Saturday, October 27, 2012

Tipping Points

This summer and fall, we hosted more than four hundred guests at our bed and breakfast. We warmly welcomed them. We discussed the area. We recommended restaurants. We told them about where they could find the best swimming holes, perfect hikes, best colors of changing leaves. We prepared their rooms, vacuuming, scrubbing, and fluffing. We talked to them about their day. We prepared and served their breakfasts. We made them laugh. We made them think. We shared our pets, our families, and our lives with them.

Some of them left a tip, and some didn’t.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, the relationship among epidemics (including non-medical epidemics, like cultural phenomena) and their rates of dissemination--their tipping points--is explored. I’ve tried to map the ebb and flow of gratuities left behind based on what I’ve learned in The Tipping Point, but so far I’ve been flummoxed.

Gladwell identifies several characteristics necessary for something to tip--that is, for a trend to explode beyond the control of its initiators. For things to become what Gladwell calls “sticky”--for ideas to get stuck in the consciousness of consumers or users--we need people to assume specific roles: connectors, mavens, and salesmen. The behaviors of these people explain why a certain brand of sneaker becomes more popular than another, but they can’t explain why or why not a guest will leave a tip in the tip envelope when they check out. The tipping point of tipping defies these parameters.

To the casual observer, tipping analysis might seem obvious: a guest enjoys the stay, and the innkeepers are rewarded. The bigger the tip, the happier the customer. But there are a few problems with this simple model. First, there’s the problem with Europeans. Most Europeans come from a culture where tipping isn’t practiced because people who work in the service industry are fully compensated, precluding the need for a tip. So when Europeans stay with us, we reduce our expectations, but not our service.

Then there are Quebecers. The reputation of our friends to the north is so bad that the Burlington Free Press recently ran a front page story about the tipping habits that seem to get left at the border. Some servers have begun the practice of “auto gratting”--automatically adding a gratuity to the check--whenever Quebecers sit down. Visitors from La Belle Province make up such a substantial portion of guests at the Auberge that we’ve simply resigned ourselves to an empty tip envelope when we go in to clean the room.

There are also other paradoxes. Sometimes we’ll connect with a guest, giving such extraordinary service that we rediscover why we became innkeepers in the first place--the people we meet, only to find no tip--or worse, pocket change. And sometimes we’ll discover that someone with whom we had limited interactions with--because it was busy, because they were simply quiet and reserved, or because we perceived that they weren’t a good fit with the Auberge--leaves us an impressive tip.

So we’ve come to the place where we view the presence or absence of a tip as gratuitous. We’re still going to welcome people warmly, we’re still going to share our part of the world with them, and we’re still do whatever we can to make folks feel at home. And if they leave a tip, the beer money fund will be happy.