Monday, August 2, 2010

Tipping Points

On a recent trip to Vermont I was informed by the reception staff while checking in that the hotel did not provide housekeeping services. This struck me as odd, but I shrugged it off, as I was staying at a small inn in rural Vermont, not the Four Seasons George V in Paris. Upon entering my room, I was shocked to see this small envelope placed on the top of the dresser.

("This envelope is provided if you would like to leave something for housekeeping")

Seriously??? The hotel staff made a point of telling me that there would be no housekeeping services, yet they had the audacity to leave this passive aggressive request for a tip in my room! I laughed so hard that I almost left a couple of bucks just for the entertainment.

The practice of tipping seems to be a dying art in America. It used to be that gratuities would be doled out for one or both of the following reasons:
  1. As a reward for exceptional service (i.e. exceeding expectations)
  2. As a gesture to encourage superior service (e.g. tipping the maitre d' for a good table)
Of course, here in America we have always had an interesting relationship with "the tip." Not only do we tip more on average than any other society, we also tip as a matter of custom, rather than discretion. Sure, we reserve the right to tip more for better service at a restaurant, but we have to be the only country in the world that finds it acceptable for restaurants to impose an "automatic gratuity." Seriously, how presumptuous is that? Before we are even allowed to experience the service, we are being dinged 20% on the assumption that it will exceed our expectations.

Don't get me wrong, I am an excellent tipper. I enjoy tipping. I like the opportunity to make someone's day by acknowledging that their service is appreciated. I still believe that a generous tip early in the evening will encourage better service from a bartender later in the night. And, unlike many Americans, I am aware that it is still customary to leave a tip for housekeeping (at least when it actually exists).

One of the reasons that I believe the art of tipping is on the decline is that people are given less opportunities to tip now as compared to a few years ago. Before the airport security changes that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, just about every airport in the country offered Sky Cap service. With curbside check-in all but a distant memory, many airlines are requiring people to "self-check" at an automated kiosk, and rather than tip the Sky Cap a buck a bag, we are now charged $25 - $50 for the privilege of bringing a couple of changes of clothes with us on our trip. Likewise, fewer and fewer hotels are offering bell service to their guests checking in, and the position of Concierge is out of fashion at all but the swankiest hotels. One Marriott property where I recently stayed didn't even offer room service, opting instead to instruct guests to order "take out" from the lobby restaurant.

The trouble with instituting autograts and eliminating service positions that customarily work for tips is that it trains the public to forget about tipping. The truth is, tipping is the only form of payment that we have that is paid based on performance. By encouraging tipping, we also encourage our employees to provide "tip-worth" service. From a business standpoint, the greater percentage of compensation that is contributed directly by the consumer, the less that is required from the business.

The scary part to me is that as hotels continue to look for ways to cut expenses, they cut positions like bell service and concierge. When this happens, businesses are forced to compete more heavily on price than value. Marketing gurus have been telling everyone to focus on "value added" promotions, but most businesses seem to be ignoring the big opportunity to provide value that is sitting right underneath their nose, SERVICE!

Hotels, restaurants, and other hospitality businesses need to reverse this trend as soon as possible. If we allow the public to forget how to tip, then it will be more costly than ever to reinstate the service positions that were once compensated by gratuities. Look no further than housekeeping services. Very few people even know that it is customary to tip your hotel maid anymore. Hotels are forced to either pay a higher wage or institute a service charge (i.e. autograt) that shows up like a tax when the client books a room. This just inflates the price that hotels must charge up front.

Service positions such as bell staff, shuttle drivers, concierge, and valet provide much more than simply good customer service. When properly trained, the people in these positions can also become great salespeople, promoting a variety of products and services available to the guest. With the importance of consumer review websites like and, the quality of service that customers receive becomes powerful word-of-mouth marketing. There is no better way to create customer loyalty and repeat business than by engaging customers.

Whether you are a business or consumer, my suggestion to embrace the idea of tipping. It will encourage better service, provide opportunities for business-to-customer interactions, and create positive experiences for both parties.



Tipping Guidelines:
Certainly, there are people out there who believe that tipping is an annoying custom that is often confusing, especially to international visitors. Truth be told, the art of tipping is very simple, and just as I learned to haggle prices at the Night Bazaar in Chaing Mai, Thailand, foreign visitors can learn the American custom of tipping. Here are a few guidelines about what is expected. For poor service, tip less. For better service tip more. Simple as that.

  • Airport Curbside Check-in (i.e. Sky Cap) - $2 for the first bag, $1 for each additional bag
  • Bellman - $2 for the first bag, $1 for each additional bag
  • Taxi Driver - 10-15%, round up to the nearest dollar, plus an extra $1-2 if the driver helps with your bags
  • Hotel / Rental Car Shuttle Driver - $1 per person in your party, and an additional $1-2 if the driver helps with your bags.
  • Concierge - $5 for restaurant reservations or event tickets ($10 if they were hard to get)
  • Housekeeping - $2-5 per day (left daily), depending on quality of hotel. Hint: leave the tip on the pillow so that the housekeeper knows it's for them.
  • Valet - $2 each time they deliver your car
  • Doorman - $1 to hail a cab, give directions, or provide extra service
  • Restaurant Server - %15 for satisfactory service, 20% for better than average service
  • Sommelier - Typically receives a portion of your server tip, so it is not necessary to tip extra unless you are compelled to do so because of exceptional service.
  • Fast Food Tip Jar - No need to tip, unless you feel that they have provided extra service, or you want to get rid of that pesky pocket change.
  • Bartender - $1 per drink, or 15-20% of the entire tab when paying by credit card

1 comment:

  1. Well said, young chap!
    In my waitress years (long, long ago) I worked hard to earn a good tip... never EXPECTED a good tip.
    Today, if I receive poor service, I won't tip and am saddened when a server is shocked. Unfortunately, some of this auto-grat business has been pushed by the under performing employees. They are usually the ones who want to "pool" the tips, too.
    Great write up and very useful to my clients who ask 'what is an approprate tip for..."