Yesterday, I spent a hundred dollars simply by checking in and out of a hotel in Miami. I didn’t get any more, or less than what I had originally paid for the room and the incremental spend I made by deciding not to leave the resort. This was just extra cash expended in the form of what the industry, or America at large, call ‘gratuities’. But in just 24 hours in my luxurious South Beach surroundings, Benjamin Franklin had bid me a rapid goodbye.
First it was the valet, then the bellman. Then, it was the guy who brought up the complimentary fruit-basket amenity. It all started with a few loose ‘ones’, no big deal, I’m on vacation. Then 20% went to the server at lunch who casually circled “Gratuity Not Included” in green highlighter pen. The therapist who for an exorbitant two hundred dollars, gave me a satisfactory hot-stone massage got even more. My martini cost an extra two dollars, but at least it came ice-cold and with a smile. Then there was the sweet Venezuelan lady from housekeeping who delivered my pressed-shirts and turned down my room, being extra sure she picked up the little, unassuming but strategically placed envelope on the desk to scrawl “Andrea, Muchos Gracias” with three “xoxoxo” kisses on it. Andrea got a double whammy tip, when she finished preparing the room, and the next day as I made sure to leave something before checking out. I didn’t want her to think her blatant efforts to please and suggest went unnoticed. You see where I’m going with this, but just for effect, that evening’s room-service, more ice, the concierge who arranged my Fedex pick-up and the dynamic duo of bell-hop and valet again, as I departed, all added to the extra one hundred dollars spent.
I hear you all scowling already, “Didn’t you enjoy the service? It comes with territory. Don’t be such a cheap Brit.” All comments I have actually received when I bring up the subject among my peers, notably my American friends.
Yes, tipping isn’t big in British culture, albeit it is becoming more so, and even expected in parts of Asia where it’s not tradition. Where it is, you either round up the bill, or it’s a token gesture. Even when there’s the wonderfully termed ‘discretionary service charge’, it’s usually no more than 12.5%. So what’s my bugbear with tipping? I mean, I do it – more often than not generously so – although usually out of confused benevolence rather than anything else.
But what happened in society that makes this such an entrenched American practice? Doing some simple research, I soon learnt that tipping isn’t really an American thing at all. In fact, at one point it was actually considered undemocratic and there were laws created to ensure it didn’t happen. Delve into the history and you’ll understand why. It is believed that the word ‘tip’ comes from an old British (shock, horror) term – ‘To insure promptitude’. But whatever the case, it existed as somewhat of a social divider, something aristocrats would do to the economically inferior to ensure that they knew their place. In Asian cultures, especially in Japan, it still has that inference. That’s why tipping is frowned upon there, because it is degrading to a person to be seen as a servant of another, just because they are doing a hard day’s work. In France, where hospitality is an art form, such class division is what sparked a revolution.
But ‘to insure promptitude’ is still why we tip in 21st-century America. It seems tipping isn’t about generosity, nor is it about gratitude for great service. It’s about ensuring the job is done right. Supposedly an incentive, it seems that tipping just shifts the burden of paying workers from the employee to the customer and this transference is actually rooted in the law. The federal minimum wage in America states that people have to be paid just $2.13 per hour as long as the rest is made up in tips. So the more that guests tip, the less that hotels have to pay out in wages for customer-facing members of staff. I understand the theoretical economics, lower operating costs can then be passed on to the guests, particularly in price-sensitive destinations. But at our end of the market, I’m sorry to say that I don’t see luxury properties lowering their rates in a hurry because of this.
Furthermore, tipping still creates social division. Firstly, there are those that cry racism. If you’re a non-white employee of a hotel, it seems you get tipped less by guests than your Caucasian counterparts – the pay inequality gap lives on. Then there’s division within the employee structure – front desk doesn’t get tipped, nor do maintenance staff, or lifeguards. But it doesn’t mean they do less or are worth less than the others. Yes, perhaps they don’t have to deal with difficult customers on a daily basis, or at least not run the risk of doing so – but really, I think all this really says a little too much for the state of humanity today.
In case you’re wondering, the best paid person in the hotel ‘food-chain’ is allegedly the doorman, especially those in big cities like New York. I’ve even heard of a racket where wannabe doormen would pay tens of thousands of dollars to the head doorman of the top hotels to get in on the game. As a disgruntled taxi driver and aspiring NYC doorman once told me, “they get paid three times – by their employer, by taxi and limo drivers and then by the guests.”
The argument I hear in favour of a tipping culture, is that it makes hospitality team members work harder. But I’m not sure about that, as I’m a regular 20%-tipper in restaurants or spas, regardless of service. So work hard or not, they get the tip. While I can tell you of the instances that I over-tipped for exceptional service, or was a Scrooge because I had a bad experience, I’m essentially a habitual tipper.
In those countries where tipping isn’t the norm, they’ve often just done away with the profession. In Sweden for example, it’s hard to find anyone to help you with your luggage when you arrive at a hotel. Generally, no one shows you up to your room to explain how everything works either.
Talking to General Managers, I’m unanimously told that their employees like the tip-based system. They say that it allows them to take home more money for working harder than they would if they just had a set salary. In a hotel, a wealthy but challenging client will require more work, but will often tip more. A bigger dining party needs more waiting-staff attention. A tipping culture means that those who really perform in their duties to deliver impeccable service get proportionately rewarded. I suppose that’s why people often complain about bad service in London. Why should you have to do any more than you’re paid for if there isn’t an incentive? Technically, you can have the best hotel in the world, but if your staff is there to do the bare minimum they need to to get paid, you’re never going to stand out.
To my surprise, the employees I spoke to agree. Most outright rejected the concept of a set higher pay in lieu of the ability to earn a higher, but variable take-home. The opportunity to earn more than average is very much a draw. In fact, it is the American dream. The cash in hand that tipping offers has something to do with it too; it’s a well known, albeit unorthodox practice for hotel staff to declare their wages as much lower on their tax forms. And earning more means saving more too, says a Juan Carlos, a waiter I interviewed. He’s not saving for a house, or for a fancy car – but in a country without a national health or welfare system, he’s actually saving for a rainy day.
Lee, a bellman in Washington D.C. tells me a different story. Having worked his way up to quite a senior position at an illustrious, five-star, mega-chain property, he was taking home a sizable amount thanks to tips he earned from politicians and diplomats who required a reliable, security-cleared porter. He’d send home a large proportion of his tips to support his family back in China and live comfortably within his means on the balance. Then 9-11 happened and travel stopped. He was down to the two-dollar-an-hour minimum wage, give or take fifty bucks a month. He had to take a second job as a kitchen porter to make ends meet and his family had to bear the brunt. Today, he’s much more content with a reliable monthly salary.
So when exactly do you tip big? One OutThere traveller, Mark, tells me that he enjoys tipping – especially as he holidays at the same hotel each year, one of those creatures of habit. Tipping ensures he’s remembered.
Another, Carl, says he’s very much about the time and effort that it takes to react to a request. He knows when a member of the hotel team has gone out of their way to deliver something back to him quickly, adding to that, charmingly. An average fetch request is a dollar, one that’s quicker than average, two. Five if he gets a smile or if the guy’s particularly attractive. Eye roll.
Florian, one of our long-time subscribers, will tip a server a standard 15-20% unless he’s totally wowed. But he’ll always give the bellman ten dollars. Pool-people get a fiver. Housekeeping gets two dollars per night stayed, sometimes more if he’s in a good mood. Why? Because he considers these people generally underpaid and under-tipped cogs in the machine. They actually do the same, if not more to ensure that guests have a perfect stay – doing the heavy lifting and cleaning up after you. Alas, as there’s no check to apply a percentage to for these services, they’re often forgotten. Florian is Swiss, so he’s rather precise in his calculations, but he applies a science to it all. A good housekeeper will spend a minimum of 30 minutes in a room. Back home in Switzerland, he pays his housekeeper $20 per hour, a fair wage he thinks. So half an hour is ten dollars and 20% of that is two. He’ll do it even if they haven’t surpassed his expectations, because he doesn’t believe it’s fair to make someone render a service for nothing. When I asked if the hotel should pay their staff more, he concurred, but added that they’re not ever going to, so it is our duty as humans to ensure other humans get their fair share in life.
Raj has a similar approach when he travels, but with an added dimension. He tips workers of ethnic minorities more than average, in his own words, “just to adjust life’s balance.”
So it seems that the jury is out on the great tipping debate. My position is clear, I do so, but sometimes reluctantly. I think that people should be paid properly for the work they do and motivated through good management, rather than the coin, to ensure that exemplary service is given. There was a time that people were proud to do the job they did in hospitality and felt ultimately valued in that respect. Great service regardless of gratuity builds loyalty and reputation. But it seems that for the foreseeable future, the burden lies in the hands of the guest, so we should do what we can to ensure that people in the hospitality industry feel valued and are respected.
But to the ladies and gentlemen who serve ladies and gentlemen, please do me a favour. Never, ever ask me or to, or suggest that I tip. Don’t even tell me that “it’s customary to tip here,” when I’m paying my bill. Don’t circle the receipt or draw flowers around the ‘gratuity not included’ part of the check. Neither should you ever badger me for something I don’t need when I’m at the pool, just because you’re incentivised to do so, or know you’ll get a couple of bucks by manipulating me into getting you to provide a service. Don’t stand there for far longer than you need to in expectation. I may be British when it comes to tipping, but now I can say that actually, we invented it.