Lisa Robbin Young

Triple Your Tips: A Business Lesson From The Renaissance Festival

A very good friend of mine has a non-profit that volunteers each year to work a booth at the Michigan Renaissance Festival.

If you've never been, it's a high time of revelry, silliness, and even a bit of debauchery all set in what's supposed to be the 16 century. But really, it's like the SCA* on steroids.

For the past few years, my friend has been responsible for the ice cream booth. In exchange for about 12% of the take, he and his band of merry marauders get to scoop their little hearts out for patrons of the festival. Situated in the children's realm, they see quite a bit of scooping. Yesterday, they actually sold out for the first time.

I'll be doing another post on the creative entrepreneurs of the festival (it's actually QUITE a profit center for some people). Today though, I want to talk about tips.

See, when my friend first started working the festival, about 10 years ago, they had a tip jar, it was prominently displayed at the cash register, and they would easily bring in $50 per day (more on really hot days). Some time in the past few years, they (and all the volunteers in other booths as well) were admonished to NOT have a visible tip jar, which essentially cut their tips by 90%. They're lucky to see $20 in tips in any given week.

That is, until I started working in their booth.

My friend called me in because he was desperate for help. This year was a difficult one to get volunteers for the booth. He had a handful of folks committed to work most mornings, but the afternoons were a crap shoot for him. Not everyone who committed to working would show. The ice cream booth needs at least three people at all times, and four is ideal. This past weekend, the lines were so long I had my head in the freezer scooping most of the time.

But of all the scoopers on any of my shifts, I consistently out earned them all in tips. Here's how I did it:

How to Triple Your Tips:

Be Engaging. When A client stepped to the counter, I made a point of making eye contact, being cordial, and giving them my undivided attention. They were my number one priority, and I focused on giving them exactly what they wanted.

Be Entertaining. Festival rules require all workers to wear period garb of some kind. That was the bear minimum, and most people stuck with it. I decided to be a character, complete with a fabulously loud and rotten English accent, and wore something different each day. I joked and played with my customers, asking them "how my I service thee - within reason?" and "would you like my cherries?" when making them a sundae. When someone wanted an ice cream float, I'd shout out "we've got a floater!" and then sing the Spongebob Squarepants song as I poured the soda. It was the perfect tune to mix and pour the float to, and the clients had fun "slurping the foam" when they got to the "drop on the deck and flop like a fish" part of the lyric. In short, I found ways to make scooping and serving FUN - for me and the clients, by putting on a little show for the entire line of customers at the window.

Remember Regulars. Some of our customers were cast members (like the Queen or the Lord Mayor). Others were shopkeepers, and other volunteers. These folks were there everyday, and very familiar with the grunt work required to make an event like this look effortless. If someone came through my line more than once, I made a point of trying to remember what they ordered the last time. Even if I was wrong (which was not uncommon), they appreciated the gesture, and more often than not, I was right the next time they came through the line.

One client always orders her ice cream "with extra love". Yesterday, when the line was incredibly long, she placed her order (without asking for her "usual"). So I asked her "with extra love?" The look of surprise and delight on her face was priceless. "You remembered!" was all she could say.

Be Memorable. I've only worked three weekends, but there are people who actually pout when I'm not the one scooping their ice cream. My character's personality was a little baudy and loud. She made an impression, and wasn't afraid to interact with the clients. I learned to wear simple outfits with no sleeves to keep from getting ice cream all over my clothes. I even pulled out my duct tape corset - which drew a few comments as well. My costumes aren't particularly provocative, but my tip jar is. As a scooper, I can't touch money, but I can accept tips if they are offered. To make this more fun, I put my tips under the strap of my top. If they wanted to pay me a tip, they'd need to put it in my 'tip jar' themselves. One guy actually commented on how he liked my tip jar. I told him I made it myself.

Ask For Them - Indirectly. As I mentioned before, we weren't allowed to have a tip jar on the counter, or any signs asking for or encouraging tips. That was part of the reason I stuck the money in my top. People could see the money sticking out, so it was a subliminal message that we do, in fact, get tips for our work. I also cracked jokes about how they didn't pay me enough to NOT be friendly or charming - since I was volunteering to serve all these wonderful people. That's another subliminal message that we're not getting paid to do all this work. Every tenth customer or so, they would try to pay us scoopers, instead of paying at the cashier window. When people tried to make payment I would tell them "I can't touch your dirty money! I only get tips and kisses. You must make payment where the sign says 'payeth here'." This let people know (in a fun, playful way) that we DID accept tips, but there was no obligation to tip if they didn't want to.

Spread The Enthusiasm. Overall, in the three weekends that I've worked the booth, I've averaged three to four times more in tips than any other person in the booth. Some of the other scoopers have taken on a more entertaining approach, and they've seen an increase in their tips as well. Despite long lines of people waiting to be served this past weekend, when all three scoopers on duty used this approach I tripled my own average tip rate. One scooper refuses to be entertaining. her shift consistently has the lowest tip rate of all. So it pays to have everyone on board with an enthusiastic attitude. Clients then see that it's not just one person being a stand out (or obnoxious, depending on who you ask). They understand that it's part of the experience of doing business with you.

This past weekend was the best weekend ever for my friend's booth. Not only did they sell out of ice cream before the end of the festival on Sunday, they also more than $50 in tips in a single day.

There you have it: proof positive that you don't need to beg or use traditional signage to increase your tips - and that having fun can go a long way toward remarkable customer service.


*SCA= Society for Creative Anachronism.

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