Vancouver Olympics – Cultural Differences Create Rancor

I believe that it behooves all of us when we travel to learn the cultural practices of the countries we visit. Not only are we likely to be better guests, but by showing we are polite, we show we care. Local people appreciate this and are more likely to respond positively to us, thereby creating a valuable cultural exchange — just what every traveler hopes for!

The topic of tipping in restaurants is a touchy one, and during the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the issue is at a tipping point!

Both sides need to take a step back. What’s been happening? Well, restaurateurs in the radius of Olympic venues have been taking criticism for automatic gratuities (i.e. adding fixed tips to the bill).

This has become their way of dealing with visitors from countries where tipping isn’t the norm. That’s true in most Asian and European countries. Australians are starting to tip, but offer less than the North American average. In Japan, you just don’t — in fact, in many countries tipping is considered very rude!

But, in Canada and in the United States, shamefully, tips are a big part of a restaurant worker’s wage — up to two-thirds, said Ian Tostenson of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association (BCRFA). Many waiters just work for the tips.

The background service staff in other countries often get full-time benefits and don’t rely on tips. That difference is where the cultural problem starts. In one country, the owner pays his staff; in North America, too many owners get off the hook.

Some countries habits are confusing, e.g. France. It’s a no-tipping country. But, really, it’s appreciated if you leave a “little” behind. But, how much? At what places? It’s kind of expected at high-end French restaurants — those with kid-glove service.

Now, imagine the reverse situation, when diners come from countries where tips aren’t the norm? Here they’re expected to pay-up 10 to 20 per cent more, wouldn’t it be easy to play ignorant, or just plain not understand such a custom?

The bills become especially agregious when the government is slapping the PST and GST taxes on the bill. They look already an awful lot like a fixed gratuity. In Canada, there’s 10 per cent PST and five per cent GST on alcohol and five per cent GST on food. Can you can see why visitors might feel that’s enough of an overage — so do we!

But, all this is why some Olympic zone restaurants add a fixed gratuity (an “auto grat”). The ones doing it are adding an average 18%. Just about anywhere in North America, restaurants already routinely add an autograt for large parties, although personally I have never understood this — even when we have owned a restaurant in my family. If your restaurant caters to a defined number of people, what difference does it make how they sit together. If you want all the tables filled, you have to have the staff doing the same work.

And, with inconsistencies between restaurants, I think this is confusing Olympic visitors even more. The Olympics brings people from many countries, especially ones which usually do not send tourists abroad in great numbers.

Part of being a host city is to be “gracious”. I think this is terrible for Vancouver’s image. Every future host city needs to learn from what happened here. Beijing certainly failed to hide its steel-fist in a velvet glove. It will be interesting to see how Sochi, Russia fares with the next Winter Olympic Games in 2014. And, London has many of the same food issues as Vancouver had; hopefully more solutions will come for the Summer Olympics in 2012 there.

Although the British Columbia restaurant association recommends that restaurants stay with letting guests determine the tip, I think if they want to be sure they’ll get enough to share among the waiters, then be honest and open and just raise the prices.

My suggestion for this widely ranging Olympic tourist is exactly what Milestones, the chain restaurant, has done. There, when servers deliver the bill, they leave an information card in 12 different languages, informing the guest that it’s customary to leave a 10-to 15-per-cent tip. (Tips in higher-end restaurants are more in the 15-to 20-per-cent zone, edging upwards from, say, a decade ago.) And, I still pay no more than a 15% tip anywhere. In my opinion, restaurant owners need to “get over it” — they need to pick up some of the inflationary difference. Period.

What other industry doesn’t pay anymore than 0% – 30% of its wages?!

Recently, the Vancouver owner of Glowbal, Society, Coast, Italian Kitchen and Sanafir — all very popular downtown spots — said they make sure to explain it to the guests and stamp ‘tip included’ on the bill. But, it is a touchy situation. He has 5,000 guests a day and out of that, maybe 50 are charged autograts. The 18 per cent, he said, is added to the before-tax actual food bill.

As an illustration of the touchy circumstances, he said some customers recently rang up a $350 alcohol bill in one of his lounges. They didn’t pay a bar tip and the next day, they even called to complain about the PST and GST. The international visitors are not used to it. He estimates about 99% of visitors get confused about those government taxes. Some even roll their eyes.

Vancouverites worry that the fixed tip portends a trend. From March 15 to 25, during the Paralympics, he plans to give everybody 30% off on food for lunch, as a way of thanking locals for the madness around the Olympics.

Other restauranteurs explain that their wait-staff don’t have the opportunity to have that level of engagement with visitors [to explain Canadian tipping customs] as the waiters are being run off their feet by 4 times the patrons as usual. At Earl’s, the hostess mentions the automatic gratuity before seating customers; the manager then goes over to explain it and the bill says auto grat included”.

I think all of this should have been discussed in round-tables by VanOC with all the store owners, cafes and restaurants. They are a prime interface and provide necessary services for visitors. What a shame that Vancouver dropped the ball. Will it be different when you visit? Ask lots of questions, as prices are high, as it is.

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