The Tipping Point

By Peggy Wynne Borgman, Preston Wynne, Inc.

What is gratuity? In our company, we feel that a tip is a voluntary gesture of appreciation for good or excellent service. In fact, we even refrain from asking guests if they'd like to leave a tip since many clients view this as coercive. Placing cash tip envelopes on the counter of the spa, as I mentioned in the USA Today interview, even makes me a little queasy. A tip is not, in my view, an entitlement.

The spa industry is in a turmoil regarding the use of automatic service charges. One of the great frustrations for hands-on spa employees is their guests' lack of awareness of tipping etiquette. Not every guest understands that gratuities are appropriate. Many guests who visit the spa do so with gift certificates and believe (erroneously or not) that a gratuity has been included in their gift. Many have never enjoyed spa services before and are unfamiliar with the concept of tipping. In the day spa and med spa environment, clients often comment that the notion of tipping seems odd, given the professional relationship they have with the provider.
"It would be like tipping my dentist!" A personal skin care client exclaimed to me once, when she realized she'd never tipped me. (I explained that tipping the owner of a business is not customary, to her enduring relief!)

Each spa's tipping policy should reflect its individual culture and the relationship it has with its clients. Call me old fashioned, but in a traditional day spa, I would either ensure that tips are extremely discreet and purely voluntary (our current practice), or eliminate them altogether.
If it's compulsory, it's not a gratuity. What, then, is the benefit to the business or the consumer of tacking on a "service charge"? This practice is still nebulous. As anyone who's traveled in Europe knows, "service compris" means this is the place to begin tipping...and that you're expected to add more. Talk about confusing. I've visited spas where a service charge was included, but there was strong implication that additional gratuities were expected, conveyed by providing me something to sign at the end of my service which clearly displayed another tipping opportunity. Ugh.

The "no tipping allowed" strategy is being adopted by a number of spas. An estimated gratuity is calculated and then simply built into the price of the services. This differs from an automatic service charge in that there is just one nickel and diming with a service charge placed on the bill and totaled out. The spa passes along this additional revenue, less direct costs (credit card charges, payroll taxes) to the employees, and can opt to include support staff in the pool.
Best of all, the spa has the ability to now market their facility as having a "no tipping" policy. The perceived value here often outweighs the spa's necessarily higher price point. At the upper end of the luxury market, guests prefer the simplicity of a higher price that includes added value. Not having to fuss with tip calcuclations, especially for different service providers, also adds value to the spa experience.

Whatever gratuity you choose, communicating it clearly yet graciously is key. Make sure your brochure explains "how it works" in the most diplomatic and delicate of terms. For example, if tipping is 100% voluntary in your facility, you can state that "We believe that a gratuity is a gesture of thanks for excellent service, and is entirely the prerogative of our guest." This is a way to discuss tipping that also tells the guest that they're in charge. Getting into "suggested" percentages crosses the ever-fuzzy line of good taste, in my opinion, even though this is a frequent question from guests. (The massage therapists and estheticians who work for us, understandably, cringe at this sort of delicacy!)

Sometimes service charges work best for certain categories of guests, such as large groups (notoriously tip-oblivious) and even hotel guests who are making room charges but are, say, a bit drowsy after their nice long massage.

If you include a service charge, it's nice to explain why.
"For your convenience, we add 15% service charge in lieu of tipping," is about as nice as it's going to get. We know, and so do they, that it's for our convienience. More precisely, it's a way to ensure that our employees don't get stiffed.

But there's a good way to help the guest feel that they're not being railroaded by an automatic gratuity: "Please let me know if you'd like to adjust this service charge in any way," is the way we word this to let the guest know they're still in control. This is a bit more subtle than, "If you're not happy enough, we can adjust it down," and infinitely more elegant than exhorting them, "If you're thrilled with our service, we'll be delighted to add more!"

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