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A 'Black Tax' At Charlotte's Ritz-Carlton?

A photo of a table tent at the lobby bar of the Ritz-Carlton in Charlotte during CIAA week.

A Charlotte news station reported on Monday that the Ritz-Carlton, one of prosperous uptown Charlotte's swankiest hotels, added what looks suspiciously like a black tax to the lobby bar tabs of patrons in town last week for the CIAA, the popular mega-tournament for basketball teams at historically black colleges and universities from Pennsylvania to North Carolina.

Charlotte resident Patrice Wright and her husband Tony stopped into the Ritz's Lobby Bar as they often do on Friday nights, to unwind and recap the week over drinks before going home. When the bill came for two mixed drinks, two bourbon Manhattans, and a basket of sweet potato fries, Wright noticed an extra $10.20 fee in addition to the regular tax, something called CIAA SVC CHRG.

Wright says she goes to social events around town several times a month, many of them in the city's hotels, and she'd never seen an additional tariff like this. She pointed it out to Tony, but he was ready to leave and didn't want a big scene. They paid up and walked out, but it bugged Patrice all the way home. She'd never seen anything like that during past CIAA weeks. "Do they not want us here?" she wondered.

She posted the receipt on Facebook to see if anyone else had the same suspicions, and it quickly went viral. A Ritz representative left her number on Wright's page and asked her to call to discuss the matter. Wright did, several times, "but I only got voicemails. She never called back."

A lot of ticked-off black Charlotteans think the tax was added because CIAA is largely a black event, and there is, in some quarters, a belief that black folk do not tip as well as they should. Or at all.

Wright says she knows about the perception that blacks don't tip, and she and her friends don't want to be put in that bucket, so when they go out — which is often — they tip liberally.

Now, studies like this one from Cornell University's "hotel school" say it's true that in general, middle-income and lower-income black folk don't tip as much as white patrons, but it doesn't say anything about high-income black folk. While the CIAA crowd is multi-generational — young alumni of the historically black colleges show up — the largest and most coveted segment is older alum and basketball fans who come from near and far for annual mini-reunions, prepared to spend serious money to enjoy themselves. Over the five-day event, it's very common to spot the kinds of expensive accessories (watches, shoes, handbags) and luxe autos you'd find in glossy luxury magazines.

In other words, this is not an unsophisticated crowd, and given the negative perceptions about blacks and tipping, it's easier to imagine them over-tipping than leaving pennies on the table.

The Ritz also posted a notice of the minimum amount lobby-gatherers would have to spend for the privilege of hanging out there: Small table tents announced the tables were reserved for lobby patrons, and the charge would be $125 per hour per table. The charge would be waived if that amount was consumed in drinks and food. If not, expenses would accrue.

Patrice Wright had never seen anything like this at the Charlotte Ritz before. The tents also informed potential table-renters they'd have to present their credit cards up front if they wanted to be served. "I know that happens at fast food places," Wright says. "I mean, when you get a burger you pay for it before it's given to you. But this was the Ritz!" And it's kind of hard to escape the implication. "It definitely made me feel unwelcome," she sighs.

Judging by the Wrights' bill (his Manhattans were $18 each; her drinks were $10 and $15), that amount might have been met by many patrons anyway. But the money wasn't so much the point as the message, and Wright says the message some black patrons got was "keep it movin' people. Don't scare our regular customers away." (Until last week, those regular customers included the Wrights.)

The Charlotte Ritz refused to answer whether this was standard practice, according to local station WBTV. I called several times to ask for comment; the hotel did not return my calls.

It did, however, release a statement to WBVT and its sister media outlet, the Charlotte Observer. "Due to the size of the CIAA event, we instituted a modest 15% service charge for our lobby beverage servers, on whom the event places significant demands throughout the weekend," the statement explained. It did not address whether a similar tariff was applied to other huge gatherings, such as Speed Street, an annual, NASCAR-related downtown festival whose patrons tend to be overwhelmingly white.

The CIAA is no small potatoes. According to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, the event pulls in tens of thousands of people annually. Many stay in the city's hotels and spend big on dining, drinking, entertainment and shopping. The CRVA says as many as 100,000 people enjoy the games, the parties, and other events built around the tournament. (The official tally for last year approached $50 million.) Part of the ticket price for the tournament raises scholarship money for participating HBCUs.

In a phone conversation, CRVA's CEO Tom Murray was clearly uncomfortable about the viral dustup unleashed by the hotel's bar practice. "This is the 10th year of a very close relationship," he told me. "We're aggressively seeking this convention. We're welcoming this with open arms." That welcoming embrace included a $1.4 million contribution from the CRVA to the CIAA's scholarship fund this year. (Note: The group donates similar gifts to the tournament each year.)

Murray says he hasn't heard of the lobby surcharge practice occurring at other hotels in town, either during CIAA week or at any other point. He says that while he can't speak for the Ritz — "they have asked us not to" — his organization hopes Charlotte will avoid repeats of what Wrights experienced. Though they can't dictate policies to businesses in the CRVA, "as a community of hospitality-related businesses, Murray says, "we need to figure out how to stop that from happening."

Ironically, the CIAA's commissioner, Jacqie McWilliams, stayed at the Ritz during the tournament. When I asked how she viewed the Ritz contretemps, McWilliams' spokesman, Derek Ross, sent me this statement:

"The CIAA and CRVA were recently made aware of a service charge being added to the bill of CIAA guests dining at the Ritz Hotel. This is not a charge approved or implemented by the CIAA or CRVA. The CIAA is on the side of our alumni and fans that travel to Charlotte for an enjoyable experience. The CIAA will continue to work with the CRVA and hotels to ensure such exceptions to using the CIAA name for any surcharges, which are not approved by the CIAA, are impermissible."

It's unlikely that the Ritz's lobby policy during CIAA week will end in a breakup between the CIAA and Charlotte. Last year, the tournament signed a six-year contract extension to stay in the city through 2020. But some have taken to social media urging black patrons to bypass the Ritz, and spend their dollars where they feel more welcome.

As for the Wrights, they say they tipped on top of the CIAA tariff "because we always tip," says Patrice, and because they didn't want the server to get stiffed in case the CIAA SVC CHRG didn't end up going to them. As of this writing, the Ritz still has not returned Patrice Wright's call, or apologized for her experience. For now, she and her husband are enjoying their Friday night drinks at home. But she wants the Ritz to consider this:

"Money is green, regardless of the hand that's transferring it. Sometimes you don't know how your actions are going to impact your organization."

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