Mine rating systems to pick the right property for your group

You see it all the time in descriptions of the properties you are considering. But what does a AAA Four Diamond rating really mean, and are more diamonds always better? We asked Inspector No. 514, regional manager for AAA’s Southeast inspection team. The answer to the second part of the question is, “It depends.” Attendees at a busy conference may not spend much time in the room or require the same level of service expected during an incentive event, where the amenities are a critical component of the trip’s recognition—and come with an associated cost. More on that later.

The answer to the first part of the question requires a computer algorithm and a team of inspectors to ensure each property’s rating is consistent and up to date. Here is how AAA distributes its diamonds.

Secret Life of an Inspector

AAA published the first hotel directory in 1917 and started sending inspectors out into the world in 1937. Today, a team of dozens of experts visits more than 25,000 lodgings each year. Using a computer checklist, more than 100 items are evaluated, ranging from the state of the carpeting to how guests are greeted at registration; and from whether there are fresh towels in the gym to the quality of audiovisual equipment in the meeting space and whether there are enough power outlets in the room for today’s traveler.

Standards of cleanliness and basic service are a baseline. Hotels get a pass or fail based on the comfort and maintenance of rooms and public spaces. The property where a rat ran across the floor in front of the inspector lost its rating because it didn’t meet the approval requirements, Inspector No. 514 says. There is also a pass or fail grade for hospitality, professionalism and “deportment” of staff. Basic security features must also be in place, including soundproofing, lighting and double door locks. Once this bar has been met, the property can be considered for diamond ratings.

To earn the highest rating, the whole package must be exceptional. Only .4 percent of the 28,000 hotels considered each year are crowned with the Five Diamond designation. To earn this honor, a property must boast at least one Four Diamond restaurant; limited edition, signature artwork on the walls; distinctive ballroom space; and luxurious (and ample-sized) bathroom products. The checklist even covers how quickly the operator answers the phone (within three rings, preferably), whether needs were anticipated and whether employees “exhibit a professional vocabulary devoid of slang” and maintain eye contact when answering questions. Similarly, restaurant ratings examine everything from quality of food to service, ambiance and trendiness.

Every part of the experience, from the architecture to the ability of the concierge to get sought-after theater tickets or the quality of the products in the spa, has to be outstanding in order to earn the coveted highest rating.

The Canyon Suites at The Phoenician, a Luxury Collection Resort, Scottsdale in Arizona is an example of a property that has earned those diamonds every year since 2007. The 60-room boutique hotel offers one of the top golf experiences in the world, Native American sculptures from artist Alan Houser and a board room where eight 21-inch, flat-screen monitors emerge from the mahogany tabletop. Guests enjoy chauffeured car service, daily morning yoga and a specially prepared amenity on arrival, conceived by executive chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

But that does not make it the right choice for every meeting. Inspector No. 514 suggests taking into account rating descriptions (see sidebar) when deciding what property is right for your group and meeting goals.

Star Treatment: What It Means

One Diamond: budget-friendly with basic comfort and hospitality

Two Diamond: affordable, modestly enhanced facilities, decor and amenities

Three Diamond: distinguished and multifaceted, with enhanced amenities and guest comforts

Four Diamond: refined and stylish, with upscale spaces, extensive amenities and a high degree of hospitality, service and attention to detail

Five Diamond: the ultimate in luxury, sophistication and comfort, with magnificent rooms, meticulous and personalized service, extensive amenities and impeccable standards of excellence

Forbes Stars Deconstructed

Forbes Travel Guide employs a five-star rating system using some 900 standards with an emphasis on quality of service, “because how it makes you feel is what you will remember most,” the guide explains. The system dates back to 1958, when it was known as Mobil Travel Guide, and focuses on luxury properties.

Five-star winners are described as having outstanding, iconic properties with “virtually flawless service.” Four-star properties are exceptional with “high levels of service.” The rest are “recommended” or “soon to be rated.”