Behind the ratings: Diamonds and Stars
In the hospitality industry, AAA’s Diamond and Forbes Travel Guide’s Star rankings are considered the gospel of quality. Meeting planners routinely seek out properties with these stamps of approval, and in the pages of Smart Meetings, you’re likely to read several call-outs to the prestigious designations.
Yet for all the clout these rankings have, surprisingly little is known about what actually goes into them. How are the hotels inspected? Who inspects them? And what separates the simply great hotels from the crème de la crème Five-Star and Five-Diamond properties—a rating so difficult to attain, in the case of AAA, only 0.3% of all reviewed hotels earn it?
The answers are complex—and should affirm your confidence in the value of these coveted and respected rankings.
Both Forbes Travel Guide and AAA inspectors review an impressive number of properties each year: 3,000 in the case of the former and an incredible 31,000 in the case of the latter.
Both choose which hotels to investigate based on the property’s ability to meet basic standards of cleanliness, service and amenities, but each puts its own spin on the final review process. AAA inspectors analyze all rated properties on an annual basis during an unannounced visit, and return for an overnight stay if there seems to be Five-Diamond potential. Forbes Travel Guide first sends in an inspector announced; then, if there seems to be the possibility for Four- or Five-Star certification, another inspector conducts an incognito investigation over the course of three days and two nights.
AAA makes its decisions based on 12 critical areas and 300 specific guest interaction points—and the difference between a great and stellar ranking can be thinner than a razor blade. Four-Diamond status, for example, entails a seven-piece personal care package in each guest restroom; to hit the Five-Diamond mark, there must be a 10-piece package. Similarly, while at least eight hangers are a necessity for a Four-Diamond rating, at least 10 are necessary for Five Diamonds.
Among the other benchmarks for that elusive Five-Diamond status? An umbrella in every guest room and 300 thread-count bed linens.
This doesn’t mean properties must attain all of the criterion listed to snag a particular ranking. Instead, says Heather Hunter, public relations manager for AAA, inspectors consider all the ratings and conduct an overall assessment to make the final designation.
Forbes Travel Guide is equally as exhaustive in its review process, but places more weight on service, which accounts for 75% of the total score, than physical attributes. Inspectors answer “yes” or “no” to more than 525 questions such as “Is luggage delivered to the guest’s room within 10 minutes?,” “Are arriving guests greeted and assisted curbside within 60 seconds of arriving by car or taxi?” and “Are guests offered and provided an escort to their rooms unless they specifically decline?”
Do the Ratings Matter?
For many meeting planners, the answer to the above question is a resounding yes. There are about 50,000 hotels in North America and hundreds in major cities. Considering the bounty of options, it can be daunting—if not overwhelming—to make site-selection decisions. That said, different planners seek different classifications.
For incentive and high-level corporate planners, Five-Star or Five-Diamond status may be a must (though in the wake of the recession, some actively avoided such ratings because of their stigma of excess). Still others, particularly in the SMERF or association markets, may seek the lower rungs of status because it signifies acceptable quality on a budget.
More recently, these ranking giants have faced fresh competition from the likes of user-generated sites such as Yelp and CitySearch, and new-on-the-scene ranking systems with their own take on the process. Oyster, a popular travel site, is one of the newbies getting attention: Its rating system of One-to-Five Pearls is enhanced by inspectors who take and post an extensive catalogue of photos.
No matter the system, it’s clear ratings play a significant role in the labyrinthine process of choosing the right spot to bring a group. “For guests, based on what we provide, they can easily find properties that meet their needs,” says Hunter. “It’s the same with meeting planners. Ratings can help them evaluate properties quickly.”
Or as Gail Martinson, who handles client services for Nimlok Minnesota, puts it, “I really research hotels. I ask people if they have been there, study photos and call and ask questions. Rankings are where I start.”