23 Sept 2011

Is the Hotel Inspector going the way of the Dinosaurs?

How a meteorite killed off the Dinosaurs is not dissimilar to how the Internet might be killing off out-dated Accommodation Guides.

Standing above the Propeller.

Ever stood on the stern of a ship as its left port and looked back on where you’d just spent some time? It can be quite a revealing and philosophical exercise. Suddenly you can perhaps see a perspective of beauty that you didn’t appreciate before, or conversely you’re relieved to be making an exit from an island that boasts a rumbling volcano that’s about to go pop! We’ve all been in similar situations, we’ve all looked back, sometimes in anger, sometimes in fear, and sometimes in joy. Some of us might even be familiar with the rubbing of wrists and the removal of handcuffs too!

Digital v Analogue

I was in Smith’s today. I was buying my weekly spread of catering magazines to keep up to date on stuff. The thought struck me that in certain areas of our industry there are some seriously dedicated individuals who commit to delivering us the very latest info. Not only that but these individuals also commit to razor edged web sites, slick apps and anything else that can grab our attention. These guys, like the team at Caterer, are the unsung hero's of our industry, they’re plugged in, they’re real, they’re for today. They mine knowledge, they hunt for information and they deliver what is wholesome, accurate and relevant. These guys aren’t lazy. They’d give a Google Bot a run for it’s money any day.

With a bundle of magazines under my arm I turned the corner and came upon a creaking shelf filled with paper guides that were probably researched over a year ago, probably took another six months to print, and then will gather dust for another year before bring burnt. I looked at my magazines and then back to these books and in a moment of almost celestial epiphany understood that these guides belonged to an analogue era, a time and place before the Internet, email, blogging and ultimately the need for our information to be delivered NOW.

Inspectors. How good are they?

Sure, the guides have moved onto the Internet (and Apps) but what does this actually mean? The information can only be updated in dribs and drabs because updates are restricted to the pace at which inspectors can get reports delivered back to base, whilst overnight inspections can only be done by one Inspector each day, and probably not even five days a week. And just who are these inspectors? We see that some organisations pay new inspectors not much more than a Chef De Partie these days when they first start inspecting, and some of these inspectors have becoming alarmingly young. Do these individuals offer the right level of experience on which to judge your multi-million pound business and potentially undermine decades of hard work and an established career? And how will your business be viewed by the public over the coming year(s) because of the inspectors judgements? Just who are they, where do they come from, and quite frankly, what exactly do they actually know? In a time where almost every other profession is regulated and assessed, why does mystery around this profession still remain? Why should we intuitively place our trust in any brand these days unless it has actually exceeded expectation and proven itself? Perhaps moving forward, an independant organisation could assess the calibre of inspectors that are being hired so that the industry can at least know that the information, regardless of it’s age, is at least accurate?

Since leaving my inspection role over a year ago, in many ways I feel that I’ve had a set of blinkers removed. The truth is that there is so much more to hospitality standards than those with which we seem to obsess over in the UK. On a global scale there is much more quality and diversity than what our UK culture wraps up. It therefore follows that we need to begin to see some of our mainstay guides as nothing more than regional and domestic if their wider focus doesn’t wrap up global standards. This point perhaps is best served by the seven star hotels around the world that seem to make a mockery of the 5 Star system in the UK.

Finally on this point. Just how old are the current inspection standards in the UK? You may be surprised to know that the harmonised standards from which some guides operate are in the region of 10 years old. 10 Years. How much change have you seen in 10 years? And yet inspections standards have hardly moved forward. Sadly this adds to the worrying conclusion that not only are inspection results dated in their relevance to you, but the information on which they base their opinions lacks almost any relevance at all to the modern hospitality industry.

Trust Your Instincts?

Each morning when you go to work your own experience tells you how many compliments or complaints are probably going to land on your desk. You’re not just intuitively plugged into your business but you know that pretty much so are your customers, especially those that value you enough to provide loyalty. You share an almost empathic link of expectation and delivery with your clients. It works and generally you’re happy. So the question is raised, how can one person visit your establishment once every 18 months and gauge a real feeling for what you do? Perhaps an even more important question is that some guides might only experience your full range of services only once every three years? If you fluff your lines on one such visit, is it fair to live with the wrong rating for the next 3 years?

The emergence of Trip Advisor has demonstrated the power of public opinion. Sure, it has it’s flaws, but generally knowing your client base and knowing how your business serves the public is by far more important than the view of any Inspector who pops in for a coffee perhaps once every 18 months.

Do Guides actually Make you Money?

If you look on the front cover of some of the more established guides you’ll see that they’ve actually shot themselves in the foot. Checking back over the last five or six years you’ll actually see guides claiming to have ever reducing numbers of establishment subscribers actually printed on their front covers. Go back to your book shelf and check! They actually tell you that for example in 2007 they had 5000 customers, then 500 less a year later and so on. This is the best gauge of guide popularity when they themselves let you know their struggling. With almost 50,000 hotels in the UK, does any guide actually inspect more than 10%. And if not, just what is the value of these guides?

I encourage every hotel in the industry associated with a guides online booking system to actually demand performance figures from those service providers that they pay huge sums to. My belief is that the market has now become so saturated that the pie has been cut into pieces so thin they’re not worth fighting over. Also ask how many times your own establishment page has been viewed on third party website's and compare it to you business received. My view is also that with a great website and a great PR company, your quality will easily shine in the market. The number of top hotels and groups now going it alone is testament to the weakening death throws of some of the guides.

What is also not widely known except by those those with good insights, is that guide data might often be sold on to online booking agents and other commercial outlets without establishments even knowing - check the small print. This is where some guides make their money simply from your information. Shouldn’t you get a piece of that action too?

A Three Star Hotel might pay upwards of £1000 a year for a guide entry that generates nowhere near that sum in revenue, let alone profit. Just how much revenue are you having to produce to pay for your guide entry this year? Is it truly worth it?

What are you Paying for?

A huge question mark revolves around those guides who offer establishments the chance to buy consultancy if they fall short of their aspirational ratings and awards. Surely this is like paying a football ref to have another crack at taking the penalty, and then another and another until it’s scored. Is this really a level playing field? How do we know when we read the guides who have been assessed just once and those that have paid 10 times their annual fee to get to where they want to be? It’s a very grey area and one that some guides seem intent on exploiting as they fight for their commercial life. One thing is for sure, it’s not a level playing field anymore and the transparency that once existed no longer reassures either the industry or the consumer.

Let Common Sense Prevail.

Since leaving my inspection role I think there have been fewer critics of the guides in general than myself. My motivation is to stimulate the hospitality industry to take ownership for it’s own quality rather than depend on outside agencies with their own agendas and commercial interests. If establishments put as much effort into building relationships with clients as they have done with the guides then that is the first step. The second step is to focus on the power of your brand and how you can make it bite in the market place. Think of the brands that you never associate with star ratings. Are Malmaison really 3 Star hotels? Does anyone care about the grading of a Pride of Britain Hotel? Brands such as Hilton have abstained from some guides for a long time now. The final step to marketing independence is to encourage loyalty by developing exciting relationships with people who count, your customers.

The Future. A New Dawn

It was exciting this week to hear that TripAdvisor are introducing a customer care team to manage industry relationships. This goes a long way in marshalling the chaotic and somewhat unstructured concept that initially promised so much but then fell short at the last hurdle. For me at least, popular opinion is certainly the way forward in how to develop quality recognition in our hospitality industry. Popular opinion has no problem creating governments, dictating the contents of our supermarkets, how we bank, where we go on holiday, what cars are produced, and what we watch on TV. Popular opinion is already deciding which brands live and which brands die. Once the old fashioned guides have disappeared a new order will emerge that will be purely digital in scope. Augmented reality and other such technologies will replace the current ‘library’ books and dusty website's

There was a time when the great guides walked the earth. In their heyday there were some really committed people who were larger than life and bristling with pride and character. Today these guides are choking on the dust thrown up by the Internet, and struggling to survive in a nuclear winter that offers no respite. From these ashes a new breed of quality assessment will evolve that will lead us into a brighter, clearer future.

Article source: VisionaryDining.com 12th March 2011