Modern assessment: Today's QA process

National Report—Hotels are in the business of impressions. A bad impression, or an off moment, can lose a guest for good. To lessen the likelihood of a bad impression or an inconsistent product, brands and owners audit the quality of the properties in their portfolio.

But quality is an abstract term. How does one missed hair in the bathtub, in one room, on a random day, compare with failing to add the brand logo to the hotel van for more than a year? Between the owners, operators, brand companies and the actual guests being served, there are a lot of stakeholders in the process of quality assurance. Assessing the quality of a hotel is part science, part art and requires the right amount of compromise and communication.

The old days

Mark Herron, GM of the Embassy Suites Beachwood [Ohio], used to be on the other side of the process as a brand QA auditor. He said there was much more of an antagonistic relationship between brands and owners in the late '80s and early '90s that has largely gone away.

"Many companies have caught on to look at the auditing process more as a partnership than a ‘gotcha,’" Herron said. "Moving away from adversarial relationship and into a cooperative environment makes a huge difference."

The brands have become much more open in their communication, not just in terms of written standards but in helpful tips. As an example, Herron said a QA auditor recently demonstrated how rolling up towels in the armoire was better than folding them—it's easier to see when a towel needs to be replaced.

Brands also have worked to improve their consistency.

Well-defined brand identities are an important focus today, which doesn't leave as much room for individual auditor interpretations.

Craig Leitch, VP of the sales support and assurance program for Vantage Hospitality, said he remembers the days when one inspector would tell you to turn all the ashtrays in the room a specific way, and then you'd train the housekeepers to do it.
"So then they'd change territories, a new inspector comes in and says ‘no, these all have to be 45 degrees, this way,’” he said. “That’s how the industry has changed."

People within the process still have their disagreements. And clashes are less about the placement of an item and more about updates or additions of items. Robert Burg, COO for Aimbridge Hospitality, said that's where subjectivity can creep back into the process from time to time. When the auditor grades the quality of a casegood, Burg said, that's subjective from the auditor to the owner to the operator.

"The brands have done a great job of creating consistencies among auditors and trying to minimize subjectivity," Burg said. "The way you look at casegood deterioration can be different and that will always be wrestled with." Capital improvements will always be a touchy subject with so much money at stake, and especially in the current economy. Burg said some brands have been flexible in the recession as long as the owner is a good citizen and wants to invest capital.

"The brands have not minimized expectations relative to the product but have been flexible to initiatives that have capital consequences,” Burg said. “But a dirty hotel room is still a dirty hotel room.”

And that's the difficult line to walk when business is down—being flexible without lessening standards. Cynics might think owners and operators would look for excuses to slack here or there, and there are some out there who would, but Mark Carrier, SVP of B.F. Saul Co. and chairman of the Owners Association of InterContinental Hotels Group, said the opposite is true.

"I think there's no time ever to back off basic operating standards," Carrier said. "Either it's clean or not, either you're in the hospitality business or you're not. Core standards need to be maintained ... can't just lower the quality because times are tougher."

Vantage Hospitality's owners bear out this thinking. As a membership organization, its owners vote on the standards and QA grading scale, and Leitch said its owners decided every property must receive an ‘A,’ and that the bottom 10 percent of performers each year get booted from the system.

Surprise visits?
So if most hoteliers want to be in a system that weeds out the underachievers, do owners and operators prefer to have announced or unannounced visits? Could a poor hotel get its act together knowing an inspection is coming?

“Can you get setup? Maybe. But being in the industry, you know when you’re getting set up,” Leitch said. Like most brands today, Vantage announces its QA visits. “They’re just kidding themselves if they want to set us up that bad.”

Leitch said it’s more about logistics than anything else. “We don’t want to show up, and it’s the manager’s day off. That’s happened before,” he said.

Carrier and Herron both believe a poor-performing hotel can’t be cleaned up and in a couple of days either. As long as the announcement isn’t way in advance, short notice helps everyone get on the same page.

“I don’t want to know it’s a month from now, but a sense of urgency and concern—not fear, but alertness—is good,” Carrier said. “Most humans do well by having our work inspected. Well run hotels with committed management teams want to be inspected—it’s an affirmation they are doing what they should be.”

Dino Pallotta, Wyndham Hotel Group’s head of QA, said the concept of the unannounced visits doesn’t really exist anymore because, with new technology, “you’re always being evaluated.”

“Unofficially, we QA everyday,” Pallotta said. With Wyndham’s Voice of the Customer survey, QA auditors are able to develop files that aid in the inspection process. “We collected more than a million last year. The concept of waiting for an inspection doesn’t really exist any more. Ten years ago, it was just the physical QA process.”

This technology, in part, gives brands like Wyndham the option to announce their QA visits as a decent picture of a property already is formed. It also shows the brand what’s working, which helps influence capital upgrade suggestions.

“Let’s say there’s a property who’s non-compliant with items like pillows and showerheads,” Pallotta said. “If we look at the Voice of the Customer and the property is scoring very well on showerheads, then they can focus [capital] on the pillows.”

Technology helps the hotels avoid small, undetected problems becoming an issue when inspections roll around.

“There’s no excuse running a branded hotel today for having an absence of information on what guests are experiencing,” Carrier said.

Pallotta said a majority of the Wyndham brands have seen a decline in QA failure rates in the last two years thanks to Voice of the Customer and better communication during physical inspections.