A day in the life of a hotel lobby bar bartender at a popular Florida resort
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What frequent traveller hasn’t found themselves rolling from the airport straight to the lobby bar of a hotel at some point in time — whether to catch their breath, have a drink or spark up an anonymous conversation in a new town?
Lobby bar bartenders experience the world through their guests’ eyes in more ways than you might think.
We sat down to talk to one about what it’s like to not only mix cocktails nonstop but be a safe harbour, of sorts, for the world’s road warriors.
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Unsung Hero: Bianca Swilley, 27, bartender and server at Sear + Sea Lobby Bar at the JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa.
TPG: How did you get into bartending?
Bianca Swilley: I started working as a server when I was 16 at a local restaurant in the city where I grew up in. The people running it didn’t really have a passion for hospitality, but I decided that I loved the profession and whatever I did with it in the future was going to be an elevated version.
When I turned 18 and was able to serve alcohol, I started learning about wine and food more and turned my eyes to more elevated experiences. I got my foot in the door at the Orlando World Center Marriott and worked there for several years before being recruited to open the JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa three years ago.
TPG: What does a typical work week look like?
BS: It really depends. We typically work four or five days a week. The weekdays can be slower, but those are my favourite days because I get more time with local people and people visiting who might not come with somebody else they can talk to. So you can get some good conversations going. The lobby bar opens at 4 pm and I get here around 2:30 pm and spend that time setting up. Because it’s a lobby bar, we set up all the bottles anew every day. Then, from 4 pm to 11 pm we take care of guests. I’m usually hanging until around midnight cleaning up.
We’re a gin bar and use a lot of fresh and seasonal ingredients, so there’s prep work with rosemary, mint, oranges, fresh juices and those kinds of things, too.
TPG: What’s your favourite part of the job?
BS: The people. I really do love my job. I am one of those crazy people who just want to talk to everyone and hear their stories and different experiences. Everything is so different everywhere around the world right now. And I get people from everywhere in here. It inspires me to travel more and educates me, too.
TPG: What is your least favourite part of the job?
BS: Some of the slower weeks. Like everywhere, we have a season here in Orlando. And sometimes we slow down. So when you’re used to going all the time in this kind of job, slowing down is the hardest part.
TPG: What’s the one thing you wish more people understood about your job?
BS: I think they should know we are a little more educated than most people think. I think that there’s a stigma. A lot of people think if you’re in the service industry you probably hopped out of high school and right into it.
A lot of us have degrees. We obviously make very good money doing this. But most of us are very educated about what we do, especially when you get to a calibre like this. I’m always willing to say I’m wrong when people question my ability in doing something. But I’d like the guests to know we are here to make the experience good for them, so just trust me a little bit sometimes. We really do care about what we do. To do this job you not only have to be educated on food and drinks but a bunch of other things, too — like how to read people and different ways of doing things more efficiently.
You get to learn a lot about yourself behind the bar but definitely about other people, too.
When you really do a good job, you can anticipate what people want and how to make them comfortable. Especially in a lobby lounge bar, we are sometimes getting people right off travel. And we can all see how stressful that can be, especially right now. Sometimes you get someone and you can see all the weight they have on them when they sit down. And being able to go up and find out what they enjoy drinking or finding out a little about what escape means to them is what I try to do. Although I am a bartender, we do have a lot of different things at our disposal to give someone a better experience.
TPG: What’s something anyone can do to be a better traveller in 2021 and beyond?
BS: Patience is a big one now. I get it, we were all told to be patient for months that turned into a year. But patience and understanding and empathy are what we need right now. We have a lot of people out here working really hard and just trying to get back to normal. I’m not a hero in that sense. But first responders, people working in the airport, security guards, think about them and others. Have a little compassion for understanding this is all different for all of us and this is all someone’s livelihood.
TPG: Are there any VIP-type treatments a guest could score from you for good behaviour?
BS: We have a mindset of everyone being a VIP here. The Marriott brand is based on a family man who wanted to take care of people. I am empowered to take care of a guest however I see fit.
Some business travellers are on the road for more than half the year. They’re far away from their families and people they feel they can be themselves around.
The traveller who might sit down and feel overwhelmed, that might make them a VIP for me. We are their home at this moment. You’re your own VIP in your own home. And I want to make sure you feel that way here, too.
TPG: How does working in the hospitality industry change your idea of travel, or going on holiday?
BS: I say working in the hospitality industry is something everyone should try because it makes you more considerate and better at dealing with people.
I can apply my way of diffusing situations in my everyday life from what I learn at work just by putting myself in someone else’s shoes.
We are like ducks on a lake — very graceful up top but moving our feet and working hard underwater. I see that when I go places on vacation now, too. If I see customer service being exceptional somewhere, I think of the company the person works for and think wow, these people love what they do. But I know for sure how hard they’re working too.
TPG: If you could go anywhere in the world on holiday, where would it be and why?
BS: I want to go to Bora Bora and those tiki huts on the water. I have a phobia of water, so being able to see through the floor of an overwater bungalow would be a benefit for me. I love the seclusion and being forced to relax and take in nature. I live in such a populated area I’d just want to embrace that and put the phone down and be on a secluded island. That would be my dream vacation.
TPG: Tell us about the best holiday you’ve ever taken, or the best place you’ve ever travelled.
BS: I’m born and raised in Florida, one of the few. And I got to go see snow for the first time just before the pandemic hit when I went to Colorado.
It was incredible — it was hot, then it was cold, then it was hot.
We went skiing at Granby Ranch and stayed at a Marriott in Denver with about 10 of my friends who also work for Marriott. We gave everyone a show on the slopes out there, watching a bunch of Floridians learn how to ski. Snow was like nothing I’d seen before. It’s funny listening to people who live in snow say how much they despise it. I loved it.
Feature image courtesy of the hotel.
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