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by Padraic Gilligan, Managing Partner at SoolNua

Downtown San Francisco

“You want to take the Cable Car?” he asked with breezy friendliness. We welcomed his intervention having struggled to understand how the iconic San Francisco system worked. He explained what to do, genuinely delighting us with his helpfulness. But then the hand went out: “We work for tips out here” he said “do you have a dollar?”

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 18.31.43As a European, I have long struggled with tipping as practiced in the US. I recall an experience from a couple of years ago where I dropped $15 in $5 and $1 dollar bills from the time I handed my rental car to a valet at the resort entrance to the moment I retrieved my luggage from the bellboy who delivered it to my room. It wasn’t the $15 expense that bothered me, although, on reflection, that’s a lot to pay for a suite of simple acts of courtesy. Rather it was the consistent expectation throughout the process that each and every unit of service would be immediately and handsomely rewarded. It was also the inconvenience of having plan your journey anywhere to be sure to have change in the appropriate denomination.

Extraordinary and Uncommon

Many years ago the wise founding fathers of Site, now known as the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence, offered our industry the following definition of Incentive Travel:

Incentive Travel is a modern management tool used to achieve extraordinary goals by awarding participants a travel prize upon their attainment of their share of the uncommon goals.

The key insight here is that the reward is not earned by merely doing your job. It’s earned when you do an uncommon, extraordinary job, when you’ve gone beyond reasonable expectations and delivered something truly exceptional. I think the principles that underlie this model have great resonance in relation to tipping in general and provide interesting context by which to evaluate an initiative recently introduced by one of the world’s leading hospitality brands.

Marriott’s Initiative

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 18.33.01Marriott – a brand I greatly admire and value – has started to place branded envelopes in bedrooms to encourage guests leave tips for the maids that service their rooms. Knowing Marriott and its strong CSR commitments, I imagine the scheme is driven by the desire to highlight and reward the maids as the unseen heroines who beaver behind the scenes, putting order and harmony where previously these has been chaos and disorder. Bellboys, porters and concierges interface physically with guests and can build rapport accordingly while maids rarely see the guests they serve despite serving them in the intimacy of their sleeping and washing quarters.

But is that not their job? Is that not what they are hired and paid to do? Why should gratuities be solicited on their behalf when they are simply carrying out the tasks that are part and parcel of the role they play in the complex drama that constitutes the world of hotels? By soliciting tips on their behalf is Marriott not implying that the maids are actually underpaid by its own corporation? Rather than asking guests to supplement the maids’ earning, would it not make more sense for Marriott itself to increase their pay if their earnings are out of kilter with other workers?

The Envelope Please 

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 18.34.16The inspiration for the Marriott initiative, apparently, is Maria Shriver’s A Woman’s Nation, an organisation “dedicated to making sure that the value of women is recognized and respected – at home, in the workplace and as caretakers on the frontlines of humanity”. Shriver, it seems, approached Marriott with the idea, having spoken with female hotel workers who felt under-valued because, unlike front-of-house concierges and porters who interact directly with guests, they miss out on the tips.

Clearly the entire cycle of motivation here is driven by solid, positive values that all decent people aspire to – respect, fairness, equality and so on. I just don’t believe this initiative gets us there. It could be seen as a convenient PR stunt for employers in the hospitality arena to actually eschew their social duty to pay fair wages. “We value out maids so much that we’ve signed up to a scheme to extract tips from hotel guests to supplement the low wages we pay them”. Maids deserve to be treated equally to other service workers so they should be paid by their employer whatever the fair wage is in the destination in which they work.

Profoundly Sad

So, despite having worked as a student in the US where it was all about the tips, I’m still ambivalent about tipping. As a global citizen I know I must adapt to my environment so I tip the required amounts across the US. Most of the time, however, I don’t like it and often I feel resentful. And when what should have been an act of random kindness in the street comes with a price attached then I just feel profoundly sad.

Pádraic Gilligan and Patrick Delaney run SoolNua, a boutique marketing consultancy working with destinations and hotel groups on their strategies for MICE



5 thoughts on “Should the maids be tipped at Marriott?

  1. Joan Eisenstodt says:

    Ah, Padraic, the comments this action has generated are many in varied places and varied in many places. There is no consensus except that exactly as you stated, it makes it appear that housekeepers are underpaid — which they are. It is a move that looks and feels icky (technical term!)

    This is good reading:

    The US (and to some degree, all of North American) culture is one where tips are expected regardless of performance. Tho’ there are printed guidelines in many places, it matters not: people choose to do what is their custom.

    I do tip housekeepers very well at the end of a stay. (Before you or others remind me that there’s a different housekeeper each day, know this: I do not have my room cleaned during a stay. I like my stuff where it is, untouched, and I’m quite good at making my own bed. If I need more of anything, I call.) I know what back-breaking and difficult work this is and that housekeepers are not paid well. I also leave a hand-written thank you note with my name and room number so that no one is accused of stealing. [Many of us think the envelope is so that the hotels can ensure that the money in a housekeepers pocket is a tip and not stolen. How charming is that?!]

    Other hotels (Starwood being one) are worse: at the front desk at check in, one can opt out of having one’s room cleaned and receive either frequent stayer points or credit to one’s bill. Why is this worse? Because they can keep housekeepers from working if they see fewer are needed. Hourly workers, those not covered by unions/collective bargaining, need their wages. I don’t know why hotel brands and owners are doing this – except to reap more profits. Profits are ok but not on the backs of those who do the heavy lifting, literally.

    I doubt we’ll change the tipping system in the US. What we who plan and execute meetings can do is
    1. In our RFPs, ask what housekeepers are paid, how many rooms they are charged with cleaning each day, what the hotels do for them above and beyond wages.
    2. Ask sales people and executive management how many of them have done the job of housekeepers and for how long to understand what they know.
    3. Say thank you to any housekeeper seen and write a daily or end-of-stay note of thanks, and remind meeting participants to do the same. Housekeepers are often totally ignored by guests as if the housekeepers were invisible! How humilitating it must feel.
    4. Keep your own room neat and at the end of a stay, ensure the work won’t be even worse for the person who will do the heavy cleaning.
    5. Praise housekeeping and individuals in our thank you letters at the end of a meeting.

    Just as many if not most planners are behind the scenes people, so are housekeepers (and meeting room/banquet set-up staff.) No one likes to be taken for granted for hard work.

    1. padraicino says:

      Joan – thanks for this comment and for the great solidarity and compassion which underpins in.

  2. Delina Alwanger says:

    I agree that this move implies that the staff are underpaid. The guest begins to feel under duress to pay for a service which could taint their whole experience of the brand. In Africa, there is no culture of Entitlement surrounding tips. You are free to pay whatever you deem fit for the quality of service you have received. Indeed, service staff regard a tip as a privilege. I understand that the whole culture is very different in North America. Altogether, this makes for an interesting discussion about culture and best practise.

    1. padraicino says:

      Thanks Delina – appreciate you taking the time to comment

  3. Cliodhna says:

    I agree with everything you said Padraicino.

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