Experiential Commodities, Experiential Labour: Exploring the Service Labour Process in Hospitality Work

Experiential Commodities Experiential Labour PP

My research addresses the experiences of workers in the hospitality industry. It takes a political economic approach to studying the labour process, which entails an analysis grounded in the unity of production and valorisation. Ethnographies of work such as Diamond’s (1992) study of the industrial production of care and Sherman’s (2007) study of the industrial production of luxury attempt to incorporate a theory of service production into labour process analysis; however, they lack any conception of the capitalist labour process as one that relies on the production of surplus value. The absence of a social conception of the commodity fundamentally hinders the capacity to analyse work as the unification of money and labour relations in the process of exploitation. Without a theory grounded in a Marxist conception of value, we cannot understand the relations between the structural imperatives of accumulation and the immediate process of production. This distinctly social relation oversdetermines workers’ experiences of work. Understanding the production of experience as a commodity links the concrete labour of its production with the abstract labour that produces value in the capitalist mode of production. The research provides an empirical and theoretical approach to understanding the politics of hospitality work as specifically related to the nature of the service commodity and the tensions that arise within the valorisation process.

Economic contribution and sector composition

What is hospitality? The BHA defines it as, “the provision of accommodation, meals and drinks in venues outside of the home” to both UK residents and overseas visitors”. In the UK, the hospitality industry is the fourth largest industry by employment and has been the largest growth industry over the past decade. It employs around 3 million people in the UK (over a quarter million more than manufacturing). Since 2011, it has grown by 13%, more than double the employment growth of the economy overall. The hospitality industry also makes a significant economic contribution to the UK. The industry added an estimated £57 billion to the economy in 2014, roughly 4% of GDP. Yet in the context of this dramatic growth, working conditions remain poor. Average gross earnings for full-time workers in the hotel industry are the lowest in the UK and the industry has the highest incidence of low-paid workers at 59 per cent. Added to this is its dubious status as one of the lowest rates of unionisation, standing at 3.5 per cent today.[1] These elements make the London hospitality industry a particularly pertinent case study of the contemporary experiences of workers in the UK. Hotels are a subsector of the hospitality industry, but they are uniquely representative of the labour processes involved in hospitality work generally.


I collected data through ethnographic participant observation over three months as an agency worker in London hotels. I conducted 35 semi-structured interviews with workers, supervisors and managers, which I have transcribed and coded. These interviews were spread across 25 different companies including 5 agencies and 20 hotels, 3 of which also used the same outsourced hotel management firm.

The Value-Form

In Capital vol. 1, Marx argues that surplus value is produced through the capacity of the capitalist to extract more labour-time and hence value than is required to purchase labour power from workers. This labour-time is not that of private individuals, but rather socially necessary labour-time, which refers to the “labour-time required to produce any use-value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society” (Marx 1976, p. 129). In a given labour process, the difference between socially necessary labour time and the concrete labour time of the working day is surplus labour time. The average ratio of socially necessary labour time to surplus labour time is what determines the rate of surplus value. Marx (1976, p. 326) defines the rate of surplus value as the “exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power by capital, or of the worker by the capitalist”.

The commodity is a social use value represented by the materialisation of labour in the form of its exchange value i.e. money. As Marx first argued, it is an imaginary and “purely social mode of existence”, which has “nothing to do with its corporal reality” (Marx 1969 p. 171). Commodities thus have no necessary physicality. The concrete labour that produces the commodity “leaves no trace in it”. It is thus conceived as simply a “definite quantity of social labour or of money” (ibid). Marx’s analysis may appear to focus on tangible objects, but the theoretical framework clearly does not put physical limitations on the definition of a commodity. Marxist economists such as Fiona Tregenna have also argued that the physical properties of something neither qualify it as a commodity nor exclude it from the realm of commodities (Tregenna 2011: p. 287). It is the form of the organisation of the labour process that is decisive, not it’s content. Relations in the exchange of labour and capital alone determine the form. Capital’s indifference to the physicality of the product means that commodities are therefore essentially ‘amaterial’ along with the value contained within them. In other words, just as ‘production’ is not limited to the production of tangible objects, commodities are not limited to physical goods. The amateriality of the commodity-form thus allows both goods and services to be considered commodities.

The Service Commodity

The primary criteria that defines a service-commodity, as distinguished from physical commodities, is the relative simultaneity of production and consumption, independent of the material form or product of the labour. This means that for service commodities, the labour represented in the value of a service commodity remains living labour, while for the manufacturing of physical commodities, it is dead labour that can be re-circulated on secondary markets. Concrete labour may not be observable in same way for services commodities as for physical manufactured commodities. For a service commodity, the individual use-value might vanish with the cessation of the labour-power itself. The product of the labour may be an immaterial transformation, in the case of knowledge transfer, customer interaction or the production of affect. Production may have an aspect of perceptible material transformation (clean rooms) or it may have an immaterial transformation (knowledge, emotion).

The Hospitality Experience

The focus on ‘experience’ is derived directly from company literature and workers’ responses themselves. A repeated idiom, articulated over and over again by workers and managers alike was that “it’s all about the experience” (Danilo, hospitality assistant, Hilltop). Workers saw themselves as responsible for providing a “certain standard of contemporary life and service (Ammon, Operations manager, Amnesty Hotel). They viewed customers as not only paying for a place to stay, but also satisfying interactions and spaces. I take this prosaic idea and develop it in more depth, drawing directly from the experiences of workers through their own voices, as well as Hochschilds’ (1983, p. 6) insight that, “In processing people, the product is a state of mind”. However, her Weberian approach focuses on the “immediacy of the individualised commodification process”, which fails to locate her analysis in the wider context of social relations under capitalism. Emotional labour is not a “means of production” but rather a particular feature of concrete labour. Emotional labour is only labour insofar as it assumes a social form, mediated by exchange. An approach with a more rigorous engagement with Marxist theories of labour and value would make this more readily apparent and use it to present a more complete theory of the service labour process.

The Experiential Commodity

The experiential commodity is a dynamic and flexible product assembled through the reproduction of hospitable environments, the cultivation of affects, and the maintenance of supplementary services. The primary component is the provision of a room and associated services delivered with the affect of care. It is primary because it requires the largest investment of fixed and variable capital and is the main source of profit for hotel companies as room revenues generally contribute between 60 and 80 per cent of Total Revenues (Kinnard et al. 2001). Research has found that the “service encounter” between guests and workers is crucial for guest satisfaction and the profit chain (Urry, 1990; Schneider and Bowen, 1999). Accommodation is the tangible aspect of the primary component of the experiential commodity. Housekeepers and room attendants had essential roles in the production of the hospitality experience. Guests expected clean rooms, fresh bedding, unworn furniture and working facilities. The intangible aspects of the primary component of the experiential commodity are the reception services, which include catering to guests’ tastes, offering advice on the local, and generally providing attention on demand.

The secondary component includes the provision of food, beverages, and supplementary services (the quantity increases with the number of stars), which contribute 10 to 20 per cent of Total Revenues (ibid) Hotel kitchens produced the tangible aspects of this secondary component. The organisation of the kitchens and the production of food and beverage corresponded to both the size and star-rating of the hotel. Waiters, servers, and hospitality assistants (an official title for certain lower-level positions) in food and beverage-related departments produce the intangible elements of the secondary component of the guest experience. They take orders and deliver the consumable objects prepared in kitchens; however their primary role is the production of positive guest interactions, which guests expect due to the hotel’s commodification of affect. 












Service Assembly Lines

There is a progressive temporal order to the assembly of these multiple elements that corresponds to specific labour processes and departments. This temporal order or ‘service assembly line’ operates on a circuit that begins with a guest’s request, received by a member of staff in the ‘front-of-house’ [FOH] who relays this request to the ‘back-of-house’ [BOH] where the tangible and material aspects such as food ingredients or bedding are transformed as components of the commodity. Once this labour is performed, the BOH relays this information to the FOH who are expected to deliver this product to the guest with their own contribution of positive interaction in order to produce satisfaction. The FOH staff take orders and deliver the experience, while the BOH staff produce or reproduce the tangible consumables. Front and back of house thus have a symbiotic relationship mediated by both the customer and management.

The hotel’s service assembly line can be illustrated by following the path of its guests. As they enter the hotel, the doorman would greet them and the concierge would open their profile in the hotel registration system. Hotels typically keep detailed records of a customer’s purchase history and preferences. Based on this data, the receptionists would have already directed the food and beverage department to send the guests’ favourite bottle of wine up to their room. The luggage porter would bring their bags to their room in anticipation of a tip. Once settled, the guests might call reception to book them at table at the restaurant. Meanwhile, beyond the public spaces of the hotel, housekeepers, room attendants, maintenance, and porters would work to reproduce the physical spaces and articles of guests’ consumption. The laundry services would reproduce clean linen and employee uniforms while the porters cleaned the public spaces. Room attendants would scrub toilets, top up room amenities, and replace bedding. There were daily changes to room allocation and the order of cleaning demonstrating how different concrete labours must work together in relation to customer demand.

In the hotel restaurant, guests would be greeted and seated by the host. They would then place an order with their waiter who, using their capacity for emotional labour, would transform the atmosphere to appeal to the customer’s tastes in anticipation of a tip. The waiter would relay their order and special requests to the chefs who had spent most of the day preparing food for the dinner service. After the kitchen finished preparing the food and the bartender finished making their drinks, the server would deliver them to the table with a smile. Respondents’ experiences explained the difficulty of balancing the emotional labour of providing seemingly authentic positive customer interactions with the managerial imperative to turn tables and increase profits. The assembly of secondary components was in constant flux relative to the inputs of the kitchen (in terms of both ingredients and labour), the servers (in terms of capacity to manage tables and orders) and customer demand (in terms of attention).

Theoretical Implications

Braverman (1998: p. 361) was the first to note that the reproduction of clean rooms in hotels was “an assembly operation which is not different from many factory assembly operations”. However, in hotels the assembly is not linear like manufacturing, but rather a circuit in which customer feedback continually drives production as long as the service is offered. The relative simultaneity of production and consumption of services means that the customer adds a secondary element of variability to the variable capital of the labour process.

The concept of the service assembly line is important in the analysis of hotel work because it allows us to understand the production of experience as a service commodity. Approaches to service work have largely failed to recognise the production of services in terms of commodification and the progressive assembly of seemingly independent labour processes (Braverman 1998; Taylor and Bain, 2005; Korczynski, 2005; Sherman, 2011). Belanger and Edwards (2013) defined front line service as work in which the “contribution of the front-line employee to the labour process and the creation of use value appear at the same time” (p. 441). This conceptualisation is accurate in certain cases, such as those situations when the commodity produced is solely reliant on the activity of the front-line worker. However, as the case of hotels demonstrates, customers do not pay for a bed to be made separately from the service they receive by the concierge or the luggage porter. These seemingly independent elements are part of the same production process. The service assembly line is thus a dynamic circuit that operates according to a structured temporal sequence yet the specific results of that sequence can be continually altered or revised according to the customer feedback. Without descriptions of the detailed division of labour and the concrete processes at work, abstracting from those processes to examine the broader social relations of production remains ungrounded.[2]


[2] The necessity of capital’s expanded reproduction drives capital to produce new commodities, the value of which can only be realised through their consumption. Capital thus continually transforms humanity’s relation to nature and need, which is socially mediated; “Production not only supplies a material for the need, but it also supplies a need for the material” (Marx 1993 [1973] p. 92). The production of a new social use-value also produces the manner of social consumption. For example, a factory produces trains for railway companies who then use them to sell transport services to other firms and individual consumers who need to travel. A hotel produces rooms and positive affects, which people need when they travel. Production thus creates both the commodity as object and the consumer as subject. The produced object becomes integrated into normal use, earlier commodities become technologically obsolete along with the knowledge of their use. Production therefore produces “the object of consumption, the manner of consumption and the motive of consumption” (1993 [1973] p. 92). If capitalist production not only produces the object of consumption, but also the manner and motive of consumption, then hotels do not simply satisfy the expectations of customers, they produce their very needs and desires. The rating system of a hotel stratified allowed companies to differentiate between the object, manner, and motive of consumption by stratifying the market according to spending capacities and tastes. The hotels’ process of commodification and production of experience also produces the manner of its consumption.


One reply on “Experiential Commodities, Experiential Labour: Exploring the Service Labour Process in Hospitality Work”

Interesting research. I am writing a paper looking at the hospitality industry. I am asking the question ” Does the hospitality industry attract people who are easily exploited?’. If you have any thoughts on this it would be great if you could contact me.


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