Judging from recent debates on the Tripadvisor Vietnam forum, tipping is a hot topic amongst travellers to Vietnam. Should I tip? If so, who should I tip? And how much?

 

In some parts of the world, particularly the US, tips are expected and taken for granted, and in some establishments a tip is even included in the bill, meaning the customer is obliged to tip even when they might feel that it is not deserved.

 

In Vietnam, this isn’t the case, and the culture of tipping is still in its infancy. The Vietnamese rarely tip in restaurants or bars, though women usually tip in hairdressers or spas.

 

So what to do? In my opinion, you should tip to reward good service, polite/friendly/professional service, or service that exceeds your expectations. Such service, outside international hotels at least, is sadly all too rare in Vietnam so I always reward it when I experience it.

 

Here are my guidelines for tipping:

 

Restaurants

You will find that the standard of service in Vietnamese restaurants is way below what you would get in other tourism destinations, such as Thailand. If you do get good service, then 5% of the bill is a reasonable amount, which will usually equate to between 15,000-30,000VND. Less is too little, more is too much!

 

Bars

Bar staff are generally paid very little and make up their wages with tips, so if you get good service, tip by rounding up your bill – again, 15,000-30,000VND is reasonable.

 

Hotel Porters

10,000-15,000VND is the usual amount for a helpful porter who has escorted you to your room and/or delivered your baggage. I personally find that tipping porters/concierges ensures you get excellent attention and service throughout your stay!

Taxis

Polite, friendly, honest taxi drivers are a rare species in Vietnam, so if you get one, reward him with a tip – rounding up your bill is the best way, or if he has really gone above & beyond the call of duty, hand him 10,000VND to let him know his efforts are appreciated.

 

Please note that some taxi drivers may assume you want them to keep the change if it’s a small amount and not bother to give change. If the driver has given you good service, then by all means let him keep it. But if he’s been surly, uncommunicative or generally indifferent, insist on getting your change in full. If he claims he has no change, take your money back or stay put in the cab. You will find the change will miraculously appear!

 

Spa/Massage

Many massage parlours of dubious repute pay their staff so little that they live off tips, and will consequently openly ask for tips. I have even heard cases of masseuses refusing to allow customers to leave until they have paid a tip! Obviously such practices should be discouraged – generally, if a spa or massage parlour is touting for business by handing out leaflets on the street, it is best avoided. Most reputable spas (including our own) discourage their staff from asking for tips, but if you have had good service, then 50,000-100,000VND is the usual amount and will be gratefully received.

 

Tour Guides/Drivers

If you’re on a tour with a guide & driver, and you feel they’ve really done a good job of making your trip memorable, then a tip of $10 per day (total) is reasonable. Tips probably account for 60% of their earnings and they have a hard job, being away from home for long periods of time. However, if the service is indifferent or unremarkable, or if they openly ask for tips, give them nothing.

 

 

In all the above cases, you should only reward good service. Tipping for poor or indifferent service provides staff with little motivation to improve the way they treat customers. If the message that great service = big tips starts to get across, the country’s currently poor standards of service will hopefully improve, and more tourists will come back for repeat visits. However, if the message is foreigners are going to tip me whatever I do, things will not improve and Vietnam will continue to have a reputation for offering poor service, whilst restaurateurs will cut wages and expect staff to live off tips. So, please tip with care and only when it’s deserved!

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As a marketer who has been heavily involved in social media for the last couple of years, this article on Social Media Optimisation for the Hotel Industry caught my eye this morning.

Before joining the Duxton, I was in charge of marketing for a large IT/web design company based in Saigon, and spent a lot of time discovering various areas of social media and how we could use them for marketing/PR purposes. To tell the truth it wasn’t ideal for a company selling $5-figure software installations, but when I moved to the Duxton, I realised that social media channels would be far more appropriate in a hospitality context. So appropriate in fact, that I’m frequently stunned at how few hoteliers are even aware of the term ‘social media’, let alone actually getting involved!

Anyway, getting back to the article above, here are my thoughts on the seven areas mentioned by the author, and how I’m using them at the Duxton:

1. User-generated content
This is by far the most relevant area to hoteliers. Web 2.0 travel sites such as Tripadvisor and Yahoo! Travel attract millions of visits per day, giving travellers a forum to share advice, experiences and, most importantly for those of us in the business, hotel reviews! This is an area where all our marketing and PR nous counts for nothing – it’s all about how guests experience our product and service.

But whilst we can’t control the conversation (and neither should we try!), we can contribute. Have a look at our Tripadvisor page and see how I respond to reviews, both positive and negative. Critical reviews usually get an apology and explanation, positive reviews get a personal thank-you message from me, and reviews with inaccurate information receive a polite correction. I also visit the Vietnam forum every day and give help and advice when I can. In total this probably takes about 20 minutes of my time each day – a small price to pay in return for interacting with guests, raising awareness of our brand, and positioning the Duxton as a modern, technologically-aware hotel with good local expertise. Such a small price, in fact, that the lack of activity on the part of other hotels is a constant surprise – and disappointment.

2. Blogs
Well, you’re reading this so little further explanation is needed! But here is the rationale behind the Duxton blog. The most important point in Anil’s article is the one about credibility and trust. People are naturally (and often rightly) cynical about brochures, press releases and promotional emails. Blogs effectively ‘break through the fourth wall’ and permit greater honesty and transparency, and customers see this as a more genuine reflection of the organisation’s character than the usual marketing blurb.

3. Online Videos
Another hugely under-used strategy, in the hospitality industry at least. For just a few thousand dollars, hotels can get a professionally made video, even a 360-degree virtual tour, which they can add to their website or post on Youtube, and provide a piece of marketing collateral that is far more immediate and effective than a brochure or a set of still images.

We had this video made in 2007 in conjunction with a Japanese TV channel, and ignoring the rather cheesy music for a moment, it’s been a really useful sales tool, especially for customers overseas who aren’t able to come to Vietnam for a site inspection.

4. Personal Social Networks
In our case, the hugely popular Facebook. One of the first things I did when I joined the Duxton was to create a Duxton Facebook group, making us the first (and still the only) hotel in Saigon to have one. Why? Well, Facebook has a large, active Ho Chi Minh City group that has proven to be very useful for local bars and restaurants to announce events and promotions, and in a city with poor local media and only one decent what’s-on magazine (The Word), a real-time promotional channel was long overdue.

We use Facebook to promote F&B promotions, parties, special offers, anything that we feel is worth shouting about. Does it work? In direct $$$ terms it has so far had little impact, but in terms of raising brand awareness and positioning ourselves as a modern, net-savvy business, then the answer has to be yes!

5. Photo-Sharing
Customers/partners, particularly tour operators, travel agents, press and third-party websites, frequently ask us for hotel images. When I joined the Duxton we were providing them the old-fashioned way – on a CD-ROM, via a login on our website, or by email. All pretty unwieldy, overly complex methods, especially email, which doesn’t permit the sending of large, hi-res images.

The solution? A hosted photo-sharing site, in our case Google’s excellent, free Picasa application. Whenever we commission new shots of the hotel, we can have them uploaded before the photographer has even left the building, so that people who need them for their brochures, articles or websites can download them, and my sales staff can send the link to potential and existing customers. No more CD-ROMs, logins or huge email attachments!

6. Social Bookmarking
7. Articles & Online PR

I’ve put these two together as they are both part of the hotel’s PR strategy. Each month we send out various press releases on any topic we feel like shouting about – F&B promotions, new appointments, hotel awards etc.

But rather than just sending them out to our press contacts, I also add them to our website, submit them to PR websites, and post them on popular social bookmarking sites like Digg and Cyvee. The benefits of this strategy are numerous, and include increased web traffic, a resource of articles for use in email newsletters, brand awareness, and search engine ranking.

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As Anil says at the end of his article, “We have experimented with all of the strategies described in this article and have found significant increases in the hotel’s search engine rankings as well as online revenue.  Social media channels may not result in direct increases in revenue from the channels, but indirectly do cause the hotel’s website to generate additional revenue. “  And that’s the whole point of working in social media – it costs next to nothing, but has a considerable ROI in terms of branding, perception and, further down the line, revenue.

It’s not our primary strategy – hospitality is still about old-fashioned jobs such as working the phones, pressing the flesh and meeting real people rather than Second Life avatars, and to an extent it always will be – but it’s a valuable part of our marketing mix and, in a field where none of our competitors are active, it gets us noticed!

Popular travel community website Tripadvisor has just released the results of its annual hotel visitor survey, and for us at the Duxton the results make heartening reading!

When asked what makes a hotel great, the most important factor (chosen by 30% of respondents) was location. Our guests often comment that they stay with us because we have the best location in Saigon, and it’s also good for our banqueting business. There are other international standard 4* hotels in Saigon, but none of them are in district 1!

24% of respondents cited hotel staff/great service as the most important factor in a great hotel. This is an area we take very seriously. We know we may not be able to compete with our 5* neighbours in terms of number of rooms, extensive facilities or brand awareness, but we CAN and DO match them for service, as our guest feedback will confirm.

The Duxton also scores well in terms of rate, with 54% of respondents saying they prefer to pay between $100 and $200 per night for their hotel stays. Our internet rate of $150 sits right in the middle of this band.

All in all, the survey bears out what we at the Duxton see as our strengths – the best location in the city, fantastic service, and competitive, realistic pricing. Thanks Tripadvisor!

Whenever I need to describe great hospitality service to my staff, I always give the same example. No, it’s a not a luxury 5* hotel, Michelin-starred restaurant or business class lounge, but a small, family-run beach bungalow resort on Phu Quoc island.

 

I stayed at Beach Club last November, in a simple but comfortable beach bungalow which cost me $25 per night. Not the kind of place you’d expect to find memorable service you’d think, but you’d be wrong. Right from the moment their representative met me at the airport, picked up my luggage and drove me to the resort, all through the 4 days I was there until the return airport drop-off, the resort staff excelled in every area. They learned my name within 5 minutes of my arrival and used it frequently, their smiles were genuine, their food service was faultless, and whatever I wanted them to arrange – beach massage, motorbike rental, fishing – they did so efficiently, happily and with a minimum of fuss, which is very rare in Vietnam!

 

What’s the secret? There isn’t one. The owner, an Englishman named Mike, hasn’t invested thousands of dollars in training or recruitment – he’s simply employed naturally friendly people, made his expectations clear, and given them a stable and enjoyable environment to work in. As a result, his staff turnover is virtually 0%, and his guests are delighted.

 

You can see the same principle in effect on Tripadvisor. Which hotel do you think is ranked number 1 in the site’s list of most popular Ho Chi Minh City hotels? No, it’s not the Hyatt or Sheraton, but a little known hotel in the backpacker district called Bich Duyen. This isn’t because it’s cheap and Tripadvisor is frequented by budget travellers – 8 of the top 10 HCMC hotels are pricey 5* properties. It’s simply because, like Beach Club, the Bich Duyen offers a high standard of personal service. The manager makes an effort to get to know all his guests personally and goes out of his way to exceed their expectations, and employs staff who are similarly hospitable.

 

Many hotels and other service companies often lose sight of what makes great service. They spend thousands on training courses and recruitment, yet forget that the most important factor is friendly, happy service staff. I’ve been to luxury hotels where staff have been trained to give an identical greeting to the customer. This may seem slick and professional, but it also makes you feel as if you’re surrounded by robots. At the Duxton, we merely require our staff to be friendly and polite – how they greet the customer doesn’t really matter, as long as it makes the customer feel good. And whilst in a 200-room hotel we can’t remember every guest’s name, we at least try to remember those who stay with us regularly.

 

The important thing is to hire the right people in the first place, and provide a pleasant working environment. We’re lucky in that the southern Vietnamese are naturally friendly and hospitable anyway, and we have to be careful not to overtrain them and lose their natural charm!

Duxton service

 

Guests often ask me why they never see any destination marketing for Vietnam. You know the kind of thing – the successful Amazing Thailand or Malaysia – Truly Asia campaigns, which, by combining memorable slogans with consistent messages and inviting images, have firmly established those countries’ ‘brands’ in the minds of travellers.

 

Currently, no such campaigns exist, or have ever existed, for Vietnam, the country relying on its tumultuous recent history and exotic allure to attract visitors. But with only around 5% of visitors coming back for repeat visits, clearly more needs to be done if Vietnam is to compete with its more aggressive (in marketing terms) neighbours.

 

The most recent slogan – The Hidden Charm – didn’t really cut it, implying as it did that Vietnam’s attractions aren’t obvious and have to be tracked down! But things seem to be improving. VNAT (Vietnam National Administration of Tourism) is currently working with Spanish tourism consultants to establish a marketing plan and a consistent brand message for the country, and if the work-in-progress report I saw recently is anything to go by, Vietnam should soon be making the kind of marketing effort and infrastructure investment needed to maintain and increase its tourism business.

 

The challenge for Vietnam’s marketing team is to establish a consistent brand message which encapsulates all the various attributes of such a large, diverse country – friendly people, nature, beaches, bustling cities, history, shopping, culture, food and so on. So how do you settle on a message that will resonate with travellers? Easy – listen to travellers themselves. Find out what visitors like about Vietnam, and just as importantly, find out what they DON’T like – tourism authorities here are very keen on organising Tourism Festivals and building ‘Tourist Villages’, little realising that most travellers want to see the real country and will go out of their way to avoid such artifice.

 

We applied the same process when putting together our current brand message. We looked at guest feedback (in-room questionnaires, Tripadvisor etc), had a couple of guest focus group sessions, and informally chatted to in-house guests and restaurant customers, and learned that the two main reasons people come back to the Duxton are its central location, and its friendly service. This enabled us to come up with the Heart of Saigon concept, which encompasses central location and caring service. A bit more consultation with visitors and resident expats, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to do the same for Vietnam!