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In the tourist game, tuk-tuk drivers play an outsized role in their customers’ food and entertainment choices – and they expect to be paid.
In the tourist game, tuk-tuk drivers play an outsized role in their customers’ food and entertainment choices – and they expect to be paid. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Money for nothing in Siem Reap

The practice of paying tuk-tuk drivers and concierges to push diners to your door is ubiquitous in Cambodia’s tourist capital, say frustrated restaurant owners, and doing no one any favours.

That nagging feeling that just maybe your tuk-tuk driver has an ulterior motive when pushing a certain restaurant or guesthouse? It’s a valid one. They are, indeed, routinely being paid for that nudge.

Welcome to the world of “commissions payments,” or at least its outer edges. A fact of life in every major tourism destination, these payments are generally an accepted cost of doing business for those who utilise travel agents and tour brokers to bridge consumer to business.

But the scope of the practice in Siem Reap is wider than that, expanding to include drivers, guides and hotel concierges. And considerations of quality, value, suitability or even a guest’s expressed wishes are not always part of the equation when they’re asked for recommendations on where to dine or take in a show, according to a broad cross-section of restaurant owners and managers Post Weekend spoke to for this story, all of whom demanded anonymity to speak.

It’s a system they insist has evolved to create expectations and distortions that result in unfair competition and a poor tourist experience.

These commissions can account for up to 50 percent of the amount tourists pay for a meal, especially at venues that offer Apsara shows with buffet dinners, where up to $6 of a $12 to $15 meal goes straight into the pocket of the person that brought the guest there.

According to one guide we spoke with, restaurants within the Angkor Archaeological Park pay a flat rate of $2.50 per guest to drivers and guides. It was $1, but went up last year due to intense competition. In town, 10 percent of a meal price, or $2 per head, can be paid as well as a meal such as fried rice. Restaurants around Pub Street and Old Market tend not to pay commissions.

Meanwhile, businesses that choose not to participate in the practice feel they are disadvantaged to venues that rely on commissions to generate business, even when they feel they offer a markedly superior service.

“Yes, it creates a distorted market,” said the owner of one restaurant that had a long tradition of not paying commissions. He did not wish to comment further due to the sensitive nature of the subject, though Post Weekend has learned they recently felt they had no choice but to start paying as well.

Another restaurant owner said his long-standing policy of not paying commissions has had negative business consequences and he is now being forced to adopt a different strategy, though he draws the line at paying tuk-tuk drivers.

“I never wanted to use commissions as an incentive; it’s poison for everyone,” he said. “I chose not to pay because in the end, no-one wins. If we are good enough, we should have a fair playing field. Many factors can affect your business, not just tuk-tuks, but they are in control of your business if you let them.”

The manager of another venue, who feels they have no choice but to pay the commissions, summed it up: “We do pay tuk-tuks and concierge commissions, which I actually disagree with, as 99 percent of the time they did nothing for it . . . They just followed a guest’s request.

“It’s annoying and bad for the country/industry that this commission culture means tourists and hotel guests may receive a substandard experience purely because a member of staff or tuk-tuk driver has gained a commission.”

This experience was affirmed by several other owners and managers that Post Weekend spoke to. Some of them do not pay commissions, some do, and some have felt compelled to finally submit to the practice even after several years of resisting because they feel they can’t compete against venues that do.

Charcoal restaurant offers benefits to customers who book independently. Facebook
Charcoal restaurant offers benefits to customers who book independently. Facebook

In the case of hotel concierges, the system is more or less the same. However, they can be a bit more constrained when management has created a list of restaurants staff are required to recommend. That doesn’t stop them from demanding commissions from those restaurants when they call to make the booking, though, even where the guest has specifically requested the restaurant without asking for any advice.

“[M]ost of the time they forget that commissioning is linked to a service or advice,” said the owner of one restaurant who has refused to pay commissions since starting the business. “It’s very common that we are asked for a commission by hotel staff who were directly asked by their guests to book a table at our restaurant.”

While a solid reputation helps to ensure this restaurant stays busy in high season, they can suffer from the practice during quieter months. “We do [suffer] in low season,” the owner said. “When hotel staff have less business and are ready to lie to their customers in order to redirect them to a more generous place than us, [they pretend] we are closed, fully booked, two hours away by car, or even burned down once”.

Several other venues reported that their guests, or potential guests, had also been told that they had “burned down” or that tuk-tuk drivers and hotel staff had claimed that they couldn’t find them, they were too far away or their food was no good.

The general manager of another venue also said they had recently been forced to change a long-standing tradition of not paying commissions for their events — considered to be one of the best in their domain — as they were losing too much market share.

The general manager of one hotel confirmed that management tends to be blind to the practice, up to a point. “My point of view is that if I select a few restaurants and these restaurants give a commission to the staff, why not?” he said.

On the other hand, he confirmed that if they recommend a restaurant that is not on the list he has prepared, then they are on track for being fired. “We are responsible for the restaurants we recommend to guests,” he said.

A former manager at another property took a stronger view.

“I’m completely against commissions for the simple reason that staff will never genuinely recommend the best restaurants, just the ones where they benefit most,” he said.

“Think about it, a good restaurant should not have to pay people to send them customers, they will go anyway. I’m not naive, it does happen, but if I personally find out that my staff is recommending mediocre places in order to get commissions, they are out the door, simple as that. A guest should be able to rely on honest advice.

One restaurant, Charcoal, is pushing back against the tide by offering free-flow house wine for anyone who books by themselves, provided they order a main course. The owners say it makes more sense to give the benefit to the guest than to an intermediary who has done nothing to earn it.

In some cases, a concierge might pocket a discount intended for guests when a hotel negotiates discounted rates for its guests to enjoy certain facilities, but the guest doesn’t know about it. The manager of one venue said that sometimes the concierge won’t offer the full rate, and will then come to collect the commission.

But the same manager says commissions are not always a bad thing. “In some cases, I fully agree with commission systems to create motivation – if it is mutually beneficial and doesn’t have a negative impact on the end user. Commissions should be used to benefit all parties and not to hold businesses to ransom or diminish a guest’s experience.

“I guess it won’t change until the powers above do something to change it.”

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