lifeguard was the most exciting day of my next three years in that job. A
young kid and his cousin were playing on the pier when he pulled her off and she landed on his f ace. He was wearing a diving mask, which broke and made a six-inch gash on his head. Head wounds bleed heavily and with him in the water, it looked like he had been decapitated. I ran over to the pier and got him out of the water. As I carried him to the hotel, I grabbed the first towel that I saw, a nice white one. Now we were both covered with wet, red blood.

The hotel desk called the fire department in nearby Syracuse, Indiana, population around 800 people. Turns out that about 799 of them were volunteers at the fire department, and since
this was a Saturday afternoon, everybody in the city responded to the call. The police department brought both of its cars, and the fire department sent every piece of equipment it had. A few
hundred cars and trucks with blue lights also responded.

Everyone at the camp at that time was sure that something horrible was going on and they also ran down to the hotel to see the show. The injured child was put into the ambulance and taken to see a doctor. He ended up with seven stitches to his head. I became the hero and had to tell the story again and again. Over the next three summers, nothing that exciting happened
again. One girl got stung by a bee, and that was about it. But that added up to 270 of my nights spent in a hotel.

In high school I was a photographer and applied for a job with the company that took our school pictures. During the job interview I was invited up to the owner’s office where he and his wife talked with me about the job. Root Photographers had more than 45 photographers in its company and took millions of pictures a year. A picture of Star Nahrwold was hanging on the wall of the office, with another 10 or so student photos. I told the owner that Star was in our school play, and that I had taken the picture. His wife said, “Well, in that case we better hire you now!”

So started my career as a photographer. Since I was new and young, they made me the traveling guy. I spent six and sometimes seven nights a week in hotels all over the Midwest, mostly Holiday Inns. There were many of them in most of the cities where I worked. Big, bright signs made them easy to find, and, importantly, they would cash checks for me.

Many times, at night or early in the morning, I would have to look at the phone book to figure
out what city I was in. I was moving every day, going to a different city to take school pictures.
Any time that I would check into a hotel and then check out with the same front-desk person
on duty, I knew I had not gotten enough sleep. In all the time I spent in Holiday Inns back in the
mid-’70s, however, I never got a free breakfast, or loyalty points to qualify for free stays. In that
respect, hotels have changed for the better in the past 40 years.

I worked for Roots for three seasons, spending about 360 more nights in hotels. When my neighbor in Indiana, John, sold his house and bought a sailboat in Fort Lauderdale to sail around the Bahamas, he asked if I would like to come down and help. Well, let’s think about this: Chicago in the winter, or the Caribbean. Off I went.

John ended up on an island called Andros, which is the largest island in the Bahamas, where I went to visit. He was working for a company called International Field Studies (IFS), a nonprofit educational organization that had boats, buses, vans, airplanes, and a field station on Andros. Somehow, they hired me also, and it was the best job. I called my parents and told them I had a job running a sailboat. Dad asked how was that possible as my only sailing experience was when I was a lifeguard at Lake Wawasee. The simple answer was I am a fast learner and no one else was available.

While at IFS, I got my captain’s, divemaster’s, and commercial driver’s licenses. I worked in all the organization’s divisions and traveled with the boss for years. This added up to another 500 nights in hotels.
One night as I was driving the IFS bus from Columbus, Ohio, to Ft. Lauderdale, I stopped and was talking with a Greyhound bus driver, who told me how much money he was making—more in one week than I did the entire year. Well, looks like a new job for Ken.

I had not had an address since I worked at Lake Wawasee several years before. Sailboats, field stations, tents, and hotels were my home. When I applied with Greyhound, I used my
parents’ address, which was all I had. Several months later Greyhound called and offered me a job driving a bus. “Go Greyhound and leave the driving to Ken!”

After a six-week course, I was not necessarily a better driver but now knew how to do all the paperwork that Greyhound required its drivers to do. I was assigned to Palm Beach, where
I lived for three weeks in a hotel on the beach. It was great but then I was sent to Miami, not so great. I talked with the head dispatcher and explained that I did not live anywhere and would love to do long charters. Since most of the drivers did not want to be gone overnight, I was put on these trips. Some were as long as 25 nights going all over the country.

In the next six years I spent another 1,080 nights in hotels and never once did a hotel not have our rooms ready and waiting. All the reservations were done by phone, directly with the front desks. Today when you make a reservation it is with someone in a call center perhaps in India or the Philippines, not always a positive change for hotel guests.

This was also before cell phones and GPS. I actually had to read a map. During my years with Greyhound, I worked six months on and six months off. In my off time, I traveled to different
places, mostly in the Bahamas running boats. One of the good things about Greyhound was that most of the large stations had rooms for the drivers. I often stayed there, or I sometimes stayed in hotels that had a deal with Greyhound, saving me lots of money. This amounted to another 540 nights in hotels.

In the mid-’80s my girlfriend and I spent four months in Mexico. Before we left, the peso was 25 to 1. Two weeks later it was 150 to 1, making me one rich guy in Mexico. We spent several weeks in very nice hotels, several on the beach, with pools and beach dining available. Today most of these places are surrounded by bigger hotels, and the beaches are packed. I’m glad I was able to spend time there before the crowds came.

Sometimes I think that I am partly responsible for the influx of tourists in these great places, since I would tell all my friends to go there, and I also would let everyone know about secret drives
and nice, isolated hideaways. But the population has almost doubled in the interim, so maybe I should not be held ac countable.

As I write this article, I am in South Texas, where the first cold front of the season has arrived. I turned on the heater and got that dusty, burnt smell that people in the south are used to. I remember that most of the hotels where I’ve stayed have smelled fairly good, which I guess meant they were clean. I do not remember any time that I had to get someone to clean my
room before I moved in.

During and after Covid, hotels are wrapping everything in plastic. Also, several hotels are opting not to clean rooms, because of Covid, they say. One hotel will give you 500 points if you decline room service for a day, and then you can feel good about helping conserve water and energy. Those 500 points might get you a free soda at the front desk. So in reality, for a few cents the hotel can save time and money by not sending a maid to your room.

Starting in 1996 my wife and I traveled around the world for a year and a half. This meant another 500 nights in hotels. These were very different from the hotels that I was used to. Again, remember this was before cell phones and websites for hotels and motels. We chose our accommodations by walking up to the place and taking a look. Several times we declined rooms
because of the conditions and the bad smells.

Our first night in a hotel on this trip was in London. My wife was concerned about not finding a place to sleep, but we walked out of the “Tube” and there it was: Ken’s Place. It provided a good room and was inexpensive. We never again worried about finding a place to stay.

We spent a week in Fiji at an all-inclusive resort. We had gone diving and the dive shop had a deal with the resort. We could stay in a special room for $10 per night, but we might have to
share it with another couple. The room was the smallest in the resort, but it was nice. It had no water view, but a one-minute walk and we were on the beach. Our first day we went to breakfast, and the waiter explained that all our food and drinks were covered in the room rate. Another guest told us they had gotten a great deal at the resort, only $199 per night, per person. No
one ever showed up to share our room, and then we found out that the diving was also included. Indeed, this $10 room was a “pretty good deal.”

In Cairo, Egypt, we stayed at local hotels. Several of the staff came to practice their English skills and tell us about their lives. We met tourists who were staying in the large international chain hotels and paying 10 times what we were. During our stay, there was an attack on a large tourist hotel, killing several Americans and foreign travelers.

The least expensive room we found on this trip was outside Cairo: $3 a night, and we overpaid. We sent our clothes out to be cleaned and they came back dirtier; a guy walked down to
the Nile River and dipped our stuff in. He also lost one of my socks. Because of the attack in Cairo, the tourist trade went down 90 percent. This meant we had several museums almost
to ourselves. I was standing in a room with a guard and King Tut. We talked for 20 minutes (the guard, not King Tut), and no one else came in.

We went to Santorini, Greece, in December, off-season for tourists. We could not find an open hotel. I went into a bar next to a hotel and asked the bartender how we could find a room.
He pointed to another patron drinking and said, “Here is the owner of the hotel; ask him.” The guy stood up and slid some keys down the bar to me. “There ya’ go, stay as long as ya’ want
to. No charge, but there was also no heat. We paid for the guy’s drink and stayed for four nights. I went back to the bar with the keys, and slid them down to the owner and again paid for his drinks.

Many of the tourists we met were consulting Lonely Planet guides. These travel guides are good at suggesting a range of places to stay, but then you inevitably end up in the tourist part
of town, which we tried to avoid.

We never stayed at hostels, as it was possible to find a hotel room almost as cheap as paying for two beds in a hostel. We were also hesitant because many of the people who we met who had been staying in hostels said they had been robbed. Besides, we could afford the extra couple of dollars a night.

Upon returning from our world tour, I was hired by the Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum in Fort Lauderdale, where my job was to go fishing with kids—a fun job. My position there evolved
into traveling to different places to give away fishing equipment. I had a great-looking truck and a fancy trailer with all the gear inside. In the seven years I worked for this organization, I spent
150 more nights in hotels. Oh, and I caught a lot of fish.

My next positions were with Dragonfly Expeditions and Elderhostel (now called Road Scholar), a large travel company that hired Dragonfly. I spent many nights on the road with both companies,
taking people on bike tours of South Florida, including the Everglades, the Florida Keys, and the gulf coast of Florida. This meant another 200 or so nights in different hotels. At one hotel in Everglades City, I hired the busboy to give a talk about the drug wars that were going on in South Florida. He told us about the police raids and being chased through the Everglades
by federal agents. They never caught him because of his intimate knowledge of the area.

Just this month alone, as I write this article, I have spent 10 nights in hotels. The times are changing. No more local newspaper at the front desk (no, sorry, it is on your phone). Room
keys are becoming an app on your phone. Remember when keys came with a plastic tag that had the address of the hotel and the room number printed on it? That way if you forgot to turn in your key, you could drop it in a mailbox and it would be mailed back to the hotel. I even remember having a skeleton key once for a room in Australia’s Outback. Now you get a credit-
card-size key, which opens your door electronically—unless it doesn’t; sometimes the information gets mysteriously erased.

Some changes—good, bad, and indifferent—I have seen in
the past 10 years or so:
• Complimentary breakfast, which can be great, or nothing but a granola bar, though some more expensive hotels still do not include breakfast with your room.
• Points—collect enough and get a free room.
• Hotel clubs, which sometimes offer a free drink at the bar and a better rate.
• Curved shower curtains (I guess the guests are getting larger?).
• In-room microwaves, small refrigerators, and coffee machines that are now the standard.
• Nice flat-screen TVs, but you need a Ph.D. in computer science just to figure out how to turn them on; and forget about finding a program you want to watch.
• Parking garages that now cost more per night than a room did 50 years ago.
• Nice towels and bed linens.
• Complicated shower controls (what used to be on, off, hot, or cold now can take five minutes to figure out how to turn on the water).
• Tiny bottles of shampoo or conditioner, which you cannot open or read which one is which.
• Soap bars that are now so small you can lose them in or on your body.

I used to be able to get a hotel reservation by picking up the phone and talking to the front desk. Not anymore. Now you have to have an app on your phone or go on a website to make a reservation; or if you get confused, you can call the toll-free number and talk with a person who may have never even been in a hotel.

Most hotels today have business centers with free use of a computer, but since most people now travel with their own computers, business centers will soon disappear. Just make sure when you check in that you get the special password for the Internet, so you can connect with the rest of the world.

Well, off I go to another hotel. Now that I am getting older, I want to stay at a hotel for longer
than a day or two at a time. Maybe in a few years I will write about alternatives such as Airbnbs
and home exchanges. In the meantime, I will continue adding to my lifetime total, now creeping
toward 5,000 nights spent in hotels. I’ve seen lots of changes in these accommodations—mostly
for the best, but sometimes not.

Sanibel resident Ken Burgener is a world traveler. He was a sailboat captain in the Caribbean and has worked as a tour guide for Audubon, Dragonfly Expeditions, AAA, Greyhound, and Road Scholars. He is the founder of Carefree Birding.