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The Hotel Issue

Secret hotel reviewers get the lowdown for travelers

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By Andrea Sachs
Sunday, January 10, 2010

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."

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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.


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