News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Dudley Price, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Mar. 22, 2004 - They are the worst kind of hotel guests. They leave clothes on the floor, drop food in the hallways, and order room service and then send the food back -- even when it's been cooked to order.
Don't open a door fast enough and they'll rat you out -- to the entire world.
They are hotel evaluators, the folks who check in and out of the world's so-called luxury hotels to see whether they really are.
Five stars from the Mobil Travel Guide is like a chocolate mint on the pillow to hotel owners. Five diamonds from the Automobile Association of America can also be an innkeeper's best friend.
And right now, there are a handful of hotel developers and owners who are hoping to bring a few of those coveted designations to the Triangle in some new luxury hotels.
Last week, two Triangle innkeepers announced plans to spend $30 million converting the old Sheraton hotel at Crabtree Valley Mall into a Westin Hotel with a four-diamond rating. A Greensboro hotel owner is considering a $30 million hotel at the former Koger Office Center on Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh.
John Kane is talking about a luxury hotel at his redevelopment of North Hills Mall. And in Cary, Ann Goodnight, wife of SAS Institute co-founder Jim Goodnight, plans a $70 million hotel in Cary that could earn up to five stars.
The diamond and star ratings are often mentioned interchangeably and both do rely on extensive checklists for guest rooms, amenities and quality of service. But there are differences in the two programs.
AAA rates hotels that request inspections and then shares the results with management. AAA puts the rankings in guidebooks which are given to AAA members at no charge, but hotels can buy ads in the books.
At Mobil, officials decide which hotels they want to rate and cover the $2 million annual inspection cost by selling travel guidebooks containing the rankings to the general public. They don't discuss findings with management.
Hotels that receive either top rating are in an elite group.
With more than 40,000 hotels in the United States, only 82 have AAA's five diamonds and 994 have four diamonds. Only 30 hotels have Mobil's five-star rating and 138 have four stars.
The Siena Hotel and Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill and the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club in Durham are the Triangle's only full-service hotels with an AAA four-diamond rating, although each has a three-star rating from Mobil. The Fearrington House in Pittsboro has a five-diamond and five-star rating as a country inn.
Owners of the new hotels planned for Wake County will try to ensure a high ranking by building to luxury standards and spending days training staff. But there's no guarantee they'll get the rating they want until it's evaluated by an inspector.
Those inspections can be worrisome, because evaluators check in under assumed names and go to great lengths to hide the reason for their visit. Managers never know whether their property has passed muster until the inspection is over or the latest travel guidebook comes out.
All luxury full-service hotels must meet many of the same basic requirements, such as full-service restaurants or a fitness center. Beyond that, service largely determines whether a hotel gets a top rating.
For example, Mobil says room service must be delivered within 30 minutes and within five minutes of the quoted time for a four-star rating. For five stars, the staff should be polite and clear, and avoid slang and sentence fragments. For a four-diamond rating, AAA says uniformed attendants must promptly open the car door for arriving guests and provide a warm and sincere welcome.
Mark Sherburne, general manager the Siena Hotel, remembered how one evaluator sent a steak back to the kitchen even though it had been cooked to order -- just to see how the staff would react.
Rob Strommen, director of operations for the Carolina Inn, said sneaky evaluators have left clothes on the floor and curtains half open to see whether housekeepers will pick up the clothes and adjust the blinds. At another hotel, an evaluator scattered pieces of candy around hallways to see whether maids picked them up.
"With valet service, they [evaluators] are supposed to wait 30 seconds and see if you open the door for them," Strommen said. "If not, you lose points."
Jim Bressler, director of sales and marketing at the Washington Duke, said his hotel works hard to protect its rating.
"We know what we want to do from the beginning," said Bressler, a 34-year veteran of the hotel industry.
"We set standards for our employees, our amenities, our buildings. We won't let newly hired employees on the floor to do their job, wherever it may be, until they go through a full orientation on what the standards are for the hotel and a complete training period that could take two weeks -- things like referring to guests by their last name at every possible turn.
"You're not sure at all how they'll rate you," Bressler said. "We've had our [four-diamond] rating since 1988, but you're never certain and should never take anything for granted, and for customers, that's good."
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(c) 2004, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. HOT,