Dirtiest Jobs- Texas M+E Edition

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Shelley Seale
Texas Meetings + Events Magazine
Fall 2012

Have you ever been to a music festival, marathon or huge convention and wondered who cleans it up when it’s over? You rarely see them, or even hear about them, but there are plenty of behind-the-scenes people who scrub toilets, wash dishes and collect trash to make events run smoothly.

"The dirtiest jobs are often the lowest paid, but usually the most critical, and can make or break the client experience," says hospitality consultant James Sinclair. Delve into a day in the life of some folks who do the dirty work- so you don’t have to.

The Austin City Limits Music Festival has become one of the country’s biggest jams in its 10 years of existence, bringing more than 70,000 people annually to see 130-plus musical artists on stages spread across 46 acres in Zilker Park.

The ACL Music Festival bills itself as one of the most environmentally friendly events in the world, and its Rock & Recycle team is what helps accomplish that goal. Pharmacist David Morcom has volunteered with the team for three festivals, collecting the thousands upon thousands of cans, plastic bottles and other recyclables that accumulate.

"It is a jaw-dropping, yet illuminating, sight to see how much waste we can create in a single day," Morcom says. "Every time a band gets off stage, a sea of people recede and an underlying sea of trash is revealed. This is the Rock & Recycle team’s time to shine. We swoop in with our mighty bags of recyclable glory and use our bare hands to pick up the dirt, sweat and spit-laden trash of the intoxicated masses."

Morcom says this is the side of the ACL Music Festival that attendees don’t see. But wading through all that trash can be perilous to those who perform such dirty work. "Did you know that when a beer can is crushed and bent open by the feet of hundreds of festival-goers, the honed edge can slice through one’s skin like a knife through butter?" he asks. "Well...it can, has and does!"

Many meetings and events begin with a flight to the destination- and the waste from all those airplanes has to go somewhere.

At the San Antonio International Airport, Oscar Tovar Jr. is the airport facilities superintendent and the man in charge of what is called the triturator house- the place where airlines dump waste. If it weren’t for the triturator house and people like Tovar’s team, there would be no toilets on airplanes.

"The tank that holds the sewer liquids from the airplanes must be maintained, cleaned and kept in operating condition in order for airlines to dump the sewer waste," Tovar says. "We make sure the airlines have an environment to quickly dispose of their waste, and have the ability to quickly turn their aircraft around so passengers are not waiting."

The most important part of this dirty job is to make sure that the pumps inside the dump station tanks do not get clogged. Maintenance workers use fish nets to clear out all solids and to prevent the sewer pumps from clogging on the debris. Tovar says his team pulls out everything from cell phones to whiskey bottles.

Once the dump station tank reaches a certain depth, it is pumped into city sewer lines. On any given day at the San Antonio airport, which sees more than 250 flights and eight million passengers a day, Tovar’s team removes 40 to 50 pounds of solids. And if the pumps get clogged…well, let’s just say it isn’t pretty. "If a person is downwind, he or she will smell the sewer and most likely begin to vomit," Tovar says, admitting that he knows this from first-hand experience.

Every year, a quarter of a million people descend on Houston to attend the Chevron Houston Marathon, in which 25,000 people run. That’s a lot of folks. And they create a lot of trash.

During the three-day 2012 event, more than 21 tons of trash were generated. But the committee that runs the marathon isn’t content to simply throw that much trash away. Instead, they go through it to pick out recyclables and compostable material- and they do this by hand.

"In 2012, we diverted 83 percent of our trash out of the landfill and into either compost or recycle bins," says Lauren Smith, manager of volunteer and support services for the Houston Marathon Committee. The process of separating recyclables took about 130 hours during a five-day period, often going well into the night.

Smith says it was all worth it, because the committee is dedicated to diverting as much waste as possible from the landfill. "It was very important to us to have a Green Team. We were excited about the initiative and what we were able to accomplish. Diverting 90 percent of the trash is our goal for next year’s marathon."

Because of impressive sustainability efforts like this, the Houston Marathon Committee was awarded a Silver ReSport Certification from the Council of Responsible Sports. After also earning a basic certification for its hosting of the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, it became the first event to ever achieve dual certification for green measures.

And it’s not just trash they focus on, says Smith. Volunteers collect all the clothing that runners throw off during the marathon and take it back to their own homes to wash. The clothes are then donated to Star of Hope, a charity that services the homeless. The marathon donated three tons of clothing in 2012, along with 4,625 pounds of food donated to the Houston Food Bank.

When a hotel has 491 guest rooms, 38 meeting rooms and more than 60,000 square feet of meeting and event space, there will be laundry and dishes to wash. A lot of them.

At the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa just east of Austin- Bergstrom International Airport, the laundry crew handles up to 12,000 pounds of laundry daily, and runs about 18,000 pieces of diningware through the dishwasher across five kitchens- each with its own dish team. "These five teams have three supervisors managing them at any given time," explains Rachel Kelly, executive steward. "Golf carts help us move dishes, and kitchen and catering equipment, around the resort."

Given the fact that Lost Pines is spread across 405 acres, with 230,000 square feet of outdoor function space as well as nine seasonal and year-round food and beverage outlets, these carts are essential. "In fact, we recently upgraded to a more specialized version of these carts, which is friendlier for towing," Kelly says. "The new models are easier on and safer for the equipment, and their setup makes for quieter commutes through outdoor guest areas."

A typical day in the laundry department at Hyatt Lost Pines begins at 6 a.m., with the employee responsible for sorting and stuffing the two 480-pound capacity washing machines. "There are usually a number of laundry bins stuffed to the gills and ready for processing," says Laundry Manager Ed Green. "After the items have been laundered, our processors step into action at 9 a.m. Some of that team’s duties consist of pulling linen to process through the ironer, running the towel-folding machine, and loading and unloading dryers."

Green says the resort processes nearly 231,000 pounds of laundry per month. "We have a great time, while simultaneously reaping the rewards of a very physical job."

Out west, on the opposite side of Austin, the engineering department at Travaasa has been called in to handle all kinds of dirty jobs, including "code whites," a pithy reference to plugged toilets.

"I’ve taken apart a sink drain to retrieve a lady’s one-carat diamond ring," says Willie Vasquez. He also points out that while Travaasa’s own wastewater plant is serviced by an outside company during the week, on the weekends the engineering department is on its own. This includes cleaning the bar screen that catches the sewage and…well, the imagination can take it from there.

"We have a really nice pool that guests enjoy a lot," Vasquez adds. "But sometimes someone throws up in it or something, and you gotta go deal with it."

La Mar Van Landingham, another engineering team member, says that when you are trying to take care of guests you have to make do with what you have. "Sometimes you don’t have gloves handy, but if you have to clean out a grease trap or shower drain with your bare hands, or change a tire in the hot sun, you just do it."

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