Last month, while checking into a room at the Phoenix Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., located two blocks from Capitol Hill, my family coped with a comedy of errors. The first assigned room had not been cleaned. The bed was unmade and the place was downright messy. When the bellman opened the door to the second room, sheets rustled and two figures ducked for cover. With a sheepish grin, he backed away. My mother raised an eyebrow.
The third assigned room was clean, but flawed. The towel bar fell to the floor when a washcloth was draped over it. The closet door wouldn’t open and the remote control didn’t work.
The same bellman dropped my laptop computer on the sidewalk as we were leaving, even though we asked him to leave it alone. The hotel staff made no apologies for these gaffes and other malfunctions. We should have sensed something was wrong when a veteran cabbie said he’d never been asked to stop there.
When I jokingly related the story to others, they related similar encounters and I wondered, why isn’t there a trusted rating system where consumers can turn to for accurate information? Sure, there’s TripAdvisor.com, where travelers can exchange opinions. I checked on a particular budget property through the Web site and read three rave reviews, but after spending a sleepless night there, I wondered if it was the same hotel. Yet after enjoying a beautiful night’s rest at a property that was not reviewed, I deemed the Web site unreliable, particularly because it lacks criteria and known sources.
AAA and Mobil maintain two well-known and respected hospitality certification programs, but they do not necessarily tell consumers which establishments provide a comfortable, convenient place to spend the night at a reasonable cost.
Seal of approval?
In 1963, AAA adopted a rating system for TourBook accommodations listings, which evolved into a rigorous diamond rating system in 1979, when the federation of motor clubs staffed full-time professional evaluators to inspect hotels, resorts and restaurants throughout North America for service and luxury. The team visits more than 50,000 establishments every year.
“I remember Daddy would look for AAA-rated hotels,” said Bill Bryan, president of Jackson-based Bryan Tours and vice president of international travel for MTS Travel Management Group of Pennsylvania. “It was a seal of approval.”
Today, the stringent 198-item criteria for four- and five-diamond service levels includes requirements such as escorts offering to fill ice buckets and housekeepers re-pointing tissues and turning on soft music. Not leaving chocolates or “goodnight wishes” for bedtime could make the difference between receiving four diamonds instead of five. For Monmouth Plantation, the lack of 24-hour room service made a one-star difference.
The lodging industry has long coveted the prestigious Mobil Five-Star Award. Since its inception in 1958, the Mobil Travel Guide has contracted with hospitality experts to anonymously evaluate establishments listed in its publication. Only 2% of hotels and restaurants are four-star worthy; less than 1% attain five-star status. The Ritz-Carltons and Four Seasons Hotels dominate that elite category, which calls for three phones in each guest room including one in the loo, a selection of 10 hangers including a variety of bars, clips and padded, and a lighted magnifying mirror, among other plush amenities.
“My favorite hotel in Paris is a two-star hotel, and it would have three stars except it has only one elevator,” said Bryan. “With 33 rooms, it only needs one. It’s reasonably priced, has a friendly staff and the air-conditioning works great. It’s a well-kept secret.”
Whenever Chuck Bonelli, director of marketing for the Southeast Tourism Society, travels to Atlanta, he heads to Marriott Suites, a three-star hotel located in the heart of midtown, around the corner from the AAA Five-Diamond Four Seasons Hotel.
“It’s centrally located and the staff is extremely accommodating,” he said. “Problems will arise everywhere, and little things will trip you up, but having a staff empowered to make decisions trumps almost everything else.”
Hoteliers seem to prefer AAA’s program, saying they can learn from inspectors, who give them pointers, while Mobil has a reputation for being non-communicative.
An overlooked segment
Meanwhile, mid-price lodging, including bed and breakfast, country inn, ranch, resort and hotel properties, are largely overlooked, though they may rate a respectable three-diamonds. Those travelers don’t need to see fancy artwork in the lobby. Fresh flowers need not adorn antique tables in every hallway. They want high-speed Internet access that doesn’t cost $10 an hour or require them to wander downstairs to the business center. They don’t want to pay $17 for a toll-free call. They want a workable television with a clear picture and an easy-to-find channel conversion guide.
“When I’m traveling on business, it’s not a vacation, so I don’t linger around a hotel,” said public relations exec Chris Myers. “I go there to rest, shower and go. I’m looking for a safe and convenient location with plenty of parking and a clean, well-maintained room. I like a truly comfortable bed. If there’s a free newspaper and a complimentary hot breakfast buffet, that’s lagniappe.”
Ratings system of their very own
Based on years of property management and travel industry experience, I’m creating a ratings system for mid-line properties in Mississippi, based on the comforts that travelers appreciate most. With the support of the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), they will be stamped “Hospitality Certified.”
“The Hospitality Certified program will add to the portfolio of recognition these exceptional properties should aspire,” said MDA tourism director Craig Ray. “The recognition will also assist in our efforts to provide our visitors to Mississippi with an exceptional travel experience.”
Lani Riches, co-owner of Monmouth Plantation, said, “the Hospitality Certified system is a wonderful idea, so that nobody else has to suffer another bad experience.”
Send us your thoughts
Within the next few weeks, local CVB directors will be solicited for suggested properties.
A brief evaluation form will be drafted, based more on perception than banal checklists. Readers will be queried to determine what matters most at their favorite places to stay. In the meantime, please send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Freelance writer Lynne Jeter writes regularly about travel and tourism for the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact her via e-mail at email@example.com.