Tipping point

Tipping point:
The culture of gratuity and best practice


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.