The 20% Travel Ripoff


By Robert McGarvey


Can you do basic arithmetic? Do percentages? Of course you can and, in fact, we learn in fifth and sixth grades how to compute simple percentages in our heads. Quick now, what’s 20% of $100 – or 20% of $250?

Sure, you can do the math. But now some MGM resorts in Las Vegas – notably Aria, Bellagio, and my once personal favorite, Vdara – will tack on a 20% upcharge when you get a massage, facial, haircut, and similar.

Bellagio, on its website, explains the upcharge: “For your convenience a 20% service charge will be added to each spa and salon service received. A portion of the service charge is dispersed to the spa and salon staff members who served you and the remainder is an administrative fee. Additional gratuities are at your discretion.”

The LATimes, in reporting on this, quoted an email from company spokesperson Brian Ahern: “Our employees go above and beyond to provide the best possible service, and it’s important that they receive recognition for a job well done.”


A coerced tip somehow counts as “recognition for a job well done?’

When a masked man puts a gun in your gut and takes your wallet, is this recognition for a job well done?

It’s Vegas, baby.

But it is nonsensical.

It’s picking my pocket to let the employer underpay its employees and why, by the way, is the customer hit with an “administrative fee” when paying a tip?

Don’t ask, there is no answer.

The trouble is that what starts in Las Vegas often spreads, like a bad disease, across hospitality.  Consider resort fees.  Sure, a few Las Vegas hotels shun the practice but most slap a fee – $39 per night at Vdara and Bellagio, by the way – and you got me what you get in return.

Across America, many, many more hotels – some in cities – have climbed on and now impose “resort fees” or “urban amenity” fees mainly as a way to hike room rates without actually hiking room rates.  But that $99 hotel room has become $129 and the culprit is the resort fee.

Now, Las Vegas has decided we are too dumb – or cheap – to tip their salon and spa employees and, oh wait, isn’t it the employer’s job to compensate employees?  Not the customer’s?

It’s Vegas, baby.

A few years ago I ran across a spa in Arizona that hit customers with an automatic 20% tip and when I asked the company president what possibly justified this, he took offense. Didn’t I see that he was providing his spa customers with a convenience? Doing the math for them because, presumably, they are too blissed out by the spa treatment, or maybe just too stupid, to do a simple calculation that most 12 year-olds can do in an instant.

Johnny, what’s 20% of $120?

Jane, how about 20% of $160?

(Hint: just multiply 2 times the first two digits and, bingo, you have the sum.)

I am and have been opposed to mandatory gratuities – anywhere from cruise ships to spas.

I also, some years ago, drove a taxi and gratuities made or broke my night.  If I got stiffed by too many fares, I cursed them and I went home with a lot less dough than I had hoped for.

I understand the importance of gratuities.

But I resent it when they are shoved down my throat.

I am okay, by the way, with Danny Meyer’s campaign to end restaurant tipping and instead build tips into the prices for food shown on the menu. Of course I’ve eaten at enough Meyer places to believe his staff will deliver good service without the promise of a possible tip, or the withholding of one – and the difference between what Meyer believes is right and what MGM is forcing on customers is that Meyer shows one price, tip already built in, whereas in the hotel business there’s a service price and then, by magic, a service charge is tacked on so that $100 haircut now is $120.

With Meyer there is no chicanery. That’s the difference.

Automatic “gratuities” by the way seem rampant in the spa world and you have to ask: why is management so cheap that it won’t pay its employees adequately and why are customers so passive that they go along with this extortion?

Maybe what starts in Vegas really should stay in Vegas.

3 thoughts on “The 20% Travel Ripoff”

  1. In the UK, many hotels and other places have added an “optional” 12.5% service charge to the bill, “some of which goes to the employees”. In the absence of regulation and in the presence of many people who blindly pay such fees, it is getting more and more common. It needs to get shut down. It is not good business and they are not going to get morality unless it is legislated.

  2. I don’t travel to Vegas anymore, in part because of this nonsense. That and resort fees that are hidden in the fine print.

    No great loss to me, I never cared much for Vegas.

    However, something for the travel industry to think about: I’ve deliberately reduced my travel schedule by 70%. As I traveled nearly 90% of the time the past six years, it’s a significant reduction.

    It’s in large part because the whole travel gig become such a pain in the ass. No fun in it anymore for me, and for a lot of people.

  3. The real question (which the resorts no doubt will refuse to answer) is: how much of that 20-percent actually goes to the employees?

    In fact, you have to wonder whether they also charge their employees an “administrative fee.”

    A shyster by any other name (or description) is still a shyster.

    Let’s hope that “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” In other words, I hope nobody else adopt similarly disgusting tactics.

    Boy, am I glad I don’t have to go to Vegas.

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