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Secret hotel reviewers get the lowdown for travelers

By Andrea Sachs
Sunday, January 10, 2010; F01

Around lunchtime at the Omni Shoreham in Woodley Park, Will Begeny approached the concierge to ask for some stranger-in-town assistance. The New Yorker was looking for a restaurant with a respectable sake selection and dining spots that could cater to a gluten allergy. The uniformed man behind the counter recommended Sake Club, circling it with a pen on a photocopied map, then noted three other restaurants in the neighborhood that might accommodate the stated dietary restriction. He ended the conversation with an insider flourish: "I know the owner of Sake Club. Tell him Herman sent you."

Most guests would walk away thinking, "Now, wasn't that Herman helpful?" and start fantasizing about rice wine and wheat-free pasta. Not Begeny. The hotel reviewer for Oyster.com, a new online source for lodging seekers, filed that interaction in his mental logbook, an expanding tome of insights gleaned over a night and a day of snooping around the hotel premises. Begeny would then parlay those experiences into a multi-part review consisting of a pearl rating (one through five), a meaty blurb of 1,500 to 2,000 words and a photo gallery with hundreds of images.

"We are giving a comparative evaluation of the hotel but are also showing people the big picture," said the senior editor of Oyster, which employs four inspectors. "We want them to have enough information so they can make the right choice for them."

Oyster.com, which launched in late June, is one of the newest players in the hotel rating game. (The site recently scaled back its expansion plans and had to lay off much of its reviewing staff; for a start-up, ranking hotels is not like striking oil.) The veterans in leisure travel are Mobil Travel Guide, which recently became Forbes, and AAA. Mobil has been attaching stars to lodgings for more than a half-century, part of a business plan to sell guidebooks in its gas stations. AAA initiated field inspections in 1937, followed in 1963 by a formal system of ratings from "outstanding" to "good." The ubiquitous diamonds first appeared in the 1977 TourBook guides as a way to help the organization's members plan their trips. But any non-member who sees the symbol knows that means they can rest easy for the night.

"The two best [ratings systems] are AAA and Forbes," said Joe McInerney, president of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. "The inspectors go to the properties. Every time a new hotel opens, they go look at it. With new technology, we have seen third-party distributors like Expedia and Travelocity, but those can be misleading. You don't know if the reviewers stayed there. There is no way to check their validity."

As hotel guests, we frequently rely on the constellation of symbols to determine a property's quality and level of service. "It gives people a comfort feeling knowing that someone is inspecting the hotel and that the information is correct," McInerney said. "It gives them an idea of the standards they can expect."

For example, at a one-star/diamond/pearl hotel, we are thankful for towels; at a fiver, we are pampered with slippers at our bedside and personalized salutations. According to AAA's definitions, for example, one-diamond properties "typically appeal to the budget-minded traveler. They provide essential, no-frills accommodations." By comparison, five-diamonds "reflect the characteristics of the ultimate in luxury and sophistication. . . . The physical attributes are extraordinary in every manner. The fundamental hallmarks at this level are to meticulously serve and exceed all guest expectations while maintaining an impeccable standard of excellence." It's the difference between an Econo Lodge in Laurel and the Breakers in Palm Beach.

Behind the rankings lurk expert inspectors who do the dirty work, so that we don't have to sleep in it. They check for hairballs in sinks, fabricate questions to test the staff's knowledge and count the number of phone rings before the reservationist answers.

To watch these CIA-style operatives in action and learn about the inner workings of hotel reviewing, we shadowed two inspectors last month: Begeny and a AAA pro who has been on the job for 27 years. Begeny's face and bio are splashed on the Web site, so he is less vigilant about protecting his identity. The AAA sleuth, however, requested anonymity. So, from here on out, we'll call him AAA Man.

* * *

Dapper in a dark suit and a silk tie the color of a blushing rose in bloom, AAA Man blended in with the other guests at the Hay-Adams, the storied hotel a stone's throw from the White House. He could have been in town for a tete-a-tete with a congressman or to attend a fundraiser for the Kennedy Center. Yes, he was that good.

When we rendezvoused in the lobby at midmorning, AAA Man had already completed the overnight portion of his examination. (Only four- and five-diamond properties warrant sleepovers; smaller denominations require just a day visit.) Over Fiji bottled water in the Lafayette restaurant, he briefed me on his observations to date and explained how they figured into the overall algorithm.

The organization combines a physical inspection that covers the entire hotel grounds, from the lobby to guest rooms, with a service-related system of accrued points. To earn four diamonds, the property must score a 108; for five sparklers, the magic number is 268. With crucial diamonds on the line, little goes unnoticed or undocumented.

In his descriptions, AAA Man was as meticulous and methodical as a detective reconstructing a crime scene. "I called room service, and she answered on the second ring," AAA Man told me about his early a.m. encounter. "The French toast came with a cornflake crust. I asked if I could have regular French toast. She said no. [Note to staffer: demerit for the quick dismissal.] I ordered pancakes instead. She called back within 15 seconds to say the chef could make French toast without the crust. She asked me if I wanted fruit salad. She tried to get me to eat more-healthy food. She confirmed the order."

Fast-forward to the end of the meal: In closing the door, the server inadvertently flipped over the Do Not Disturb sign, resulting in a surprise visit from housekeeping. "No place is perfect," AAA Man remarked. "It's how they correct their error." In this case, they did it with sincere apologies and by flipping the sign back to the proper position.

The inspector also deliberately tested the staff. He threw a bar of soap into a bag and hid the room's pad of paper and pen to see whether the housekeepers would replace the items (they did). To assess the concierge's expertise, he asked for the starting time of the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony and the Newseum's hours. He received a tentative answer confirmed by a follow-up call.

Satisfied with his tests, AAA Man checked out, then revealed his identity to request face time with the manager. Colette Marquez greeted the inspector warmly, though she appeared a bit startled by the surprise visit. Back in the restaurant, AAA Man replayed his stay for her edification. Responding to French-toastgate, she said: "I cringed when you said that. I guess at least she thought about it after she hung up."

After the oral review, the pair headed to the elevator to view additional guest rooms, where AAA Man would slip on the figurative white gloves. While engaging in small talk, he peered into lamps looking for dust and three-way bulbs, and lifted couch cushions seeking crumbs or change. He pulled out drawers, rubbed his hand over the bed's headboard and opened the curtains to check the view and inspect the sill for dirt. He had eyes everywhere, it seemed, including in his fingertips. "This is a nice toilet seat," he said. "You can lift it up and it doesn't slam down."

After quick stops in the fitness center and the business center, where he admired the office supplies, the inspector was ready to deliver his verdict: "Everything looks great. I will recommend that you retain your four diamonds." Then he climbed into his car and took off for his next unscheduled appointment, a three-diamond hotel downtown.

* * *

Like AAA Man, Begeny was a bit of a chameleon. Dressed casually in a brown button-down shirt and jeans, he looked to be from the same mold as the guest sitting one breakfast table over at the Omni Shoreham, minus the wife and baby. But unlike AAA Man, who never broke a sweat in his suit, Begeny employed more acrobatic techniques, such as scaling the bathtub to take photos of the shower head.

"We don't stop at the pearl rating," said Begeny, who had previously worked with the New York Police Department, investigating firearm incidents. "We want to show every cranny. There's no detail left unnoted, especially the bathroom."

Begeny had spent the night at the hotel (per Oyster's methodology, overnights are compulsory), where he went through the motions of being a regular guest without an agenda. "I want to see what they do without any requests or demands -- if the hotel takes the initiative," he said.

He also performed small tasks, such as trying out the WiFi in the lobby, flicking through all the TV channels and cranking up the heat on his room's temperature-control unit. "I did not feel a difference," he noted, partly blaming the drafty picture window overlooking the parking lot. After midnight, he dialed room service to order a grilled chicken sandwich. The hotel passed on all accounts except for the jalapeƱo peppers. "I did not ask for them," he said, "and they weren't on the menu."

Joining him the next day, I followed him upstairs to his room to observe the Towel Test, which involved calling the front desk for an extra towel, then watching the clock. Nine minutes later, there was a knock on the door. Begeny next peeled back the layers of bedding with the care of an archaeologist at an ancient site. His field notes: "Here's something I have never seen before: a poly-filled duvet on top of a poly-cotton-blend sheet on top of a down comforter on top of another sheet on top of a bottom sheet that is not fitted on top of a very thin mattress pad on top of a pillow-top mattress from Serta." His photos document this layer cake of linens.

Before checking out, Begeny embarked on a full tour of the property, inspecting every obscure hallway, peering into every public room and roaming the outdoor grounds, his lens nudging its way into every scene. At the fitness center, he snapped shots of cardio machines and the spa treatment door, then noted the lack of staffing at the front desk. "From what I can tell, no one ever seems to be here," he said. "I checked when they opened this morning, yesterday and now. It's pretty safe to say they don't staff that desk." (He later learned that desk assistance is seasonal and that someone would return in a few weeks.)

The photo safari nearly complete, Begeny finally identified himself, outing himself initially to guests. His goal was to gain a consensus by amassing other patrons' comments and concerns. He first approached a pin-thin man in fitness attire who was relaxing over a cup of coffee and a newspaper. The man lived in Washington and belonged to the on-site gym, so he wasn't the source Begeny needed. His second try was equally fruitless; the two Taiwanese visitors spoke little English. For the third interview, Begeny chased down a woman he spotted by the front desk mailbox. He introduced himself, then asked for her impressions of the hotel ("I think it's very nice and elegant"), how she chose it (her boyfriend did) and whether she had had any problems. "The fridge did not get very cold," said Mary Muniz of Colorado Springs, adding that "the maid was a little defensive."

Begeny closed out the inspection with the director of marketing, who agreed to open doors to other guest rooms, starting with the apartment-size "haunted" showpiece, the Ghost Suite. Available only in special instances, the suite comes with a chandeliered dining room, a capacious kitchen, fireplaces and alleged hauntings linked to the mysterious deaths of two female occupants last century. From bedroom to bathroom, he clicked away on his Nikon but never once poked around closets or ran a fingertip over counters in search of dust. "I am not really inspecting the rooms, because I caught them off-guard," he explained. "I would rather talk to other people to find out if their rooms were trashy. I could do the white-glove test, but I don't think anyone cares."

For the final photos of the day, he squeezed into the shower stall of the smallest room onsite -- snap, snap -- then stood atop the toilet for the money bathroom shot. His camera registered 570 images.

The Web site would not post the pearl rating, review and photos until the next week, after some additional calculations were made, but Begeny had an idea of how the Omni would score. "All told, we are right on that cusp of 3.5 and 4," he said. "I am leaning to 4, though, because of that pool." The one that was closed until spring.

Postscript: The Omni Shoreham received 3 1/2 pearls. The Hay-Adams kept its four diamonds.

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