London, Feb. 23: Britain’s most celebrated hotels have been accused of misleading guests by adding “discretionary” service charges to room bills.
The charges, that range from five to 12.5 per cent, have been levied at such establishments as the Savoy, Le Meridien, the Connaught and Claridge’s.
The levy is put on automatically, even on bills that are paid in advance — before any service has been received.
Trading standards officers have received a growing number of complaints about the practice, while consumer groups yesterday accused the hotels of employing “a weasely way of bumping up the room prices” and guests reacted angrily.
Although automatic service charges have now become commonplace in restaurants, they were once unheard of in hotels and have only been introduced in the past two years: in many cases, guests are left unaware that the charge has even been added.
The hotels claim that the practice helps to soothe their British guests’ traditional awkwardness about tipping. At the Savoy, however — where rooms cost between £219 and £750 a night — there were threats of protests and boycotts when the guests were told of the “optional” five per cent service fee.
Gary Sparkes, 41, and Sheila White, 37, from Hornchurch, Essex, had spent £235 for a room for one night as a late Valentine’s Day treat. They said that they would not accept the charge quietly. “They probably do not expect guests here to complain,” said Sparkes, “but I can assure you that I will make a big fuss about this.
“The policy is an insult. We are perfectly capable of tipping in the usual way. At a hotel that costs as much as the Savoy, you do not expect to be charged extra for service. I was not aware that we would be, so I have been tipping in the usual way as we go along.”
Mark Newman, an Australian guest, said that he might be tempted to stay elsewhere. “I always leave some cash on the dinner table before I go; I always leave change in the room for the cleaners and chambermaids: I do not expect an extra service charge. Nobody likes to look cheap, so if it gets awkward when I check out, I will be tempted to stay elsewhere next time.”
The five per cent charge is levied at all of the Savoy group’s hotels, which are jointly owned by the Blackstone Group and Colony Capital, two US investment banking companies. Guests at its other London hotels, the Berkeley, Claridge’s and Connaught, will also find the levy has added to their bills as a matter of course.
Pam Carter, the director of public relations for the Savoy, said that the group began adding the charge to customers’ bills last year.
She confirmed that it also applied to pre-paid bills that were settled before the service had actually been experienced. She said: “I must stress it is discretionary. Everyone has the right to take the service charge off. This is a way of rewarding the backroom staff who don’t get seen. The money is added to staff salaries.
“I think it does make tipping easy for a lot of people. In this country we are probably a little bit more awkward about it than in the United States. Very few guests refuse to pay.”
Carter also insisted: “We have been very open about it all the way down the line. Everybody who rings to book is told.”
Ten minutes later, however, The Daily Telegraph rang the Savoy’s reservation department and asked repeatedly whether the quoted price of £219 plus VAT for a double room was the total cost of staying there: the service charge was not mentioned. “£219 plus the VAT, it’s just simply that,” the staff member said.
Only when asked specifically whether there was a service charge did he say: “There is a service charge, which is five per cent. The reason I omitted to mention it is because you are not obliged to pay it.”