Come with us as we slide our plastic card in the key slot and explore the carpeted halls and lobbies alongside a AAA travel expert.
Two men confer in the modest but brightly appointed hotel lobby. One is doing his best, despite tightly clasped hands, not to reveal the minor case of jitters that's taken hold. The other is as cool as a cucumber, confident… jovial, even, holding a sturdy leather folio that protects his iPad.
As the inspector points to different data on his tablet screen, explaining in calm, measured tones how the hotel – currently rated as a "two-Diamond" property – is stacking up on this particular surprise visit, the other man, the hotel's manager, nods intently, eyes trained on the screen as he rocks gently on his heels, perhaps unaware that it seems he might tip over at any minute due to mounting anxiety.
As it turns out, he's got nothing to worry about. His hotel not only survives the inspection with its two Diamonds intact, but also thrives with some encouraging bonus feedback from the inspector.
It’s not exactly like an episode of the TV shows Hotel Inspector or Hotel Impossible. Nor is it quite like the dreaded visit from the health department or the TABC. But when the AAA hotel inspector comes to call, people listen: After all, diamonds and reputations are at stake.
The Diamond Rating system, established by the American Automobile Association to grade hotels and restaurants, has its roots in their first field inspections of lodgings and eateries conducted in the late 1930s. AAA initiated their program to explore and rate hospitality businesses along America's highways and byways as a way to enhance members' road-trip experiences via maps and what would become their signature regional TourBook guides.
Formally established in 1976, the Diamond system is unique among other respected rating entities – like Mobil/Forbes, Michelin, and Zagat – in that, while they all deploy professional, incognito inspectors, AAA's structure is not-for-profit. They are a member service organization, and as such, have mandates set by the desires and expectations of a diverse 55 million members in North America.
On this day, in a large Texas town, Inspector Z, as we will call him, is taking the membership's concerns to heart and checking up on a few properties to make sure current conditions and offerings are still on par with ratings awarded in previous years. And I've been invited to tag along.
No two days are alike for Inspector Z, or the 50 or so other inspectors in AAA's division of travel investigators responsible for inspecting an inventory that includes 58,000 properties. One day he may be rating a one-Diamond roadside mom-and-pop, and the next, luxuriating in a lavish ocean-front resort to collect information for the auto club's elite Five-Diamond Committee to consider presenting its ultimate award.
Watching Inspector Z in action, it's clear he knows the hotel-room landscape like the back of his hands – hands which slip over surfaces to perform his version of a white glove test, going through an exhaustive check list of standards and requirements. But what he's really looking for is harder to define.
Austin Chronicle: When you entered each room, you stopped to breathe in. What's that about?
Inspector Z: Even before I enter, I pause at the door, close my eyes, listen, and smell. I'm listening for soundproofing, for that air-conditioning rattling upstairs. I'm checking for any minor odors. Then I open my eyes: Are all those lampshades perfectly parallel to the floor? Are the bedskirts even?
I go through a physical inventory: room size, bed, TV, ice bucket, expanded seating, the size of the work area, etc. Beyond that, we have subjective areas we consider: comfort, condition, decorative impact, and so on.
AC: What does your typical day – if you can call it that – look like?
Z: I try to get to three or four basic lodgings – one-, two-, three-Diamond properties – in a day. I try to check out a restaurant a day. Those take up maybe five-six hours, and then I go back to my hotel and do more research for properties I'm going to visit the next day. We also contribute photos and Tweets, so I might work on those or do my basic expense reports for the remainder of the day.
AC: The hotels know you are going to visit? Do they know when?
Z: The [hotels] have no idea we are coming. We want to see the property as a member would see it. So, I show up unannounced and ask them to print me clean-and-vacant room report, and from there, I select rooms and do reports.
By that point, I already know the basics: Do they take credit cards, their hours, etc.
AC: Does the AAA HQ send you assignments of what properties to inspect?
Z: No, I pick any property I want, if I think it has member value. In 26 years, I've conducted almost 15,000 evaluations for AAA throughout Canada, the US, Mexico, the Caribbean. From sidewalk taco stands to the fanciest Beverly Hills restaurant. If I think it's of value to members, a beautiful property, then they're approved. There's no fee to be listed with AAA. Then once a year, they will be evaluated, unannounced.
AC: So, you do inspections for one- through four-Diamond properties, but stay overnight at five-Diamond properties?
Z: For a five-Diamond, we do stay there overnight unannounced. Usually one inspector stays and another goes in later to do the physical inspection. Otherwise, I select a place to stay based on logistics, based on the part of town I am inspecting, and always at AAA-approved properties.
If there have been member comments or complaints about a property, or if we have reason to suspect something, we'll stay at that property as well, without letting them know, so we can assess the service element or address an issue that might have come up.
AC: As I understand it, fewer Diamonds does not imply poor quality; the range is based on the amount of amenities, from budget to luxury, correct? A one-Diamond is a very good thing.
Z: That is correct. The difference in quality, however, has to do with staff and training, and I tell owners that. I'll do Vegas, I'll do Cancun. Alright, there's gold leaf on that wall… I'm impressed. But all you gotta do is sign a lotta checks for that. But when you have a certain level of service, of cleanliness, of things that you cannot order from a catalog, now I'm really impressed. And that can happen at a one Diamond. Now we're talking hospitality on a world-class level, and a one-Diamond property can do that.
AC: I've stayed at four-Diamond hotels that were appropriately fancy, but the experience was "Meh." Service and attitude are such important factors.
Z: We stayed at a five-Diamond in Mexico, the server comes out for breakfast, and he's being all suave, trying to be hob nob: "Good morning Mr. Z, for breakfast we offer you a…" and he listed a number of fresh-squeezed juices: papaya, mandarin…. And just to throw him a curve, I said, "Really? Do you have any fresh zapote?" It's part of our job to challenge them. "No," he says, "I'm sorry, we don't." The next morning, he comes to me: "Good morning, Mr. Z, for fresh juices, we have fresh mandarin, fresh apple, fresh zapote… light and dark."
Let me tell you something, if I had seen a couple of zapotes on a tray in my room that night with a bill for $10, I would have been impressed. [laughs] But how he handled it was so subtle, so cool. Light and dark… . When you are in the business of fulfilling guests whims, I mean, I'm still talking about it 10 years later!
AC: Taking just a little initiative makes all the difference.
Z: My little pet peeve, especially in how some managers train lower-level employees: That word "No." It's a refuge. It's a safe place for weak people. You can't get in trouble saying "No." In my opinion, management's approval should be required to say no. I'm impressed with people who are willing to go out on a limb for a customer.
It's not even so specific as to whether they remember your name, but if they do and that's part of their philosophy, then that means they're focused on service.
It may be something as simple as: Was that water pressure good? Did you have a tiny little soap? Did you not sleep well? Was it a thin towel? It has such an impact when you walk out the door. If you walk out, and you're aggravated, that's how you're going to start your day. If you're ready to take on the world – nice thick towel, great water pressure, that soap smelled good – it affects what you do, even subliminally.
If on top of that, if they say, "Have a nice day, Kate!" as you walk out the door, it all contributes.
My other pet peeve is when they miss the boat on a critical evaluation. There is a wealth of information in there. It's not a matter of impressing the AAA inspector. It's a matter of: What is the culture of your organization? This is who you are. If you strive to serve, and you strive to take care of people, you do it because that's who you are. That's your culture. Not because you're trying to impress the AAA guy who's going to come by once a year.
AC: What's the forecast for trends coming and going in the industry?
Z: The Minimalist thing is still going strong: No traditional artwork on the wall. Less and less drawer space, more hooks, small shelves, divots cut into furniture where you can put your change and keys. Sliding and barn-style doors. Tubs are going out.
Illumination is huge. Flexible gooseneck lamps over the beds, like ET's finger, right? [laughs] Dimmers, special effects.
Automated check-in is huge. Your smartphone will be the key.
Fewer desks. Work areas will consist of a raised counter where you can stand with your iPad and poke out some notes. But business centers will be less blocked off and more in the public area. More social areas. Larger fitness centers integrated more with the outdoors.
AC: Do you experience luxury fatigue?Z: I do. I do. When the family goes on vacation, we like to go camping, I don't really want to go into a hotel and start checking for dust or under the bed or things like that. [laughs] When I get home, my wife will hand me the cleaning rag: "Clean it up yourself!" AC: You've grown accustomed to certain standards. Z: After 26 years being at AAA, when I announce, "I'm going to Cancun for a couple of weeks," nowadays, my wife kinda shrugs her shoulders, and says, "Where else are you going?" [laughs] My family has travelled with me quite a bit. It was a fabulous way to raise a child. But after the 10th, 15th visit, they're looking for new places to go.
Maybe I can attribute some of that away time to the longevity of my marriage? [laughs] The best part of any trip is coming home, right?
A lot of people say, "Oh, it must be fun to be a AAA inspector and do all that travel!" And it is. But we're not sitting by the pool drinking Coco Locos [laughs]. The work is serious.
AC: As a journalist, I appreciate that you have a methodical vetting process.
Z: Our work is serious, it's complex, and it has consequence.
[He counts off, starting with his thumb.] The work is serious: We're a member-service organization. AAA doesn't just casually glance at 58,000 properties. There is a structured approach. That's the challenge: How do you fairly and critically evaluate 58,000 locations – from primitive lodgings to the fanciest you can imagine – for 55 million members in a credible, reliable way?
It's complex: As I do the inspections, I'm checking for 30-some issues of safety. In the hotel business, safety is #1, then cleanliness, then condition. After all that, then we can talk about amenities, and robes, and all this other stuff.
It has consequence: Managers have been promoted or lost their jobs because they've lost the Diamond rating. We have a responsibility: That family booking that $8,000 trip to Disneyland or to the Caribbean, can't just go down there on our recommendation and find some dumpy place. We want them to be happy and satisfied.
AC: In almost every article about hotel inspectors, the subject of black lights seems to come up. Do you use special gear? Special tech? Black lights? Headlamps… ?
Z: No black lights, [laughs] but I do have a flashlight – I think every housekeeper should carry a flashlight – my iPad and that's it.
AC: What about fake names or disguises?
Z: [laughs] Yes, at times I've used a fake name, grown a beard, shaved a beard off, worn sunglasses or a ball cap.
The industry is pretty tight. People in my region know me. They'll get your photo and pass it around for future reference!
Once, I was going to do an inspection at a five-Diamond resort in Cancun, and I see a doorman who knew me. I told the taxi to keep going and had him drop me off next door. I walked through that hotel's front door, out the back, down the beach, took a left, walked up the beach, came in the back door pool access, and managed to get into dining room and get the evaluation.
We play that cat and mouse game all the time.
AC: Crowdsourcing and user-generated info is accepted as the norm in the assessment of quality and value. But there's no check or balance to monitor so many online opinion sites. There could be anything or anyone behind those profiles and reviews.
Z: In the world of internet reviews, I believe in my heart of hearts, AAA is the gold standard when it comes to inspections. We publish all our ratings and our guidelines. The criteria we use is published for the whole world to see, and we are extremely proud of it.
AC: What do you think of some of the newer sites like Oyster, Gayot, or TripAdvisor, that are merging "expert" reviews with crowdsourced platforms?
Z: Oyster did some nice work with 360° imagery. But many of these newer sites seem to focus on higher-end properties. We're a service organization, we cover the entire range, Super 8s and the like, not just the designer names, and not just hotels.
Lodging is so diverse. I've done primitive lodging where they assign you two trees, a hammock, and the only amenity is mosquito netting.
AC: I've been there… in Veracruz…
Z: [laughs] I've been to lodging where there's an ax at the front desk and a sign that tells you that if you want hot water in the morning, the first thing you do is cut some wood.
AC: Five-Diamond primitive!
Z: There are people who look for that experience. They may not want to live like that every day, but people will pay $100 a night to be abused [laughs].
We want to find things that other media don't have. We rate B&Bs, condos, country inns, vacation homes, and more.
AC: That's a lot to keep up with.
Z: When I begin in a city, I get the guides from Fodor's, Frommer's; I look at the sites and compare, page-by-page. While they might be descriptive or pithy in their prose, no one beats us on accuracy or keeping things up-to-date. Onsite visits – even nighttime drive-bys to check for security and illumination – are the only way to get that information.
AC: It's a real challenge. While I don't dare compare our respective depths, at our paper, we award over 400 "Best of Austin" awards a year to local folks and businesses. While our process is not as exacting as yours, a handful of us have to fact-check everything that our team of over 50 writers turn in – often that involves site visits. One wrong phrase or outdated mention, and there goes your credibility. I totally respect your process. I hate to say, "Slow and steady wins the race," but…
Z: [laughs] AAA is like a big ship. Turn that wheel, and it takes a long time to see that nose come about!
AC: At the end of the day, the hotel and restaurant inspections are just one facet of what the group does. There's road service, gas-price reports, maps, Trip-Tiks, highway safety updates…
Z: Oh yeah, teen driving, insurance, full travel agencies… We lobby for safety legislation. And when you see a kid at school with those little orange sashes, the safety patrol, that badge says AAA. I'm extremely proud of what we do.
AC: The inspections are your heart and soul, though. There's an onus on properties to be exotic, novel, fresh, but feel like home all at once. How have your travels and experiences with hospitality changed or affirmed your concept of home?
Z: That's an interesting question. I have missed a number of my daughter's birthdays. The job has its costs, but the trade is a fabulous lifestyle for all of us. She has been to Canada, the pyramids in Mexico. I wouldn't want to do anything else.
You learn a lot from from hotel operators, from housekeepers you can't order from catalogs. These people pour their heart and soul into really hard work every day.
The hospitality industry's "commodity," if you will, is human beings; they're not housing cans of paint. They are taking people under their roof. After providing the necessities – the physical bed, bathroom, etc. – how they execute it is truly an art form, whether it's a basic approach or it comes with all the frills. In short, it's a beautiful thing.
This is Part 2 of our Summer Fun series with AAA. Click here to read Part 1.
The Austin Chronicle’s 2015 Summer Fun Issue hit the stands May 14. Read more Summer Fun stories at austinchronicle.com/summer-fun.
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