Say It Ain’t So: Automatic Spa Gratuities Are Becoming a Thing

Fair or not?

Left: Our mockup of a Rittenhouse Spa receipt showing the automatic gratuity. Right: The spa's entry.

Left: Our mockup of a Rittenhouse Spa receipt showing the automatic spa gratuity. Right: The spa’s entry.

Recently, a very good friend gave my wife a gift card to the luxurious Rittenhouse Spa inside the also luxurious Rittenhouse Hotel. But instead of being for a normal gift card number, usually a multiple of ten or 25, this gift card was for an odd amount: $156. I figured that there had to be a story behind this weird figure, and there is.

I questioned our friend about it, and he replied that the spa told him that they were adding an automatic 20 percent gratuity to the original value that he asked for, explaining that this was now the spa’s policy. He found it a bit odd, and so did I, but then again, if you’re giving your friend a gift of a massage, isn’t it especially generous to also cover the gratuity?

But it turns out that this policy doesn’t just apply to gift card purchases. If you visit the Rittenhouse Spa for any of their services, be it a $200 90-minute Thai massage, a $110 Black Diamond Exfoliation, or a 90-minute $350 Hyrdafacial, the front desk will add an automatic spa gratuity of 20 percent to your bill. So if you get that Hyrdrafacial, the spa worker gets an automatic spa gratuity of $70 on top of whatever they’re already making from the spa.

We called several other leading spas in the region, and the only other one that has instituted an automatic spa gratuity is the Logan Spa inside the new Logan Hotel, which replaced Four Seasons.

I’m not a big fan of all of this. I hate it when a restaurant tacks on an automatic gratuity of 15 or 18 percent when I’m out with a small group, and unless the service is exemplary, I won’t add a cent to whatever they’re forcing me to pay, and I’m a guy who usually tips anywhere from 20 to 30 percent. Sometimes even more. And so this new automatic spa gratuity business doesn’t sit right with me.

A gratuity is a gift that a customer gives to a person providing a service, a special thank you. It’s supposed to be above and beyond that which is required for said service, and by making the gratuity automatic, the system falls apart and makes the customer — at least when that customer is me — angry.

Of course, there’s another side to this story, as one massage therapist from a prominent Philadelphia spa tells us.

“I think it sucks from a client’s point of view,” she says, under the condition of anonymity. “But from a therapist’s point of view, it’s great, because we get stiffed and under-tipped on the regular. If the service wasn’t good enough for a 20 percent gratuity, it should be my choice on how much I want to tip. But from my end, it’s a way that we can be compensated properly. I’ve had clients rave about a massage, write a good review and tip eight to ten percent.”

I sure do empathize with her, and I can’t imagine the sinking feeling she gets when some sweaty middle-aged dude with a hairy back hands her a five spot with a wink. But it’s not his job to make sure she’s “compensated properly,” to use her words. It’s the spa’s.