Chapter 22 The Art of Innkeeping
Marketing is all about having a good story to tell. Part of that story is our awards, reviews, associations, ratings and designations. In this chapter we are going to focus on the question: Is the AAA Diamond rating still relevant? We will also consider the importance of associations such as Select Registry and brand identification.
As a kid I remember going to the AAA office to pick up maps, guide books and a customize triptiks prior to any road trip. I know that there is a whole generation out there that has no idea what a triptik is or even cares about what the AAA has to say. Back in the 60s there were so many independent Mom and Pop motels the AAA was really helpful in identifying quality places to stay. With the development of the branded chain motels there was less need to check the guidebook. We knew what each chain stood for. For Holiday Inn it was “the best surprise is no surprise”. Chains such as Marriot, Hilton and Sheraton were considered more upscale. Brands made selecting a place to stay easy. Fortunately the boring sameness of the chains became evident to many travelers and independent lodging properties have come back into vogue. This was especially true for bed and breakfasts and country inns. Once again there was a roll for the AAA but big changes were just around the corner.
Today with social media (Tripadvisor, Yelp ..etc. ) the relevance of AAA is under attack again. And for what is it is worth do people really care what Fodor’s, Frommer’s, Lonely Planet or Rick Steves thinks? In defense of guidebooks many of our international guests have found us in Lonely Planet. We will also take a look at the real story behind Bedandbreakfast.com’s Diamond Collection.
The Sugar Hill Inn has a three-diamond AAA rating. We do not promote it because it is useless. Almost any half way decent property qualifies. For most people two diamonds are scary. I wont deny it; I would love to be a Four Diamond property. It still carries a lot of prestige and would certainly be good for business. When our TripAdvisor score changed from 4.5 to a perfect 5 circles it made a huge difference. It is not that the inn over night changed but the hard work over many years was finally recognized.
Of my primary competitors two of them used to be Four Diamond but are no longer and one still is. Karen and I have stayed at many Four Diamond properties across the country, that are not nearly as nice as the Sugar Hill Inn. On the surface there seems to be no rhyme or reason to who receives the Four Diamond Award. At one place in North Carolina the room had polyester sheets. I am sure that must be a violation of the standards.
My fellow innkeepers who do have Four Diamond properties I am sure will say that I am just whining and that is the perfect lead in to a story that might explain what is going on with the AAA and why the Sugar Hill Inn will most likely never receive a Four Diamond Award.
In Italy most wines are known by where they come from such as Chianti, Barolo, Montalcino, Orvieto etc. To protect the value of these names standards have been developed. Quality wines that meet the standards are given the designation of DOC or DOCG and the right to use the place name. Traditionally everything else was thought of as cheap vino da tavola (table wine). On the surface these regulations seem to be a good thing. These rules prevent someone in the geographic area of Chianti from producing an inferior wine, slapping on a label and selling it as Chianti. However these strict rules were a hindrance to a new breed of wine makers who believed that they could produce some of the best wine in the world by growing international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon in Tuscany and blending them with Italian varietals. This was unthinkable to the wine establishment. For the longest time these wines by regulation received no recognition and were designated as ordinary table wine in spite of their quality. Today these wines are know as Super Tuscan and they are outrageously expensive and Italian regulators have created a new designation call IGT to accommodate them.
In many ways I feel like a Super Tuscan wine makers, unwilling to give into the status quo. On a recent inspection we scored 3.8. A score of 4.0 would qualify us for the Four Diamond. So where did we go wrong? To start with you need to qualify your least expensive room. At the Sugar hill Inn we offer a wide range of rooms. We think that is a good thing. Not everyone wants the same thing when they travel. We have many guests that want to stay in an upscale inn because they enjoy great dining, the pool and want to socialize with their fellow traveler in the tavern but spend very little time in their room and therefore are happy that we do have some smaller and less expensive rooms. Our smaller rooms still come with all the amenities such as robes, slippers, espresso, premium bedding etc.
We lost points because our bathrooms do not have artwork. For about $500 I could run out to our local print shop and in a few hours I could have cheap art in every bathroom but that is not who we are. We are seriously committed to the fine arts. We have original art in almost every guest room and through out the inn. The humidity would ruin a $1000 painting and cheap prints would discredit our program of original art. Even at very expensive properties it is unusual to find original artwork in guest rooms. Our focus on original art is one of the unique features of the Sugar Hill Inn experience and we our not going to compromise one of our core values just to earn an award.
All of our bathrooms have premium hair dryers and in most rooms we have chosen wall mounted units because we believe that these offer greater convenience to our guests. Personally it annoys me if I need to search for the dryer under the sink, remove it from some fancy bag and then plug it in. For some reason, that makes no sense to me, wall mounted units cause you to lose points.
Karen and I very carefully consider the design of each guest room. What will look best and be most confortable for our guests? If a room has simple wooden blinds instead of heavy curtains, we are not being cheap. We like bright, airy rooms with clean lines. AAA will not look at the blinds within the total design context of the room. We will arbitrarily lose points because they prefer curtains. Real wood custom blinds frequently can cost as much as curtains.
According to the AAA a hotel room should have two comfortable chairs. When we purchased the inn in 2006 all of our rooms met this requirement. In many rooms the chairs were not in close proximity making conversation difficult but the number crunchers at AAA we happy because we had two chairs. Being a romantic inn we believed that couples would want to sit together and therefore we replaced many of the chairs with loveseats causing us to lose points. Once again arbitrary standards are more important then the overall guest experience.
I could go on all day with examples, let me give one more. Most of our bathrooms have framed mirrors but some are unframed. Here again if we have an unframed mirror it is because we think its looks best in that particular room. In many of those rooms we have choosen to use very expensive natural stone tiles but fancy tile does not earn extra points. I am also not aware of any hotels charging under $500 a night with Nespresso Espresso Makers but if the luxury is not on the checklist it does not count. Being innovative is penalized in the AAA system.
I could certainly walk around the inn with the AAA playbook and do a lot of small stuff to placate the AAA inspector. The question is “would following the play book make us a better inn”? In all honesty the answer is no. Of course even if we did pander to the system there is no assurance that we would receive the designation. The true value of the designation is in keeping the club small. I believe that it is predetermined that we will not qualify for the Four Diamonds before inspection. Although they have work sheets with numerical values for every category this kind of work can be very subjective. We all know the saying “figures don’t lie but liars can figure.”
Not all diamonds are real. That is how I feel about The Bedandbreakfast.com’s Diamond Collection. This is pay to play. There is a difference between a marketing program and true recognition of achievement. Bedandbreakfast.com runs one of the best and most comprehensive website directory for bed and breakfasts and country inns. There is an excellent chance that your Google search for “New Hampshire B&B” has taken you to Bedandbreakfast.com. The Sugar Hill Inn has always paid for placement on the site. About five years ago they came up with their Diamond Collection program. For a substantial extra fee they will promote your inn as part of this exclusive collection and get you premium placement on the site. We use the program because it works but it is not an exclusive group and almost anyone can qualify. To qualify you need to be an inspected property. Since the AAA automatically inspects most properties and a three-diamond inspection qualifies this requirement is not as restrictive as it sounds. As we discussed prior this is a huge group with those at the bottom being pretty average. They also look at the reviews on their site. A 4.0 out of 5.0 is good enough for them. In my mind most good properties are in the 4.5 to 5.0 range.
I have presented a dilemma. AAA Three Diamond is such a large group the score is meaningless. AAA Four Diamond over rates some properties and totally misses many fine inns. Bedandbreakfast.com’s Diamond Collection is nothing more then feel good marketing. In a previous chapter we discussed Tripadvisor and the review sites and how they are frequently compare apples and oranges. So is there a safe dependable way to select a place to stay that will work time after time.
My father had a saying “You will be judged by the company you keep”. This could not be truer then in the lodging industry. The Sugar Hill Inn is a proud member of Select Registry. As a member we are subject to surprise under cover inspection. Although each member’s property is unique, the Quality Assurance Program makes Select Registry the most reliable way to select a place to stay. Select Registry also keeps its member up to date with the lasted trends by sponsoring meeting, webinars and trade shows. There are other associations such as Relais & Châteaux that are also known for quality.
If you are curious about the difference between Select Registry and Relais & Châteaux this is how I see it. Select Registry properties while upscale are still relatively affordable to most travelers. Relais & Châteaux properties are a little bit more exclusive and priced above the budget of most travelers. There are many Select Registry properties that could qualify to belong to Relais & Châteaux but prefer membership in Select Registry. There are also similar associations for larger independent hotels such as iPrefer. Karen and I stayed at a wonderful iPrefer hotel in Bermuda called Cambridge Beaches. These associations should not be confused with brands like the Ritz Carlton. While investor groups may independently own the real estate, they are operated as Ritz Carltons by Ritz Carlton management. Some smaller chains are operated under the franchise model.
I have said this before but it is worth repeating. We are all different in what we look for in a place to stay. A place may be highly rated and a quality property in every way but that does not mean that it is the right pick for you. Guests who do their homework are the happiest. As a lodging property we give as much information as possible to make the task of homework easier for the consumer. If you are booking on Hotels.com and by passing the wealth of information on the lodging property’s website you are doing yourself a disservice.