That Kitchen Confidential reference gets used lot but in this case it fits. Heads in Beds is described as "a rollicking, eye-opening, fantastically indiscreet memoir of a life spent (and misspent) in the hotel industry". It is both highly entertaining and very interesting, especially if you are curious about what goes on behind the scenes at big hotels.
One thing in particular came as a surprise – the idea of tipping the clerk at the front desk that checks you in. Not only had I never tipped at the front desk I had never even heard of the practice.
Jacob Tomsky, Heads in Beds
Now you're dealing with the front-desk agent, who is more important than anyone has believed in the past. They are in charge of selecting your room, which can be the biggest factor for happiness throughout your stay.
But Tomsky makes a good case for it. His main argument is that there is always a better room, and that the clerk at the front desk has a lot of leeway (far more than the crew of an airliner) about where they put you. He explains that tipping will generally get you a better room.
I've been trying it for about eighteen months and, sure enough, it seems to work. Here is what I have noticed along the way…
Tomsky explains that the proper move is to start the conversation with the front desk by handing them your credit card with the tip folded neatly beneath it. This strategy held up in my testing – you have to give the tip before the front desk starts the process of assigning you to a room.
I'm not sure what if any controls or policies are in place about changing a room once it has been selected but they don’t seem to like doing it. The whole thing works better if you tip first – otherwise it becomes more of a “thank you very much” situation instead of a “let me see what I can do for you” transaction.
When I got the timing right and the clerk at the front desk understood what was going on (more on that in a minute) it seemed to work. The rewards varied…. sometime the room was upgraded to a suite. Other times the room was on the “club” floor, with free drinks and snacks at happy hour, and free breakfast in the morning. Sometimes there was a voucher for free breakfast or internet access. Other times it was less obvious – maybe a standard room but really close to the elevator. The kind of room when you get it you think “wow - this is really convenient! I lucked out!”.
When it went wrong it tended to really go wrong and always for the same reason – the front desk looked at the tip, then looked at me like I was nuts, and said something like “what’s this?”
Early on, being unsure of the practice, I’d just say something like “uh, that’s for you” which was sometimes met with even more incredulity – on two different occasions I even had people get really flustered and say things like “but… why?” and look around like somebody was playing a trick on them. In these situations I ended up pretty much forcing the tip on them, with them basically saying “well gee, thanks”, but not really figuring out it was supposed to be a transaction. They just weren’t up to speed.
As time went on I got a little better at handling these situations. Instead of just saying “that’s for you” I’d say “that’s for you because I know you are going to take great care of me”. Then, after a second or two, you could almost see the light go on in their eyes. Those situations ended up being some of the best in terms of upgrades/extras.
In big cities (New York, Chicago, Washington, etc.) at big hotels it was rarely a problem – everyone seemed to understand what was going on. Smaller cities, smaller hotels… there tended to be more confusion. And sometimes you would get someone who was relatively new at the job and not yet familiar with the practice. Tomsky talks about this in his book and encourages you to look for someone who appears to have been around. It’s great advice but at smaller hotels you don’t always get to choose.
In a couple of situations the clerk clearly thought they were doing me a big favor by giving me a special room, but it wasn’t the kind of special I was interested it. For example at a resort in Phoenix a lovely lady gave me a big smile and explained that it was one of the quietest rooms with the best view in the building. It was very quiet, and the view was spectacular, but it was also at the extreme far end of the wrong wing of the building. It took five to ten minutes to walk from my room to the convention I was attending at the other end of the hotel. I would have gladly traded the view for a shorter commute.
Now I know better. When I walk up to the front desk, credit card and tip in hand, I lead with what I’m hoping for. It goes something like “Hi – I’m hoping you can find me a great room near (or with, etc.)”. At the very least it tends to start a discussion of the available rooms and their relative merits, instead of the clerk trying to surprise me with something that isn’t the right fit.