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Seal of Approval

Mississippi Lodging Properties Vie for “Hospitality Certified” Stamp 

Earlier this year, the Mississippi Hotel & Lodging Association unveiled a new program designed to acknowledge hospitality-proven properties around the state.

The statewide initiative integrates all tourism-related businesses and entities — the state tourism division, area convention and visitors’ bureaus (CVBs) and professional associations — with a focus on lodging operations.

“Mississippi is the Hospitality State, with caring hoteliers, superb properties and wonderful entertainment and recreational venues, yet many of our visitors and potential visitors aren’t sure what to expect, especially in the aftermath of Katrina,” said Linda Hornsby, executive director of the Mississippi Hotel & Lodging Association, representing 25,000 rooms across the state. “Our visitor is curious, sometimes doubtful, as to whether our products and services are up to specifications — not ours, but theirs. Of course, that’s what counts. It’s all about the visitor experience.”

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. 

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.

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 in Natchez, the lack of 24-hour room service made a one-diamond difference. 

The lodging industry has long coveted the prestigious Mobil 5-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 percent of hotels and restaurants are four-star worthy; less than 1 percent 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 near the toilet, a selection of 10 hangers including a variety of bars, clips and padded, and a lighted magnifying mirror, among other plush amenities. 

Similar certification programs have been established on a smaller, more geographically-confined scale, but coming up with an agreed-on checklist and funding sources has been problematic. So how exactly will this program work?

“We needed someone who could wrap their heads around the program and believe in it like we do and who could do so at a reasonable cost,” explained Hornsby, adding that Signature Worldwide has been selected as the program vendor. “The cost will be borne by the individual properties for the most part. In some cases, there will be some area tourism groups that will help subsidize the process. It will cost less for our members than for non-members (since) MH&LA is also subsidizing the program.”

The Mississippi Hospitality Certified Program application fee structure begins at $250 for members ($450 for non-members) per property with up to 75 rooms, and ends with $800 per member ($1,800 for non-member) for a property with more than 500 rooms. MH&LA members with AAA “Triple Diamond” or Mobil “3-Star” designation will receive automatic inclusion in the program for the first year. However, a $50 fee for the use of the Hospitality Certified seal will be charged to the property. 

Even though a checklist for the new program was unavailable at press time, the certification process includes evaluating exterior and property amenities, public spaces and guest rooms. Food and beverage venues and casino gaming areas are not evaluated. 

“Properties will be given a list of the inspection criteria and then have the inspection,” explained Hornsby. “Afterward, they’ll either be given the certification or a list of items of concern to address to achieve certification. It’s certainly not our goal to exclude anyone. What we want to do is bring everyone up to at least a certain level.”

The program was launched in the metro Jackson area, which hosted 4.1 million visitors in 2009. Wanda Wilson, executive director of the Jackson CVB, a supporter of the initiative, hosted a hospitality specialist training seminar in mid-May — an offshoot of the certification program — for all tourism industry employees. During the free 90-minute seminar, special techniques were highlighted for providing top-notch customer service, problem-solving and information about Jackson’s tourism industry. 

“We have received great enthusiasm from the Jackson CVB and a number of properties who want to see this happen,” said Hornsby. “Nobody benefits when a guest books a room at a property and receives less than they were expecting. With group travel, it is even more important.”

Mary Beth Wilkerson, director of the Mississippi Development Authority’s Tourism Division, said she was encouraged that MH&LA reached out to this sector of the tourism industry to insure a level of quality, safety and cleanliness in the state’s hotel/lodging offerings to visitors.

“MDA Tourism would look to identify the Hospitality Certified properties through its marketing portals, such as website listings and the Mississippi Tour Guide,” said Wilkerson.

Once area CVBs and the state are promoting the program in full swing,  “it’s just a win-win,” said Hornsby. “Guests are certainly the first benefactor. The properties that are already doing due diligence will be certified as such, and guests can book with them with confidence. Those that are not can be brought up to a certain level.”

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About Lynne W. Jeter

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