Successful Tour Guide Series: The Commission Conundrum

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

You’re a tour guide, teacher, driver or other service provider. You are getting paid to take people around to Mexican spirits producers distilling sotol, mezcal, tequila, raicilla or bacanora, or more recently rum and whiskey. You’ve calculated your worth, or determined what the market will bear, or perhaps considered charging less than the competition in order to initially grow your business. So why demand commission from the mezcalero or tequilero or whomever runs the distillery? Because you can, and they will pay it? Because that’s the way the business is run?

I can understand if you are in the same socio-economic position as the distillery owners, but most often you are in a much better position. The fact that you are reading this, whereas many distillers cannot, suggests that you may be better off than they are.

I’ve been told that in the past, no one in the two main villages in the central valleys of Oaxaca known for producing carved painted wooden figures (popularly referred to as alebrijes), offered commissions to driver and guides. Then one family began to do so, and the commission wars began: 10%, then 15%, then 20%. The market will bear only so much. Is it healthy? And what about in a different craft village where 30 – 40% is offered? A federally licensed driver once asked me where I take friends and family visiting Oaxaca who want to buy a rug or tapestry from a particular craft village. After telling him to which workshop I like to take our guests (the family of craftspeople have been friends of mine for over a quarter century), the retort I received was “I don’t go there because their rugs are too inexpensive and they hardly pay any commission.” To me that was extremely repugnant. And yet the service he offers is sanctioned by government!

Returning to the spirits theme, about 15 years ago after there had been but one distillery along a particular highway touring route departing from the city of Oaxaca, palenques servicing the tourist trade began to pop up. They offered touring van drivers 50 pesos per 750 ml bottle sold to van occupants. Then some began offering the driver extra money just for stopping by. The owners of that early first distillery had no choice but to begin offering the same perks to touring companies and their drivers; a price per bottle sold, plus an extra simply for stopping by.  Otherwise, business would dry up, even though that particular distillery had been around for decades, the family having been distilling for over 100 years. While the new pop-ups did in fact distill, they were built for the tourist trade alone, without a tradition steeped in mezcal production extending back generations. And that traditional distillery thus had to raise its prices, not what the owners wanted. They no longer get the business as previously because of the competition paying more and more commission.

Don’t get sucked into going where commissions / gifts may dictate. Your clients will sing your praises much louder and clearer to their friends and family, the more authentic the experience you provide. That will translate into more business, and in the end your bottom line will improve more so than if receiving 50 pesos per bottle sold.

Consider yourself a professional in the service industry, rather than a hired hack. To whom is your first obligation? Of course you want to maintain positive relations with your distiller friends. However, it’s the tourists and others you take around, who are paying you handsomely for your knowledge, expertise and trustworthiness, you should consider first. And they will sense you pushing them to buy. Sometimes I don’t encourage purchasing enough resulting in clients lamenting to me six months after their return home, that they should have bought more. The last thing I would want is a perception that I am egging them on to buy because there is a perk in it for me.

alvin starkman, mezcal

If you need to earn a bit more, raise your fees. If you’re good at what you do, no one will complain. I have occasionally read reviews about the service I offer, something to the effect of “he’s not cheap, and charges more than many others, but it was well worth it and we’ll be using him again on our next visit to Oaxaca.” Providing quality, value added service will drive business your way.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (   His latest book, co-authored with photographer Spike Mafford, is entitled Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances (Third Expanded Edition with Portraits).  


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