How Should Hoteliers Educate Guests on Tipping Room Attendants?
By Larry Spelts President, Lodging & Lifestyle Adventures, Indigo Road Hospitality Group | June 21, 2020
Our team members who work the hardest and often are paid the least are our room attendants. As with other hotel guest services teams - such as valet and bell staff, and servers in F&B - there is an opportunity for room attendants to supplement their incomes with tips. Both customs have been around a long time, although the exact origins of these customs are unclear.
Also, in the U.S. where there is a well-accepted method of calculating a tip for an F&B server, hotel guests are either unclear on what an appropriate tip for a room attendant should be or they are unaware that it is customary to tip.
In 2017, Marriott launched a well-intended initiative as an experiment, recently called "The Envelope Please," wherein the participating trial hotels placed a cleverly designed envelope with a thoughtfully worded invitation to tip the room attendant. The reaction by guests was disappointing. Only 30 percent of guests tipped, and worse yet, quite a few of the guests reacted negatively to what they perceived as a solicitation to pay the room attendants and shared their indignation online in reviews, according to a New York Times story on Marriott's experiment in October 2017.
A team of hospitality academics designed a field study conducted in upscale hotels wherein greeting cards - both personalized and non-personalized - were deployed to encourage tipping. There were 3,285 room-nights tip records collected in this study. The research found that "…housekeeping greeting cards did not increase the likelihood of guests to tip, but they may increase the average tipping amount; the personalization of greeting cards from room attendants had positive effects on guest tipping behavior; the hand-written greeting card and name-introduction greeting card were predictors that can significantly increase the likelihood of hotel guests to tip." (excerpt from "Greetings from Emily! The Effects of Personalized Greeting Cards on Tipping of Hotel Room Attendants" published in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management by I-Hsuan Shih (Department of International Tourism Management, Tamkang University, New Taipei City, Taiwan).
In the NY Times story about Marriott's experiment, the author, Tammy La Gorce, asks, "But why are housekeepers often forgotten? A common explanation is that they are out of sight and, therefore, out of mind - that travelers are likely to tip only employees they directly interact with. But another cause may be a simple lack of awareness." She goes on to claim that "…housekeepers say that, without the gentle nudge of initiatives like 'The Envelope Please,' only about 30 percent of guests leave a tip." Professor Blum of TCU who participated in the research previously cited, corroborated this figure.
In my role as a hospitality management company executive, I travel a lot for business and stay frequently in hotels. I have always tipped room attendants on a per night basis, and these days I use $5 per day as my rule of thumb for how much to tip. I was hesitant about sharing this as I have made a practice of this quite arbitrarily with no guidance from anyone. Fearing I may not be tipping appropriately, before I wrote this, I did a quick search online, and found that TripSavvy.com and TripAdvisor.com recommend that amount for staying in upscale or finer hotels. They also recommend that the amount should increase if there are more than two people staying in the room.
Rather than credit good intuition, my good instinct for an appropriate tip amount for room attendants probably comes from my ten years as the general manager of the Relais & Châteaux Planters Inn in Charleston, SC. When I arrived as GM of that property in 1994, I discovered that the previous management had implemented a policy of the placement of an envelope on a bedside table in every guest room with instructions to guests printed on it.
The instructions were that if the guest wished to leave a tip for the housekeeping staff, to ensure the tip is properly directed, please place the tip into the envelope and leave it with the front desk upon departure. There were spaces provided and labelled on the envelope for the room attendant to write his/her name, the date and the room number. This enabled us to distribute the tips to the correct room attendants.
There was the customary drop safe at the front desk into which these envelopes were deposited, and once per week, the executive housekeeper and I together opened the safe, collected all of the envelopes, opened them, counted the tips, and prepared them for distribution to the intended recipients. Through this process, I learned what people were tipping. Typically, it was just a couple of dollars per night, so, adjusted for inflation since the 1990s and early 2000s, $5 per night today feels right. I should add that there consistently would be exceptional outliers - tips of $20 or more. It was one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job as GM at that property to sit with the executive housekeeper every Friday and count out those tips because I know how hard the room attendants work.
The second management position I held early in my career was that of housekeeping manager. I remember several times having room attendants call out sick and, being unable to get others to cover the shifts, I donned an apron, loaded up a housekeeping cart and on several occasions cleaned up to fourteen rooms in eight hours. I could hardly move the next day, and I was an athletic young man at the time. I marveled at how those ladies, some of whom were twice my age, could handle that work with such aplomb.
As a hotelier, I understand the details of how rooms get cleaned in hotels better that most travelers, so my advice to travelers is either find the room attendant working near your room as you depart and give her or him the tip directly or leave the tip with the front desk and request an envelope to write your room number and departure date on it. Otherwise, I would say that there may only be a 50 percent chance that the room attendant gets the tip as sometimes other staff enter a "check-out" room before the room attendant to perform routine maintenance or to collect the linen and terry for laundering in advance of the room attendant coming to clean the room and make the bed. Sad to say, these folks sometimes take cash left by a departing guest and intended for the room attendant.
As for the history of the practice, I asked about this the first time I traveled internationally and was fortunate to be accompanying a very distinguished gentlemen who had many aristocratic friends, knew princes and kings, and even owned a manor in Scotland. I was his assistant on travel as he was elderly, having been born in 1911. This made him well acquainted with 19th century customs since as a boy and young man most adults he knew were born in the 1800s. One of my responsibilities was to do the tipping. My first visit outside the US was with him to Paris where we stayed at the renowned hotel, Le Bristol. Upon departure as I made arrangements to buy some French Francs with which to tip the housekeeper, I asked him why does one tip the housekeeper?
He explained to me that hotels are a relatively modern invention thanks in large part to the creation of the Middle Class. He claimed that before there was a large Middle Class and hotels, the options for lodging when away from home were a room shared with strangers and bed bugs above a tavern or pub if one was a commoner or the manor of a fellow noble or aristocrat if one was of that class.
In the case of the latter, one was expected to arrive with one's own staff in tow. This might be an equeery, footman, steward, and valet but rarely a maid. The staff of one's host would not expect to be made to attend to guests unless they were additionally compensated. Rather than burden one's host with paying extra wages to his staff, especially when one has already imposed upon him for lodging, meals, and stable space and feed for the horses, one was expected to give gifts of money to the host's staff.
Whether or not this is true is beyond me, but it certainly seems plausible. Today's hotel guest traveling without a nobleman's entourage can receive guidance from the American Hotel & Lodging Association who has published gratuity guide on its website that offers suggestions for tipping everyone from valet attendants to bellhops. I would enjoy hearing from others how we might better educate the traveling public and help our hardworking room attendants enjoy a greater tip income to supplement their wages. Ideas for how to effectively manage the collection and equitable distribution of tips would also be helpful.
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