Chains vs. Membership Organizations

Chain hotels are either owned by the company whose name they bear or managed by the company under that brand name under contract to a third-party owner. As in any segment, luxury hotels that are part of a chain — the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carltons, for example — must adhere to quality standards and are inspected regularly.

Some hotel companies devote a segment of their organization to the luxury market: Marriott, for example, owns Ritz-Carlton, and Sheraton has its Luxury Collection. Others, such as Fairmont and Four Seasons, are purely standalone companies.

Then there are the membership organizations, the two major players being Leading Hotels of the World and Preferred Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. These groups represent independent properties and, like chains, set quality standards to which member hotels must adhere. Indeed, the latter is a prime motivator for independent hotels to join these organizations — it's another way to ensure that their services and facilities are meeting or exceeding accepted industry norms.

The other benefit for members is the organization's marketing clout and reservation systems, two areas in which an independent hotelier has a tough time succeeding against company- or chain-affiliated competitors. Some hotels that are chain owned or operated — Kempinski and Meridien are two examples — also can be members of these organizations.

How much weight do brand names carry? “A lot,” says Richard C. Gaeta, president of Premier Incentives, Marblehead, Mass. “The caveat is that whether you're talking about branded hotels or independents that are members of luxury hotel organizations, you can be disappointed by one and have a great experience with another within that same company or membership group.”

Louise Hall Reider, an independent incentive-travel planner in Bellevue, Wash., finds membership in these organizations valuable when it comes time to sell a client on a particular hotel. “My business is 100 percent incentive travel, and obviously luxury hotels are a big part of it,” she says. “Oftentimes, with a smaller incentive program, a small, independent hotel is the best fit, and I know the membership organizations like Leading Hotels and Preferred specialize in those kinds of properties. It adds credibility, it can't hurt, and it often helps.”

Stars Count

Understanding ratings also can help. The lodging-rating systems published by Mobil (Stars) and the American Automobile Association (Diamonds) in their travel guides are by far the oldest and most well-known. Zagat, known predominantly for its restaurant rating guides, also publishes city-by-city hotel ratings, as do various consumer travel magazines — Conde Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure, to name two. And of course, meeting industry magazines, including Corporate Meetings & Incentives, have their own reader awards. See the January issue or www.meetingsnet.com for CMI's list of 2002 Paragon Award winners.

Hotels that garner the top ratings add up to a very exclusive group: Last year, 24 of the 22,000 U.S. hotels that Mobil inspected earned its five-star rating; 50 of the 27,500 AAA-inspected U.S. hotels earned five diamonds.

Both Mobil and AAA employ inspectors to visit the properties as guests. (AAA inspectors check in anonymously and later announce their presence to management; Mobil's remain anonymous throughout the inspection process.) AAA inspectors complete a detailed check list of as many as 15 observable criteria under 13 different service categories. For example, the five-diamond guest room will have at least 12 wooden hangers in the closet and be decorated with “sophisticated prints or lithographs”; its bathroom will feature “outstanding quality” fixtures. Mobil's rating system, though similarly comprehensive, tends to be slightly more subjective — inspectors, for instance, are granted the leeway to judge each property on its own special merits.

Yet Gaeta believes that even a Mobil five-star or AAA four-diamond rating doesn't ensure total satisfaction at any given point in time.

“We did an event at a Colorado Springs property not long ago. It had all the stars, all the diamonds — all the reputation you could want. But did they ever drop the ball. We found out that their concierges were in training, the wait-staff at their restaurants were in training … . It all added up to a nightmare.

“Worse yet,” he adds, “when we asked about the possibility of a break on our rates and some extras as a result of the bad experience, they said there was no way.”

On the other hand, he recently worked with a top-rated hotel that exceeded his expectations. “We did a program at the Phoenician [a Sheraton Luxury Collection hotel], and the staff there had all the answers to all our questions almost before we asked the questions,” he says. “They did a fantastic job in everything. It's obvious that an enormous amount of training goes on there.”

All About Service

Twelve wooden hangers and other physical attributes aside, Doug Billings, president of Philadelphia-based Billings Group hotel-consulting firm, says there is no special merit higher on his list than top service delivered by well-trained personnel. Ratings and affiliations are simply a place to start.

“A sophisticated meeting planner will take all the help that's available, whether it's a reputable brand or membership-organization name, or a star or diamond rating — they're important factors in making a decision. But then he or she needs to talk to those colleagues who have had experience at that hotel. Ask people whose opinion you've come to trust — that's where you'll always get the most reliable information.”

DIAMONDS ARE A HOTEL'S BEST FRIEND

The two major quality ratings

AAA DIAMONDS
www.aaa.com

♦ — The property meets all basic requirements. It is clean, safe, and well-maintained.

♦♦ — Maintains the attributes of the one-diamond level while showing noticeable enhancements in room decor and quality of furnishings

♦♦♦ — Displays a marked upgrade in physical attributes, services, and comfort. Additional amenities, services, and facilities may be offered.

♦♦♦♦ — Displays an exceptional degree of hospitality, service and attention to detail while offering upscale facilities and a variety of amenities.

♦♦♦♦♦ — The property's facilities and operations exemplify an impeccable standard of excellence and exceed guest expectations in hospitality and service. Striking and luxurious, these properties offer many extra amenities.

MOBIL TRAVEL GUIDE STARS
www.exxonmobiltravel.com

* — Good, better than average

** — Very good

*** — Excellent

**** — Outstanding; worth a special trip

***** — One of the best in the country

THE CRÈME DE LA CRÈME

The four major hotel membership organizations

Leading Hotels of the World (www.lhw.com) — Founded in 1928 and based in New York City, Leading Hotels claims nearly 400 hotels in 75 countries. Applicant properties are inspected by two professional hoteliers, and then an executive committee votes on whether to accept the hotel into the fold (about one in three applicant hotels is accepted in a typical year). Once accepted, member hotels undergo two unannounced inspections every three years to ensure continued adherence to standards. The organization is in the process of finalizing the latest edition of its Meetings & Incentives Directory.

Preferred Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (www.preferredhotels.com) — Chicago-based Preferred includes more than 120 properties around the world. Potential member properties go through two inspections for admission, and then face a vote by member hoteliers who make up the board of directors. Member hotels undergo annual unannounced inspections that include 1,600 line items. According to a Preferred spokesperson, IndeCorp, the organization's owner, is launching an independent hotel brand for meeting planners, called The Conference Collection. Currently, the portfolio consists of 32 independently owned hotels and resorts that meet professional meeting standards. Initially, the brand's members will also be members of either Preferred Hotels & Resorts Worldwide or Summit Hotels and Resorts, a London-based membership organization also owned by IndeCorp. In the future, the brand may extend membership to other top-quality independent properties that meet the brand's standards.

Relais & Chateaux (www.relaischateaux.com) — A Paris-based organization that claims more than 450 privately owned hotels worldwide (60-plus in North America). Many are non-urban, smaller luxury properties. The organization was founded in 1954 and accepts about one in every three applicants, basing acceptance and continuing membership on what it calls the Five C's — character, courtesy, calm, charm, and cuisine.

Small Luxury Hotels of the World (www.slh.com) — Founded about 30 years ago and includes more than 250 luxury hotels. The organization accepts about one in every nine applicants; member hotels are inspected every other year.