On Tipping, Danny Meyer and Foxes

On Tipping and Danny Meyer – and Foxes

 

by Robert McGarvey

 

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When the fox tells you your idea for improving the lot of the chickens is a bad idea, that in fact it will make their lives worse, you have to know that you are heading in the right direction.

That’s how I feel when I hear the chorus of attacks on restaurateur Danny Meyer’s war on tipping which he in fact has now called “socialist.”

As for why Meyer wants to eliminate tips, he told CNBC this: “The tipping system is actually antithetical to creating a profession for people who really take their jobs seriously. You don’t tip your doctor if they do a good job; you don’t tip the airline pilot if the plane actually lands.”

Tipping, he added, is “demeaning.”

It’s not just Meyer. Most thoughtful people who have contemplated tipping have concluded it is a bad idea that fosters bad service.

Restaurateur Jay Porter in a Slate article said: “When we switched from tipping to a service charge, our food improved, probably because our cooks were being paid more and didn’t feel taken for granted. In turn, business improved, and within a couple of months, our server team was making more money than it had under the tipped system. The quality of our service also improved. In my observation, however, that wasn’t mainly because the servers were making more money (although that helped, too). Instead, our service improved principally because eliminating tips makes it easier to provide good service.”

Who is attacking also is interesting. It rarely is restaurant workersmost would take a job at a Danny Meyer restaurant in a heartbeat because Danny is known for treating his people well, in a business that generally treats them like disposable parts.

It also is not usually from Meyer’s fine dining competitors.  Most of them are probably mulling a similar policy anyway.

It definitely is not from people who know European restaurants because where I have dined on the Continent, generally service is included – and additional tips, such as they are, might be a Euro or two.  

And yet we hear that service will plummet in US restaurants if tipping is ended – and the irony is that the loudest voices chanting this are smalltime restaurant owner-operators.  The irony of course is you’d think managing service would be essential part of the ownership job but these owners, apparently, want to outsource waiter motivation to diners.

That is a ridiculous abdication of responsibility.

Besides, it does not work now and won’t work tomorrow.

Let me ask you this: when was the last time you were wowed by restaurant service, really blown away? I cannot remember the last time I was. Actually I can. It was maybe six years ago at Meyer’s Union Square Cafe. There were also really good times at Babbo, Del Posto, a few others. But I can count such nights on a pair of hands.

Mind you, I also cannot recall a time when the service was so horrendous that I wanted to stiff the server.  Usually it just is what it is. Adequate. Satisfactory.

Why cannot that be simply part of the meal experience – without the absurd dance of the tip at meal’s end.

Meyer — who incidentally is also taking on the challenge of making airline food edible in a deal with Delta, showing he is unafraid of La Mancha moments  – is saying it can and should be.

Some say waiter morale will plummet but, really….  Meyer, for instance, is raising wages and also menu prices (which went up 20+% at the Modern in Manhattan for instance).  What’s a waiter not to like?

Meyer also called tipping “socialist” – and, he explained, in most fine dining establishments tips are pooled and shared by servers.  Give Suzie a 100% tip on your birthday dinner because you want to share your wealth – and probably she will throw that generous tip into the pot and all will share equally.

So exactly how did your tip in fact directly reward good service?

The more I mull on the opposition to Meyer, the more I think a large part just is inertia, we all resist just about any change and in the case of US fine dining, we have lifetimes of calculating 15% or 20% at meal’s end and we are good at the math.

We just don’t want to change.

So why do some restaurant owners resist this? My guess is that causes are two-fold.  (a) They really do not know how to motivate their wait staff and they are hoping we, the diners, can do it for them.  (b) They already are getting pushback on too high prices at their tables and they are afraid that if they raise the tabs 20% diners will stay home.

They may be right about (b) – but that is their problem. It isn’t mine and it most certainly should not be the problem of the waiters and waitresses.

Rather than criticizing Meyer they might focus on motivating their own staff and impressing diners with the value for dollar of their offerings.

I suppose it’s easier for them to gnash their teeth than it is to address structural failings in their businesses.

I stand with Meyer on this.  Tipping makes no sense. It’s time to put a stop to it.  Now.

Will You Swap a Seat Upgrade or Free Flight for…a Free Drink in Economy?

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Will You Swap a Seat Upgrade for…a Free Drink in Economy?

 

by Robert McGarvey

Call it the latest slap in the face to airline elites. In a sign that seat upgrades and free flights are ever more unattainable – just look at how full every flight you take is — United and American have announced that they will begin giving free drinks and food to elites exiled to cheap seats in economy.

Happy now?

Sure, before you got free upgrades to business class just because of your elite status or, worse guess, you spent some miles and bought the upgrade. Now you don’t get either.

Enjoy the free drink.

United said this in unveiling the program: “One new way that we’re enhancing the inflight experience for our most frequent flyers is by offering MileagePlus members with Premier® 1K® status free alcoholic beverages and snacks in United Economy®. If you’re a member with Premier 1K status, you’ll receive one free alcoholic beverage and one free Choice Menu food item when traveling in United Economy on United- or United Express®-operated flights within North America and between Guam and Honolulu.”

A Sam Adams or a glass of red is $7.99 on United.  A wrap and salad combo goes for $9.49.

American Airlines does similar. Said AA: “AAdvantage® Executive Platinum and ConciergeKeySM members traveling in the Main Cabin on board American Airlines and American Eagle® can enjoy a complimentary beverage from our standard alcoholic beverage selections as well as one snack. The snack includes any food item on our menu.”

Glass half full people are applauding all this as signs of a new airline generosity – but, really, how can they not be generous? Fuel has plummeted to prices not seen in years and capacity is at a stuffed like sardines into a can level.

So they throw us a bone and expect us not to yelp.

I have said before that airline miles are nearing null value.  The food and drink freebies underline that the airlines are trying to distract us from the uselessness of miles by giving us a few overpriced and blah items.

Items that I don’t want. Do you?

I don’t recall the last time I paid for a drink on a plane. I may never have bought food and I’d stopped eating it back when it was still free.  

I do like free flights, tho, and I am fond of spending miles for seat upgrades too.

It simply seems that now that is ever less likely to happen.

Add in program changes where ticket price paid – not miles flown – determines a ticket’s awards value and you have to know that the chances of redeeming miles for air travel get ever slimmer.

That is a reason why the airlines bombard us with offers to sell us stuff – merchandise – for miles. It also is why they are now throwing freebies at elites in economy – hoping those elites forget that just a very few years ago they almost always got upgraded to business class where drinks are free and plentiful and food too is free.

Some may call me cynical. They will point to breathless stories such as this one from Travel and Leisure that touts how miles and $5.60 bought a business class roundtrip to Ghana.   I applaud the wise mileage game player who managed this.

But it reminds me of George Orwell’s prescient comments on lotteries in 1984.  Wrote Orwell: ““The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory. There was a whole tribe of men who made their living simply by selling systems, forecasts, and lucky amulets. Winston had nothing to do with the Lottery, which was managed by the Ministry of Plenty, but he was aware (indeed everyone in the party was aware) that the prizes were largely imaginary. Only small sums were actually paid out, the winners of the big prizes being nonexistent persons.”

I am not saying nobody ever actually redeems miles for flights.

It happens.

Just a lot less often than it used to.
And you have to wonder if now is the time to stop playing the game.

How Unsanitary Is Your Hotel Room? Five Star Filth

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How Unsanitary Is Your Hotel Room

 

by Robert McGarvey

 

If you are reading this in a hotel room, my advice is to click to any other page.  You are not in the right place to hear the news about how abundantly -wildly – unsanitary most hotel rooms are.

That’s the headline finding in a study conducted by the folks at travel app Travelmath.  Called “Hotel Hygiene Exposed,” that is exactly what it does.  

Note: I have been in independent, low budget hotels in tertiary cities where filth was obvious, from stained upholstery to cigarette burns in the rugs and rings in the toilet.  But those are not the hotels Travelmath has in its sights.  It takes aim at properties ranked 3 star and higher and what it found out nonetheless is disgusting.

Shockingly, in many categories, four and five star hotels are filthier than three stars, according to Travelmath.

Details momentarily.

First, this poor showing does not surprise me.  My impression was that in the hotel recession of six or so years ago many hotels cut deeply into their housekeeping budgets.  Housekeepers seemed fewer. They also showed up at ever odder hours (6 pm, for instance, when most of us are getting ready to go out for dinner).  And they forgot to do stuff.  How often have you found a cleaning rag left in a room, or a dirty towel?

Personally I felt compassion for the overworked – and underpaid – housekeepers.  What I did not compute was how unsanitary hotel rooms have become.  This is not just a matter of neatness. Health and hygiene are at stake.

Don’t blame the housekeepers, Blame their bosses.

In its study, Travelmath sent out investigators with swabs to collect what’s called colony forming units, that is, bacteria that multiply.

Here are CFU counts found across nine hotels:

  1. Bathroom counter – 1,288,817 CFU/sq. in.
  2. Remote control – 1,211,687 CFU/sq. in.
  3. Desk – 604,907 CFU/sq. in.
  4. Phone – 4,252 CFU/sq. in.

You would be right if you decide to never, again, touch a TV remote in a hotel room.  I won’t.  They are avoidable and they are disgusting.

I assume the phone count is comparatively low because who actually picks up an inroom phone anymore?

Travelmath then investigated whether a hotel’s star rating translates into a more sanitary room.

Hare are the CFU counts they found in a three star hotel:

Bathroom counter – 320,007 CFUs

Remote – 232,733 CFUs

Phone – 11.403 CFUs

Desk – 4687 CFUs

 

In a four star they found this:

Bathroom counter – 2,534,773 CFUs

Desk – 1,800,003 CFUs

Remote – 1,400,027

Phone – 137 CFUs

 

In a five star they found this:

Remote – 2,002,300 CFUs

Bathroom counter – 1,011, 670 CFUs

Desk – 40,030 CFUs

Phone – 1217 CFUs

 

The takeaways: avoid remotes everywhere and, the pricier the hotel, the safer the phone (probably the high-end guests do all calling on their mobiles).

Otherwise there is no obvious correlation between star ranking and cleanliness.

How bad are these results? Travelmath said: “Overall, according to the surfaces we tested, the average hotel room appears to be dirtier than a typical home, an airplane, and even a school.”

Uggh.

Travelmath added: “All germs are not created equal. For this study, we tested for the presence of various types of bacteria (including bacilli and cocci), yeast, and gram-positive rods (bacteria that cause various ailments, such as skin infections and pneumonia) and gram-negative rods (bacteria that cause respiratory and other infections).

“In three-star hotels, the remote control tended to harbor Bacillus spp, which could be associated with various infections, including respiratory and gastrointestinal. Additionally, tests revealed yeast present in the bathrooms in three-star hotels. In four-star hotels, Bacillus spp dominated on the remote and telephone. In five-star hotels, the brunt of bacteria were gram negative, though the phone was rife with gram-positive cocci.”

Travelmath advised: “Your best bet: During hotel stays, wash your hands frequently, disinfect surfaces before touching them, and steer clear of certain areas.”

If you must use the remote, my advice is bring a sanitary wipe and clean the thing first.  A fast wipe of the bathroom counter with a wipe is smart.  Ditto for the desktop.
Do I travel with wipes? I have not. But that will change. Hotel room cleaning is obviously something we need to take into our own hands and a few sanitary minutes ought to be plenty to sanitize a room that otherwise might be dangerous to our health.

Just Say No to Resort Fees: the FTC Now May Have Your Back

Just Say No to Resort Fees: the FTC Now Is Back on the Attack

by Robert McGarvey

 

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$2.04 billion. That is how much advocacy group Travelers United said was collected in resort fees in 2015. That is up 35% from 2014.

The breaking news: the FTC apparently has decided to renew its attack on resort fees. More on that below.

For now, feast on more bad news: 1,671 hotels and lodging sites in the U.S. charged resort fees, said Travelers United.

Said Travelers United, “The average mandatory resort fee reached $24.93 in October 2015 hotel listings online, a 30 percent increase over the $19.20 average resort fee of online listings in December 2014. Resort fees in Florida were highest, with an average of $28.63 across 549 hotel listings.”

Resort fees are also high in Hawaii, Las Vegas, and San Diego. But they show up in small towns, big cities, and where we may least expect them.

How in an era of minimal inflation can resort fees nudge up 30%? Because they can. Because no one is watching.

You know what you get for a resort fee: bupkis mainly. A newspaper you don’t want. Bad and insecure inhouse WiFi. Maybe local calling. Pool towels. A lot of stuff that, well, is what you might expect to see at a resort anyway or that you don’t likely want. (Do you ever use an inroom phone?)

Usually too free parking is in the package – but only if it’s parking nobody would happily pay for. That is, hotels in Manhattan and San Francisco won’t throw in parking – not when they can nick guests $50, sometimes higher, for it. But if it’s a suburban resort with a vast parking lot, sure, they will throw it in under the resort fee.

Guided hikes – not in the package usually. Ditto for classes led by experts (surcharged on a case by case basis). Cooking classes – forget about it.

A rule of thumb: the good stuff comes with a price tag. The rest is covered by the resort fee.

The only bright news here: the Federal Trade Commission is going after resorts that hide their resort fees. That’s a position flip flop. Last summer the FTC seemed to shrug and accept resort fees. Now it is back on the warpath and it is prodding Congress to consider legislation regarding resort fees.

Personally, we are not for or against resort fees. What we are against is hiding the fees and springing them on consumers as they check in (sometimes not until check out).

That is the real irritant. A hotel can charge whatever it feels the market will bear. That is the system.

But hotels cheat when they have a room rate and on top of that is a resort fee – usually upwards of $25 – that is presented as a kind of footnote. Go ahead, see if you can find it when making a reservation via mobile. Ditto with reservations via Online Travel Agencies (OTAs).

Hiding fees is just sneaky.

Hoteliers, as a group, present delusions when justifying resort fees. They will tell you everybody does it and they would be at a competitive disadvantage if they in fact built those charges into the room rate.

But everybody does not do it. The American Hotel and Lodging Association said that only about 7% of hotels charged resort fees, meaning 93% do not.

Some greedy hoteliers do it because it is a fast way to goose the black ink. Resort fees mean profits.

But my favorite is when hoteliers say that we – the consumers – like resort fees because it bundles in a lot of charges that otherwise we would have to pay for a la carte. Except some 87% of consumers have said they would be “less willing” to stay at a hotel that charges a resort fee. That does not sound like a whole lot of loving, does it?

Hoteliers also tell us resort fees represent real “value” because, if bought a la carte, the various things thrown into resort fees would cost more.

The fallacy there of course is that just about nobody would buy all the stuff covered by resort fees. Some might buy none at all – and those guests still are stuck with paying a fee for “amenities” they don’t want.

Can you dodge resort fees? Road warriors tell us they often do, simply by saying at check out that the fee had not been adequately disclosed. If there’s resistance, say you will complain to the FTC which already had begun investigating complaints about hidden resort fees….and actually file that complaint.

Does that always work? Nope. But all we can do is lift our voices in protest – and hope our complaints fall on sane ears.

Proof That Air Miles Are Approaching Null Value

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by Robert McGarvey

 

The pop-up holiday shop at Terminal C in Newark Airport drove the point home: air miles are plunging towards no value.

United opened the shop – which may or may not close – to give MileagePlus members a place to burn miles on, well, stuff such as gadgets, cookbooks, suitcases and more.  Last I heard United was saying they might keep it open and that is because there is a need for a place where miles are a currency.

That’s on top of an existing program in Terminal C that let MileagePlus members buy food and drinks at a half dozen restaurants such as Abruzzo Italian Steakhouse and Oeno Wine Bar. The directions on how to use are cumbersome so if this appeals to you, read them.  

And of course United has deals with dozens of online retailers – from Crate and Barrel to Tumi – that lets us buy stuff with miles.  

Other carriers do likewise.

There is a lesson in this.  Miles no longer are a currency with their issuers, the airlines, at least not for their core products, flights.

Miles really – honestly – no longer equate to free flights and free seat upgrades.  Those two ways are how I have spent all the miles I have ever accumulated and I have gotten business class travel, flights to Europe, cross country flights for myself and friends. It has been good.

But it is over.

The reason: airlines have made it so very simple to accumulate air miles without flying, by tempting us with credit cards that for every purchase shower miles on us.  Buy a week’s worth of groceries at Whole Foods and, well, that’s 300 miles. Over a year that is 15,000 miles and soon we are in striking range of a free flight. Just for buying food.  

Except those free flights are ever harder to claim because more of us want them, just at the time that there are ever fewer seats available for rewards programs. Something has to give in that equation — thus it is ever rarer to score rewards travel you actually want.

I am guilty too. In my wallet are a United credit card, via Chase, and an American Airlines credit card via Barclays.  I have them because of their perks, mainly priority boarding and free bag check.  I have them because airlines forced me to get them.

As airlines have joined in making elite status ever harder to attain – basing a ticket’s mileage value on price paid, not miles flown – many industry experts such as Joe Brancatelli have suggested that now is the time for many fliers to forget pursuing elite status and instead buy pieces of it via the airline credit cards.

Wrote Brancatelli in a recent column: “For most business travelers, frequent flier programs are no longer a compelling proposition.”

He added: “The 20 percent devaluations that the big carriers surreptitiously folded into their switch to revenue-based recognition sharply increases the price of award travel. There are many fewer upgrades to be had and the basic benefits (priority boarding and free checked bags) are available to anyone who acquires the airlines’ proprietary credit card.”

Agreed.

But the irony is that as more of us grab those airline credit cards, more miles get minted, they get harder to redeem on flights, and so we are forced to spend miles on airport food and maybe an overpriced suitcase at an airline store.

It’s a vicious cycle. But it won’t get better.

That is why I have resigned myself to the probability that I have very, very few free – paid by miles – flights in front of me.  I used to plot, connive, and save miles with a particular flight in mind.  I don’t anymore. I have plenty of miles for a flight on United. But just one. I spent all but a handful of my American miles on a flight recently and have no intention of rebuilding my balance.

I am at peace.

Now, if only I can figure out what to do with the 250,000+ points I have on an American Express card and, yes, when I have redeemed Amex points in the past it has only been for flights.  Never on hotels or meals or Amazon purchases.

We’ll see if I can maintain that record.