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January 2002 Vol. 17, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Dive Trip Tipping Nearly Universal

-- but there ’s disagreement on the amounts and recipients

from the January, 2002 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Here’s a little challenge for your next dive trip: poll your fellow divers for their opinions on tipping and see if you come up with a consensus. Chances are this question will stir the waters more than any other topic short of shark feeding. That’s what we found when reviewing results from last year’s tipping surv e y, to which 200 readers responded. While not enough for statistically significant results, it gives us a good sense of how our fellow divers view the problem .

Statistically, 78 percent of the respondents told us that they contribute to the tip pool on a liveaboard dive boat. Thirty percent sometimes separately tip dive guides, 11 percent may tip the skipper, and 22 percent might also take care of individual crew members.

At resorts that include diving, 74 percent tip dive guides, 38 percent take care of the skipper( s ) , and 40 percent tip the c r e w. Where a separate operator handles the diving, these percentages go up: 75 percent tip the guide, 49 percent tip the skipper and 47 percent tip the crew.

Beyond the numbers, opinions varied wildly on why, when and how much to tip. Comments ranged from the miserly (like “I didn’t tip the airline crew that got me here,” or “I don’t get tipped for doing my job”) to saintly (“It’s the perfect entrepreneurial reward system”). Tipping etiquette is also obviously a matter of real concern, for a variety of reasons.

Pointing Out Critters Earns Tips

Many folks tip a certain percentage of their trip price (net of a i rfare). Others base tips on exceptional service. Reasons given for tipping dive guides include: personal attention (such as offering special help or lending equipment), good briefings, pointing out interesting critters, having a pleasant attitude, staying out of the way when not needed, and encouraging preservation of the marine environment. Sharon Costello of Pasadena, Calif., rewards guides who enforce “good buoyancy control and a ‘hands-off’ reef policy.”

Wayne Hasson says that Aggressor skippers
may withhold tips and salary until a
recalcitrant employee shapes up.

Skippers are usually tipped for finding good sites, getting involved with the divers (helping with gear, socializing) or taking special requests. Crew members typically receive gratuities for setting up and filling tanks, assisting with gear, and helping divers into or out of the boat. Michael Lewis of Chantilly, Va., also listed “cleanliness and food quality” as reasons for tipping the crew.

Walter Brenner (Wayne, Pa.,) considers the cook the most important person after the skipper: “If they give special attention to requests, good coffee or tea; (etc.) they get an early tip.” But John and Patty Turbeville of Bradenton, Fla., reported a chef on an unnamed live-aboard who dished up bologna sandwiches all week until the night before the tip envelopes came out. Suddenly dinner improved immensely, but not enough to win over the Turbevilles. “We tipped every o n e else well,” they told us, “and specified a smaller percent for him in our ‘pot’ envelope.”

Other reasons for withholding tips included unfriendliness, inexperience, lack of help, unnecessary delays, restrictive dive practices, or bad advice.

A major area of controversy is the notion of tipping to a pot rather than individually, especially when the dive operator establishes ground rules for tipping. The most frequently cited operoperator was Peter Hughes’ Dancer fleet, which includes the following recommendations in the planning guide sent to all passengers with their trip confirmations: “If the crew performs to your expectations, may we suggest 10 percent of the package price would be normal, entirely at the discretion of the guest. It is the policy of the Dancer fleet to pool any collected gratuities and divide these equally among the crew, since we believe that no one crew member has the opportunity to give exceptional service without the assistance and support of all other crew members.”

They print this policy on tip envelopes that each passenger receives on board. Several readers tell us it is often mentioned in briefings at the beginning and end of the voyage.

Legendary underwater photographer Jim Church describes a similar policy on the Aggress or fleet. Crew members who receive individual tips must put them into the pool, and the captain divides them up equally among the entire staff. “I personally agree with this philosophy,” says Church. “Giving ‘special tips’ in my opinion, can divide a crew. While one crew member may have been personally helpful and attentive to a guest, and the guest wants to ‘reward this tireless soul,’ another unseen crew member may have worked all night to make sure the toilets flushed, the vessel had fresh w a t e r, didn’t sink and that the lights went on in the cabin when the guest flicked the switch. There are many ‘unsung heros’.” Several resorts follow a similar policy.

Some readers appreciate the convenience of having every t h i n g spelled out for them, and not having to decide to tip different individuals. Allan Hudson of Caledonia, Mich., finds such guidelines “a very appropriate measure because many (especially non- Americans) need to know this is a service industry and the employees rely on tips to survive.”

On the other hand, Bruce Cohen of Chatham, Pa., considers the practice high pressure and “extremely offensive.” He says, “The operation should pay their staff appropriately and incorporate (that expense) into trip cost.” Ray and Cheryl Stobaugh of Atkins, Ark., agree: “We don’t mind tipping but we should not be paying wages.” And Larry Lovecchio of Ignacio, Colo., feels, “it sullies the dive experience for me and other divers I’ve been with if tipping becomes the topic of conversation.”

The Florida Keys and Cozumel were frequently cited as destinations where dive staff heavily pushed tipping. The Cayman government requires that an automatic 15 percent gratuity be added on hotel rooms. At the other end of the spectrum, nations such as Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea traditionally have not followed the practice of tipping, although American visitors are probably changing that quaint custom. Lorna Weible of Spring, Texas, points out that Dive Makai in Kona and Chris Sawyer in the U.S. Virgins “never mentioned or acted like they expected tips ... And they are two of the best we’ve been with.”

Will Your Tip in the Pot be Distributed?

Another major objection to tip pools is lack of control over where the money goes. Some employees, who have an opportunity to affect the quality of a diver ’s experience, are clearly more valuable than others. Is a chocolate on your pillow really worth as much as a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with an exotic fish?

Plus, you never know how fairly the pooled tips are actually disbursed. Last year the Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman was hit with 65 criminal counts of illegally withholding US$1.5 million in collected tips for more than six years. According to charges filed by the Cayman Islands Department of Labour, the money was diverted to mid-management and clerical staff, who do not qualify for gratuities under Cayman laws.

That raises the question, “Who does qualify for tips?” Here at home, you’d never think of tipping a professional, such as your doctor or dentist. But where ’s the demarcation in the dive world? Surely, a boat skipper is a professional. You wouldn’t , for instance, tip the captain of an ocean liner. What about a resort manager? One rule of thumb is to tip captains and managers only if they do something extraordinary for you. And, of course, owners should never be tipped. If your resort uses an outside dive operator, those folks often don’t share in any pooled tips, so you might want to reward them separately for good service.

Anything can happen to pooled tips after your departure. Readers Janice Summers and Harold Bedoukian were shocked to learn that tips they and others contributed to the pot on the Truk Aggressor last year were arbitrarily withheld from one employee for disciplinary reasons. Wayne Hasson, who runs the franchised Aggressor fleet, confirms that the policy for all Aggressor boats allows skippers to withhold tips and salary until a recalcitrant employee shapes up. In the Truk in cident , both tip and salary were withheld for a few days. The crew member was eventually let go, after the withheld salary and tips had been paid to him, says Hasson.

But that was not good enough for the Bedoukians. They wrote to Hasson: “When tip money is left to be equally distributed, it belongs to the crew. To use it any other way is immoral and illegal as it was given in trust. If a crew member owes the Aggresso something or needs discip l i n a ry action, this must come from another source, such as salary, not from tips. At no time does the Aggressor have the arbitrary right to withhold a tip.” To which we can only add, right on!

These are not isolated incidents, by the way. We’ve received similar reports from live-aboards and resorts from the Caribbean to the South Pacific. Too often, higher-paid managers or skippers take the lion’s share before distributing the rest to the staff.

Some folks tip about half the suggested amount to the pool and then personally take care of diveguides and crew members who provide exceptional service. While the intent is to offer an instant award, some operators only distribute pooled tips monthly — or even annually! Therefore, employees who are let go before tips are distributed often lose their share of the allocation.

But many live-aboards and resorts actually insist that individual tips be thrown into the pot as well, and failing to do so may be a firing offense. If you’ve gotten close enough to a crew member to consider taking extra care of him, ask about such policies. You don’t want your good intentions to backfire on the poor guy! One way to get around such rules is to offer non-cash gifts. T-shirts, CDs, or extraneous dive gear seem to be welcome items.

$18,000 a Year in Tips in Indonesia?

Although our readers reported tip guidelines ranging from 7 percent (CoCo View on Roatan) up to 15 percent (Kona Aggresso), 10 percent seems to be the most common recommendation of both live-aboards and resorts. Nice and tidy, and easy to figure. But when you break it down, 10 percent could be downright extravagant. A typical liveaboard operating 50 weeks a year with 16 passengers each paying $1,800 would generate $1,440,000 in charges. Tips of 10 percent would create a pool of $144,000. If split by eight crew members, each would get $18,000 over and above their salaries. That could be four or five times the average annual income in a lot of third world countries — for a job that includes room and board. And a few operators even try to lump a i rfare into the tipping equation! So who gets this? What formula can you follow when there is no tip pool? Ly n n Rogers, of St. Peters, Mo., asks ahead for the non-diver package cost, which she subtracts from the diving - inclusive price to determine the value of the dive package. Then she bases her tips to the dive staff on a percentage of that amount. Jimmy Williams of Norristown, Pa., generally tips diveguides $3 per tank “with a tendency to round upwards.”

In the end tipping, like confession, is a
matter of conscience. Don’t be intimidated;
just do what feels right, considering
the circumstances

By comparison, the American tour company, Lost Wo r l d Adventures, which offers guided travel in exotic locales, recommends tipping local guides $5-$10 per day. Our editor, Ben Davison, has traveled with them in several South American countries and found the professional guides very pleased with $10 per day.

Once you’ve determined how much to tip, the next pressing question is: when? Some people have found that a little cash upfront moves them to the top of the list for exceptional service. In Cuba, I was dismayed by my divemaster Martin’s lack of communication and attention through my first three days of diving. Then another guest told me he tipped daily. The next day my boatmates and I each slipped Martin a fiver, and suddenly his English improved immensely. He even offered us fresh drinking water for the first time all week!

However, others have had opposite experiences. When the Wave Dancer had to return to Belize City a day early last year, several passengers elected to stay on board for the evening. Pat Wikstrom of Warne, N.C. notes, “since the staff had already been given their tip when we cleared our tabs on the ride back, they were no longer as interested in providing the legendary Peter Hughes service.” In the end, tipping, like confession, is a matter of conscience. Don’t be intimidated; just do what feels right, considering the circumstances at hand. (Every dive trip will present different circumstances.) Here are a few more guidelines to make the process go smoother:

Don’t assume that a “service fee” includes gratuities. Sand Dollar Dive and Photo in Bonaire tacks 10 percent or more onto all purchases, but they don’t specify what it’s for. We’ve found in some luxury resorts a service fee gets applied to such incidentals as flowers in the rooms and “free” T-shirts, before it’s parceled out to staff.

Tip in cash. Boat and resort personnel may not be able to cash atraveler ’s check in their home count ry or collecting credit card tips from management. And, at least in American venues, cash is only taxed when it’s declared.

Consider the downturn in diver travel. And the standard of living. A buck goes a lot farther in the Solomons than it does in Hawaii.

And, let’s be practical. Do you plan to come back to the same boat or resort any time soon? How would you like to be treated on your return?

Most of all, relax and have a good time. Enjoy the people you’re with — both fellow guests and staff. The rest should come naturally.

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