In the hotel office at the Hampton Inn, there’s a sign tacked up to a corkboard: “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out: Mom taught me the circle of life.”
Megan Eckdahl and Susan Perkins laugh and talk over each other when they talk about the sign – and about anything else, for that matter.
“It was a Mother’s Day present,” Eckdahl says.
“Yes, it was a Mother’s Day present,” Perkins agrees.
“I got it for her because that’s what she used to always tell us when we were little,” Eckdahl says.
Perkins nods. “Yep, that’s what I always said.”
Perkins and Eckdahl are the mother-daughter team who run Gainesville’s Hampton Inn at 4225 SW 40th Blvd., and their relationship reflects their business model: warm, familiar and family-oriented.
The duo has been working together for the past year, Perkins as general manager and Eckdahl as director of sales.
Perkins uses parental analogies to describe what her work is like.
“You’re constantly making things right,” she says. “You do a lot of hand-holding. You’re like a little mom all the time.”
She says the nurturing mentality has trickled down to the staff members, many of whom she says hug and kiss each other good morning at the beginning of each workday. It’s not unusual to have housekeepers who are siblings or are related somehow.
That close-knit, “touchy-feely” culture wouldn’t work everywhere, she notes, but it seems to work well at the Hampton. Even as an older property, the franchise has won numerous awards within the brand for customer service and general excellence.
“Everybody is different,” says Perkins, who has worked in the hotel industry since the late ‘70s . “I run this like a family – I mean, obviously.” She catches Eckdahl’s eye, and they both laugh and nod.
Eckdahl, the middle child of three sisters who jumped into hotel work after a stint in real estate, sees it that way, too.
“Like a brother or sister, you don’t want to disappoint anybody,” she says of the staff.
And just like in a family, everyone has to be ready to pitch in when dirty jobs need to be done. Perkins and Eckdahl gestured to an office cabinet: They keep flip-flops and outfit changes in case they need swap out of their professional attire to clean rooms.
They also get called upon to supervise repairs – or make them themselves. Perkins said she’s climbed up through the narrow crawlspace to check out issues with the air conditioning on the roof more than once.
“I’m a dress person,” she said, laughing. “I’ve probably crawled around more places than I should in a dress and heels.”
Even when employees get into petty disagreements, Perkins handles it with the firmness and composure of a parent.
She brings the squabblers into her office and makes them talk it out while she continues working on her computer. She said her employees know she will make them work out their differences, as much as they may dislike the process of resolving it.
“It’s funny – I call myself a babysitter,” Perkins said, “but I tell them, ‘I’m not here to babysit you. Fix it.’”
Each day brings a new set of guests as varied as Cracker Jack prizes: You never know what you’re going to get.
“There are so many times people are screaming and yelling at you – I had one today – and you just have to remember they’re having a bad day, and they just need to vent,” Eckdahl said.
Sometimes they even have to use detective-like sleuthing skills to handle complaints.
They recalled an instance when hotel guests complained about dogs – not allowed at the Hampton unless they’re service animals – barking in a room.
When they contacted the guest the dogs belonged to, he first said he didn’t have dogs. When further pressed, he said it wasn’t possible that his three pets were barking because he’d given them Benadryl to make them sleep.
Perkins recalled another incident when someone from Café Risqué called the front desk to say a prostitute was at the Hampton hotel and was competing with the nightclub’s business.
They’ve also had parents, in town for sporting events, leave their children unattended at the hotel while they visited Café Risqué. Perkins and Eckdahl shake their heads in disbelief and mutter “abandoned children.”
But the pair emphasize those cases are the exception. Their jobs also include many high points, and they love coming up with creative ways to help guests have fun.
Sometimes, they fill buckets with loaded water guns in the lobby and let guests squirt each other and staff members. On National Fly a Kite Day, they put a dollar-store kite in each guest’s room.
Guests have brought them flowers, food, hugs and returning business. Good hospitality usually gets reciprocated, after all.
“No two days are the same,” Perkins said, noting that in order to succeed in the business, “you have to love people.”
“Every day is different,” she said. “It makes you want to come to work.”