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Originally published Saturday, October 6, 2012 at 8:00 AM

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As travelers tighten purse strings, hotel staff feel the pinch

Rising baggage fees and shrinking expense accounts have resulted in fewer tips for skycaps, hotel housekeepers, concierges and bellhops.

The New York Times

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Tipping for hotel concierges, bellhops and housekeepers moves up and down with the economy, but lately it has also been affected by changes in corporate, airline and hotel policies.

The airlines' checked-bag fees offer a prime example. Since luggage got wheels, more travelers have been eschewing porters and taking their own bags up to their hotel rooms. But the airline fees have made things worse, said Adam Weissenberg, a vice chairman at Deloitte & Touche who leads the firm's U.S. travel, hospitality and leisure division.

"People are packing lighter so they can bring just a carry-on and avoid the fees," he said. "The other day, I was sitting in a lobby for 20 minutes, and not one business traveler used a bellman."

The bag fees have also affected skycap tips, said Calvin Harris, who has worked as a skycap for five years at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. He said that he was paid $2.13 an hour plus tips, and that those tips had decreased by 30 percent since the airlines started charging the fees.

"The more people have to pay for baggage fees, the less money they are going to give to skycaps," he said. "It would be nice if the money could trickle down to the workers who are giving the service."

Business decisions that hotels made when the economy was weak have also affected tips. Many upscale hotels cut their rates to attract customers and fill rooms, but the clientele they attracted was not the tipping kind, said Joseph Sundberg, porter captain at Kimpton's Hotel Monaco in Portland, Ore.

In the down economy, "guests who come on a budget may not be able to tip as generously," he said, "or maybe they don't know the customs."

Guests may leave luggage and laptops with him for the afternoon, he said, and ask multiple times if it will be kept safe. But when they come back to collect their belongings, he said, they often do not leave a tip.

"If it is so valuable to them, isn't it worth a couple of dollars for the person who kept it secure?" said Sundberg, who has been at the hotel for 16 years. Tips, he said, can be a significant part of a bellhop's total compensation.

He added, though, that repeat guests who travel for business tended to tip the same amount no matter what was going on in the economy. "If their business is bad, they're not going to let it affect you," he said.

Some don't know to tip

Greg Frutchey, who has been a bellhop with the Morgans Hotel Group in Manhattan, said he had had similar experiences with budget travelers who were not familiar with gratuity customs. They may shop for bargains in the city, he said, and then ask the bellhop to weigh their suitcases and wait while they repack them to avoid airport overweight charges, without leaving a tip.

When the U.S. economy faltered, said Kayse Gehret, a massage therapist who works as a contractor at a number of San Francisco hotels including the Ritz-Carlton and the St. Regis, many of her American clients disappeared, but her appointments with foreign guests increased.

"That really affected my income because many of them were not aware that people in the U.S. tip for services," she said. Some hotels now automatically bundle the gratuity in with the service, she said.

The economic downturn also meant fewer business trips and trips of shorter duration, both of which affected housekeeping tips.

"When people just get in and out, they may not feel as obligated to tip the housekeeper, compared to when they've stayed for a longer time," Weissenberg said.

Some hotels leave a note saying who cleaned the room to remind guests of the service they are getting, although they are wary of making the guests feel uncomfortable if they do not leave a tip, he said. Still, housekeepers' wages are generally low, so leaving $3 to $5 a day can make a big difference to them, he said.

Corporate restrictions on travel expenses can also affect gratuities. Per-diem expense allowances have not risen with inflation at most companies, said Michael McCall, who is the chairman of the marketing and law department at Ithaca College's school of business and who studies the hospitality industry.

That kind of control on expenses, along with reduced client-entertainment budgets, has affected tips for hotel restaurant servers, Weissenberg said.

"While the average tip on a dinner bill has stayed at 15 or 20 percent," he said, "the total bill might be less," as people choose the less expensive wine for a client dinner or manage their own per-diem costs more carefully.

Business travel coming back

Concierge tips at some hotels are down for the same reason. With smaller expense accounts, "there aren't as many people using their services to book expensive excursions like a helicopter trip in Las Vegas or last-minute show tickets in New York," Weissenberg said.

That has seemed to change in recent months, though.

Brandon Perkins, a concierge at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles, said he noticed a turnaround last year and that business was just about back to normal with his luxury travelers.

"The demand for high-priced services and experiences is on the rise," he said. "Travelers are back to requesting top-dollar Lakers tickets, access to movie premieres and private custom tours."

Service providers in all expense categories have reason to be optimistic.

"Based on our research, business people plan to travel more and increase their travel spending in 2012," Weissenberg said, and conferences and conventions are growing again.

"This should have a positive impact on tips for hotel staff members," he said. "Or, as the Las Vegas taxi drivers say, 'more trips is more tips.' "

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