Does Chicago's Elysian signal the beginning of the end for tipping at hotels?
The Elysian, in the city's tony Gold Coast area, is notable for another reason: Its iron-clad "no tipping" policy. Not for the bellhops, not for the room service delivery, not for housekeeping.
I'd like to believe that we live in a country in which thriving businesses properly compensate employees a living wage for the job they do, but that's not the case. Millions of Americans depend on tips for their livelihoods, and when commerce dips, they suffer. From a social standpoint, it's good to see a hotel that takes care of its own. Granted, with room rates that start at $435, the Elysian is a property that can afford to pay its staff a wage that doesn't expose them to the management's potential failure to sells its rooms.
From a hospitality perspective, a no-tipping policy is simply a smarter way to deliver a product. We all tip (or we should), but we don't always do it comfortably. Guests routinely feel awkward handing over gratuities, sometimes because they lack ready small bills, sometimes because they don't know which staff roles ought to be tipped, and sometimes simply because they grow weary of the constant outflow from their wallets.
Being a luxury hotel allows the Elysian to package its policy as part of its general thoughtfulness toward its customers. If a staff isn't permitted to accept tips, when they linger around customers it can only be because they want to deliver service, and any outstretched hand can only be there to help, not to be greased.
There is, of course, one other major area of the travel industry in which recurrent tipping is generally frowned upon: cruise ships. The management of the Elysian would no doubt recoil to hear it's being compared to that declassé tourist institution. On cruises, too, guests usually tip in a lump sum on their main bill -- they just don't pass around dollar bills every time they're served.
I have no problem with tipping. I like rewarding good service, and I think we all should remember that the way American commerce is currently structured, there are people who depend on that cash. But it's the social anxiety that accompanies tipping that sometimes gives me pause. My concern is that as guests are increasingly henpecked by hidden costs, they'll take their frustrations out on staff by withholding proper tips.
Hotels have the power to protect its employees by creating systems that don't encourage guests to look at gratuities as one more hidden cost to dodge. That means paying them proper living wages that come from room tariffs, not tips.
If the Elysian's move is copied by other hotels, and hotels pay employees a proper wage to compensate for the elimination of gratuities, we may be able to see America's service class stop being treated like an underclass that is buffeted to the ebb and flow of our unsteady economy.
Won't happen, but when I put my head on a rented pillow, I like to dream.
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