Before They Arrive

 In Coastal Life, OBX Community

You will undoubtedly see and speak with the waitress who brings your food, but you rarely see how your clean sheets and towels arrived hours before your family arrived. And you may chat at length with a shop owner or a boat captain, but it’s only when a garbage collection doesn’t happen that you notice what that worker does during your vacation. Here we take a behind-the-scenes look at a few key industries that are devoted to making your time here the perfect vacation.

*Names of people and properties have been changed where noted.

Kerry* – Pools and Hot Tubs

I’m not in Kerry’s work van for long before I notice the strong smell of chlorine. Over time, the corrosive effect of pool chemicals has taken its toll on her radio and other automobile amenities. She stopped repairing them long ago.

It’s a weekday morning in October and we’re traveling a circuitous route to houses that seem to be within shouting distance as the crow flies. I’m shadowing Kerry who is getting pools ready for the seasonal closing or what may be the last rental week of the season. Pool companies can earn their stripes (and their summer approval ratings) on the work they do in fall. A problem-free opening leads to happy homeowners and renters in spring… and both of those successes have their beginnings long before vacationers arrive.

Cleaning-Pool“There are over 29,000 pools between here and Hatteras,” says Kerry, a 50-something beach lover who is now in her 11th year as a pool cleaner in the northern beaches of the Outer Banks. She will say that a small pool service company like the one that employs her with 100 pool cleaning accounts can make a living if they add installations and repairs to their list of services, but “if you’re just cleaning 20 pools a week, it’s not enough to make a living.” She explains that a lot of teachers and waiters who have flexibility in the summer will use pool cleaning as a supplement to their other income.

“Where are my cats?” she asks as we let ourselves into the soundfront Shangri-la of one of her pools. (With such familiarity, it’s hard not to feel like an interloper on someone else’s life.) She has pet treats at the ready to reward them for their contribution to her duties.

“I love the cats because they keep away the snakes,” Kerry says.

While this pool may not be on her list to clean today, she stops by anyway to keep a watchful eye on algae before it blooms and to keep the skimmer empty; both tasks will make her weekly cleaning sessions less problematic. Each house location has its challenges. Soundfront pool maintenance means keeping bugs, decaying leaves and snakes at bay; oceanfront pool care is challenged by sand and a northeast wind that will take away each precious degree of heat.

Kerry may start her first pools as early as 6 a.m. to beat some of the peak Saturday traffic. “I love being out and seeing nature,” she says.

She’s particularly fond of seeing the joy on people’s faces as they get out of their cars and will painfully describe those who make a last trek over the dunes to glimpse the ocean before traveling home. “That’s the kind of person I know I would get along with,” Kerry smiles.

Pet peeves? Early arrivals. “People who show up asking if they can ‘just put some stuff down here’ means I’m stepping over Junior who’s cranky and crying while I’m trying to get their chemicals balanced.”  An unattended child near a pool during check-in day is a dangerous setup.

Hot-Tub-ChemicalsShe hauls out a hammer and taps in a few errant deck nails and then sprays Round-Up on weeds that are threatening a hot tub pump.

“No one realizes how many trades I end up doing by the end of the day. I’m not just a pool cleaner; I end up doing a little landscaping, housekeeping and carpentry work too; and sometimes I end up being a detective. If a real estate company tells me the house is empty one week and I go by there and see signs of the house being used, I have to find out if the owner is using it unannounced …or something worse.”

The biggest surprise? “People can be slobs! It’s not uncommon to see dirty diapers, decaying food and dog poop on the deck. The grossest thing I found was a cucumber with a condom on it. And some folks will use the pool as a foot wash after their beach walk instead of the outdoor showers or hoses.” She adds, “and those are the same folks who are upset when they realize our mid-week service is for a chemical balance and safety-check. It’s not for a pool cleaning!”  

The perks are pretty good, though, the single mom explains, “I’ll work four mornings a week – five hours each day; that [schedule] allows me to see my daughter more. If I worked a traditional 9 to 5, I’d never see her.”

She supplements her income with other odd jobs including light construction detail work during the winter months.
“Everyone on the Outer Banks has to do what they can to make it work, she says.”

“… the better these people were at their jobs, the more invisible they became.”
– Jeanne Marie Laskas,
Hidden America


KeysCarol* and Barbara* – Real Estate Reservations

It’s a cold Friday in February and local schools have been closed for three days because of single digit temperatures and icy roads. Surprisingly, it is weather conditions like these that mean today is ground zero for you and your hot and humid vacation plans. If you didn’t sign up for ‘your week’ at a favorite cottage before you left the beach last year, chances are, in order to make your summer plans possible, you will end up speaking to someone on the Outer Banks in the wintertime.

To get a sense of what reservationists hear, I’m listening in on the 800-reservation lines at a real estate company that average 125 calls per day. During their peak reservation months of January, February, and March they can receive up to 250 calls.

Carol,* the director of reservation sales and guest services explains that the conversations can range from what you would consult a therapist for: “We think my son’s wife has been cheating on him…” (and the caller is hoping for a magical vacation week to heal family wounds) to questions you would ask a marine biologist: “Are the jellyfish going to be bad during my week?” (“That’s up to the ocean,” is Carol’s reply.)

I get the sense that Barbara, who is fielding calls on the day that I am listening, can handle any questions, all with a smile. One of todays’ callers is asking about a heated pool and travel insurance while planning a stay at Palladium,* a luxury soundfront home.

The Corolla home rents for over $7,000 per week in the summer. When the customer’s request involves more research with the property owner, Barbara’s quick to suggest that she will call the owner and give the prospective renter a sense of when he will get answers.

There are almost 600 houses from Hatteras to Corolla represented by this one call center and only 11 reservationists to field calls. Barbara acknowledges that the internet has changed their jobs.

“[Customers] can book at 3 a.m. online if they want. Sure, it’s convenient. But for those who aren’t internet savvy, we can do that extra hand-holding,” she explains.

Sixty percent of this company’s rental weeks are booked online while the reservationists will fill the remaining vacancies.

When comparing her company’s contracts to online transactions between renter and owner, Carol says, “they may be cheaper, but we can offer more confidence [with the transaction] than when an owner lives out of state” and who may not be responsive to repair needs or possible double-booking incidents.

She recalls one incident, “Our renters picked up their keys and paperwork and when they pulled into the driveway, there was already a car sitting in the driveway.” The folks in the driveway had printed emails showing they had booked and paid for the same house through Craig’s List but had no way of getting a house key. Their agreement paperwork was a scam and it was the real estate company’s guests who remained at the house for the week.

Just as the call volume decreases from the winter booking season, the influx of owners and renters in the spring creates a new demand on this same call center. “Weekends are mandatory in this business,” says Carol. Seventy-five percent of their homes change over on Saturday. The remainder change occupants on Friday or Sunday.

“We try to get homeowners to change [away from Saturday],” says Carol, “because the more desirable, large, oceanfront homes will rent regardless of check-in day.”

But she understands that the Saturday turnover day is more attractive to vacationers limiting their time away from work to five weekdays. Meanwhile, Carol advises renters, “avoid the three-mile bridge and take I-64 instead, especially if your destination is anywhere south [of Duck].”

When it comes to complaints that get called in during season, “I’ve heard it all” Carol says. Common complaints concern air conditioning, clogged toilets, and lost keys, but some complaints, they can’t do anything about:

“Someone needs to come and get rid of (fill in the blank).”
Her reply: “Yes, there are mosquitos (or foxes or flies) on the Outer Banks and no, our company is not responsible for removing them.”

“Someone needs to come clear the sand off of our walkway.”
Her reply: “Boards leading down to the ocean tend to get drifts of sand on them will not be swept clean by the company.”

“The trampoline is not bouncy.” (It was a fabric pool cover, not a trampoline).

While renters may never meet the voice on the other end of the reservation line, 95% of renters at this company state that they would rent again from them on the check-out questionnaire.

Carol’s last piece of advice for any caller who will listen? “You will always need more beach towels than you think.”

Mike and Lynn – Public Works, Solid Waste Management

It’s early morning and I’m following a zig-zag path on side streets between the highways in Kill Devil Hills to capture photographs of what trash collectors see on a typical morning. All the signs are there of a fun vacation week: garbage lids that won’t close, broken beach chairs, deflated pool floats, and recycling containers that are overfilled with bottles and cans.

Joseph “Mike” Wilson, a 15-year employee with Kill Devil Hills’ Solid Waste Department says, the first thing you hear when there’s an overflow of trash is, “It’s not my trash; it’s the people before.”

Garbage-TruckAs vacationers slip into vacation mode and lose track of days of the week, it’s not unusual to miss the designated days for trash pick-up. Complaints start coming in as soon as new renters arrive to find garbage cans that are already full.

Wilson’s driving route begins at 5 a.m. during summer and he’s been known to work a full 12 hours in order to finish the route. The town hires only one extra driver during the summer.

Wilson says, “Some people think my job is easy, but I have a lot to watch out for: kids, cars, even what I dump out… ashes can be a mess.”

Lynn Lindsey who has been with the department for 29 years and is currently serving as crew leader reports that during peak season, Kill Devil Hills alone will produce 70-80 tons of trash per week. (That figure is cut in half in February.) When non-recycled, solid waste leaves the Outer Banks, it travels 30 miles to the Stumpy Point transfer station and is then hauled another 100 miles to the Bertie County landfill. Lindsey estimates that only 50-60% of the homes in their routes utilize the voluntary recycling program.

When asked about other challenges to the job, Lindsey says that he wished people stored their cans off of the street “because then we’re wasting time dumping empty cans.” Wilson added “a lot of people put [the can] out backwards,” so I have to get out of the truck and turn it around before pick up.

When photos were taken for this article, one homeowner rushed out to say “there was no better driver than Mike. You couldn’t pick a nicer guy [to interview].” Not one to brag, Wilson had a hard time explaining the endorsement. When prodded, he answers, “Well, if trash falls out, I get out and pick it up; I also help some elderly folks on my route if they need it.”

Answers come quickly when asked about the benefits of the job.“Meeting people,” says Wilson, “I love the kids; they go crazy over the truck!” Certainly there are thanks like tips and gifts at Christmas time, which are appreciated, but he also receives plenty of cards that simply say they’re glad for the service he provides. One resident wrote, “The town is lucky to have an employee like you.”

Wilson says, “It means a lot … to just get a ‘thank you.’”

Linen-on-DeckAllison* – Linen service

Anyone who has ever rented a vacation week at a beach home knows the drill for the last night in “their cottage.” Meal planning revolves around using what is left in the refrigerator and pantry. The car is loaded with a few suitcases. Everything else is staged and ready to be checked out of the house to comply with the rental agreement – typically 10 a.m. While these departures seem to happen too early, renters will often discover the army-like precision of pre-dawn linen deliveries on their doorstep for the next wave of guests to arrive.

Just like the magic of an unseen Santa, large duffels or plastic bins appear with cryptic details of someone else’s stay on tags that reveal towel counts, bedding arrangements, and how many linen bags were part of the delivery.

Allison* is the office manager for a major linen company that employs over 200 employees during the summer. In addition to restaurant and medical linen service, her company also provides clean linens to rental properties from as far north as the four-wheel drive properties in Corolla and as far south as Ocracoke.

“The first thing you’ll notice is how fresh and clean it smells and how sterilized our floors are,” says Allison.

Those are not the first adjectives that come to mind when envisioning a receiving area for dirty linens and towels. She credits the production and general managers for being “neat freaks” to make that possible. Also, the company recently earned their medical accreditation which is the highest sterilization standard for linen service. What that means to renters is that their rental towels and linens undergo the same sterilization process that surgical linens receive. It’s a tough accreditation and requires a separate stream of treatment for all three types of laundry.

When asked about the specific challenges of the job, she speaks of the fire hazards of lint and the high temperatures required to kill bed bugs, but one aspect is relevant to beach lovers everywhere, “As soon as the warmer weather hits, you start seeing the suntan lotion.”

Zinc-based products will wash out, but oil-based sunscreens require a specific surfactant to break down oils and prevent a permanent stain. Allison says that before this detergent was developed, the stains were so permanent, “you could see the shape of a hand where someone had wiped their hand off on the bed.”

It takes a special kind of person to work any of the summer shifts. She says that like most commercial laundry facilities, “there’s no air-conditioning here…so when it’s 96ºF outside, it’s not a comfortable environment inside.” It is a challege to find enough local workers to staff during peak summer months. Many of the summer employees are in this country on temporary H-2B work visas.

The massive warehouse buildings are used 24/7 in peak season, although Allison admits, “We have to drop back to 20-hour days during some parts of summer to let the machines cool down.”

Nancy* and Addie* – Housekeeping

It’s a month before the Memorial Day rush and I’m observing a training session for housekeepers at a large real estate company’s warehouse on the mainland. On a typical summer Saturday alone, these housekeepers will make it possible for more than 400 groups of vacationers to move into sparkling clean cottages.

I’m surrounded by a variety of folks: moms and teachers trying to make extra money during the summer months, teenagers who in a few weeks will graduate from high school in their hometown one hour away from the beach, and a few husband-wife teams ready to work together on summer weekends to increase their family income.

TowelsThe high school senior I interview held this same job last summer and is able to clean four or five houses each Saturday.

She explains why she likes the job, “I like cleaning… and it’s better than a fast food job.”

Today’s trainer is Nancy who has spent many summers cleaning rental cottages.

“Your job is to make us look good,” pointing to the handful of customer service and company representatives who are standing in the back of the room today.

That seems a lofty goal where the tasks include unclogging shower drains, changing lightbulbs, cleaning grills, emptying charcoal, and picking up pet waste along with all the other conventional tasks associated with a clean house.

Cleaners are paid between $30 and $500 per residence with the lower figure representing a one-bedroom condo and the higher figure a 16-bedroom home.

Nancy adds, “Your job is more important than just cleaning toilets. Everything starts with housekeeping. Pay attention to your first impression when you pull up into the driveway; if you see a plastic bottle that has blown into the front yard, the guest will see that too and will start picking apart [the cleanliness] of the whole house.”

The first of many surprises discovered during the training session is that while cleaning chemicals are provided to housekeepers (which helps the company comply with OSHA laws), none of the other tools of the trade are. Cleaners must provide their own vacuums, mops, brooms, grill scrubbers, squeegees, rags, paper towels, you-name-it – even toilet brushes.

Personal appearance on the job is covered during the training but not just from the safety standpoint, such as wearing closed-toe shoes, but also for possibly making a favorable impression on the homeowners and renters they may never meet.

In fact, cleaners are reminded that it’s best not to chat with or give too many details to owners and renters who happen to arrive while they are cleaning. No one wants to hear that their prized real estate investment or the house where they will be sleeping was filthy a few hours ago.

“It’s best to just say, we’re getting it ready for you; it’ll be nice and clean when we leave,” says Nancy.

One woman I speak with, Addie, is responsible for a single house each and every Saturday, and she works alone. She prefers it that way. Addie’s house is an oceanfront resort in Nags Head often rented by large families for special events. This will be her fourth season with the company, and she has earned a reputation for the exacting demands she places on her own performance.

Addie remains above the fray when it comes to “callbacks” (when cleaners get called back to a home that was not cleaned sufficiently) or “trashed houses.” An entire page in the training manual is devoted to the latter.

Nancy describes trashed houses as “looking like they ate breakfast and left…it’s like they just woke up at 9:55 and threw the kids in the car.” The manual further describes it as having “extensive damage and excessive filth,” and shows a photograph of a room that looks like a frat party was held there. (For just that reason, most local real estate companies avoid signing rental agreements for graduation celebrations and college spring breaks and will only rent to groups of family members.)  

Before tackling a trashed house, cleaners must document it with photos and report to the company. The housekeeping department, not the cleaner, will determine if the house is indeed ‘trashed,’ resulting in extra pay for the cleaners.

Sometimes, it is necessary to send a second team to the same house where they all rush to meet the check-in deadline for the next guests. If the company passes the expense onto the previous renters, the surcharge is based on the number of extra hours and repairs it takes to prepare the house for the next guests. Many of the cleaners I speak with say that getting the trashed house designation (and extra pay) are too rare.

Nancy explains that the company is conservative with the designation because, “We’re not going to pay you less if a renter left it really clean, so why should we pay extra for a filthy one?”

Addie does not worry about her single resort home ever becoming a trashed house. Her secret?

“I greet guests [when they arrive] and give them a tour. I tell them, “Now if you don’t like it, if you don’t think it’s clean, tell me what’s wrong with it so I can fix it before I leave.” (She lives an hour’s drive away.)

She starts naming the repeat guests she is looking forward to seeing this summer.

“I’ve been invited to cookouts and for breakfast the next Saturday,” One person told her, “The best part of this vacation was meeting you!”

Her eye contact commands my attention in a warehouse where fifty other people are milling around us. She uses our interview to demonstrate how she is not the invisible worker behind someone’s vacation.

“You have to engage them and make them feel important … like YOU are the most important person in my life.”

She pauses but holds her gaze, “Look. My goodness! We just connected, you and I, just by talking to one another. See how that happens?”♦

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