The Future of Quality Assurance for True Luxury Hotels

Jochen Ehrhardt Managing Director, Founder, TRUE 5 STARS



Isn't it bizarre that the herd instinct appears to be stronger than common sense when it comes to the way quality of the guest experience is assessed in luxury hotels? Isn't it even more bizarre that brands competing for the same customer, vying for differentiation for the guest, are apparently fine on entrusting quality checks to the very same provider?


A monopoly exists when there is a sole supplier of a particular commodity or service dominating the market. Consequently, a buyer either buys from the monopolist on its terms or does without.


In general, monopolists have higher margins but face less of a threat from competition, while firms in competitive markets have lower margins and face a greater threat from competition. In between are the oligopoly markets: Firms in oligopoly markets may enjoy high margins and face a strong threat from competition. This suggests product quality might be highest in imperfectly competitive markets. Competition encourages firms to protect their market share by competing in product quality.


Theoretically, higher margins give stronger incentives to sustain a reputation for high quality, and they encourage firms to increase product quality in order to steal business from rivals.


Firms in an oligopoly can more easily maintain a reputation for high quality than a monopolist or firms in a competitive market.


Status Quo of Quality Assurance in the Luxury Hospitality Industry

Quality Assurance in the luxury hospitality industry falls into the quasi-monopoly category, raising the question whether traditional Quality Assurance hasn't been an anachronism for some time anyway. For example, luxury hotel operator Dorchester Collection abandoned traditional Quality Assurance some time ago, preferring to focus entirely on guest reviews that are collected 24/7 from multiple booking channels, as well as directly from their hotels.


Kempinski, Europe's oldest luxury hotel group, still appears to believe in traditional Quality Assurance, though doing their own thing has yet to resonate with the expert community. Last but not least, Aman, considered by the so-called Aman Junkies to be god's own creation of luxury homes, has been adamant that their unique offerings cannot be forced into a template of standards, and is by no means comparable to any other offering.


However, the vast majority of the luxury hotel operators still stick with one provider of traditional Quality Assurance. While decision makers at the operator head-offices claim benchmarking is the main argument for working with the same provider as their competition, a growing number of hoteliers on the ground question the relevance of the up-to-three annual audits. In addition, tying hotel management's pay to the result of such anonymous audits is seen by many as a questionable practice.


Many General Managers of luxury hotels will tell you on the quiet that traditional Quality Assurance is pointless, but on the other side actually not bad for them as scoring high has proven not too difficult. But they would agree, it does fail to deliver on what should be the real purpose, revealing relentlessly an offering's deficiencies instead of glossing over them.

Let us recall quickly how traditional Quality Assurance typically works:

  • Anonymous 45-hour audit executed by a professional inspector

  • Checking 800 - 1,200 boxes (yes, no, n/a) covering all departments relevant to the guest experience

  • Focusing on facilities, service quality, and EQ (emotional intelligence)

  • Disclosing the nature of the hotel stay to the GM upon departure

  • Commissioned by the hotel operator's head office.

Traditional Quality Assurance provides a standardized approach that forces hotels into a template of standards. As touched upon earlier, the major selling, or for that matter, buying argument for many hotel companies appears to be benchmarking, which necessitates a standardized approach in order to facilitate comparing results with a hotel's peer group. This, at the same time, is also the major weakness, a uniformist, one-size-fits-all and lowest-common-denominator approach that does not serve the purpose-at least for individual, differentiating value-propositions, especially in high-end 5-star+ hotels and brands that aspire to exceed. Furthermore, what exactly is the value of finding out that a hotel, for example, scored 1.88% higher or lower than another hotel?


In general, why would an operator work with the same advisor as its competitors in the first place, in what should be the core competence, delivering quality that reflects each property's unique DNA? This, obviously, assumes that the operator believes such a DNA exists.


One conclusion is that this uniformist approach to quality contributes to the fact that most luxury hospitality brands lack differentiation and therefore are interchangeable in the guests' eyes. As always, a few exceptions prove the rule.


In addition, many inspectors have to work their way through two checklists of standards during an audit, one for the third-party Quality Assurance provider and another for the brand. As this equates to roughly one box checked every minute, how on earth is the inspector supposed to grasp and inhale the very essence of a hotel's offering, DNA, or value proposition? How can he or she accurately observe and assess the critical human interaction between employees and guests under such time pressure? Doesn't this push the inspector into being merely a box-checker?


As a result, a hotel inspection becomes a pure bookkeeping exercise and the inspector is nothing more than a bookkeeper, checking boxes, many boxes. Assessing the human interaction does not require bookkeeping qualities, nor a bookkeeping approach but substantial experience and profound knowledge of how to assess human interactions, even under time pressure.


The strategy to employ retired hoteliers as inspectors, representing old school approaches, is more than questionable, when in fact EQ officially is a relatively new discipline that traditional Quality Assurance has been quite slow to adopt, although it had always been there, as part of the human interaction.


A New Beginning

In light of a sub-par approach to what should matter most to high-end products-quality-what could be a practicable solution for those brands wanting to stand out?

Here's a suggestion for a new approach on Quality Assurance:

  1. Spend more time on what really matters; focus on the human interaction, with guest engagement and emotional intelligence as the key aspects, and service quality, as well as staff efficiency.

  2. Distinguish between random human interactional deficiencies and those that constitute a pattern.

  3. Let the facilities take a back seat as assessing them takes too much of the inspector's valuable time; instead, free up time for a. above and just summarize strengths and weaknesses, as the hoteliers typically are fully aware of their property-related deficiencies.

  4. Forget a standardized approach to Quality Assurance as it leads to standardized, uniform and non-differentiating products, instead, jettison the 800+ standards, the need to tick boxes, the bookkeeping approach, any distraction that prevents the assessor from genuinely experiencing and inhaling the property's DNA.

  5. Most hotel websites are far from perfect as they leave too much on the table. In this case, you do need 100+ standards to assess content, navigation and the functionality of the booking engine.

Having said this, a useful set of standards needs to be embedded in the inspector's head, serving as a reminder or mnemonic device-a useful set of standards being up-to-date, detailed, not a lax, feel-good standardization-that enables the inspector to gauge accurately the aspirations of companies in search of true excellence and without reference to the competition.


This non-standardized approach should be reflective first and foremost of a brand's demanding and ever evolving clientele, of the target guest of the future, not of the clientele of another brand or the brand's past clientele and its expectations. Concentrate on your own strengths and differentiation, vs comparing your unique offering with (departmental) results from other hotel brands.


Being able to distinguish emotional intelligence, the how, from service, the what, is key as both are part of any human interaction in service-related industries such as hospitality. While the goal should be that both emotions and service should be on the same high level, which oftentimes unfortunately is just wishful thinking, common sense suggests that emotions are more important than service. Most guests would accept service-related deficiencies rather than emotional ones as the latter would potentially make them feel uncomfortable, or at worst, that staff are doing them a favor.


Another benefit of focusing entirely on the human interaction is to identify hidden stars, i.e. employees who exceed, stand out and go the extra mile. Pointing them out to management will greatly support and enhance the hotel's/hotel group's HR strategy and activities.


To me, the most critical four human interactions in (luxury) hospitality are, in order of experience:

  1. Check-in, including rooming – the first impression!

  2. Dinner, ideally a fine dining experience – dress to impress!

  3. Breakfast, a la carte, with or without buffet – a perfect start to the day!

  4. Check-out, including porter service – a lasting impression!

Another Aspect

Inspections are done unannounced and anonymously by so called mystery guests but is this really without any alternative, etched in stone? Let's think this through. By way of example, let's assume the inspector would be known and announced. In theory, he would not find any flaws in the human interaction as the hotel would send its best troops. Really, no deficiencies? What about those deficiencies the employees firmly believe to be right? Aren't those the kind of deficiencies a hotelier really needs to know about as opposed to the incidental, random ones that occur because an employee is simply having a bad day?


I call them structural or systematic deficiencies, mistakes, flaws. One way to find out such structural deficiencies can be via an overt inspection. Paramount purpose being to identify patterns of systematic shortcomings, as opposed to incidental ones.


Observations by a Frequent Traveler

Welcome to annoying mediocrity, that we experience in so many hotels these days, across brands and affiliations. Too many hotels and their employees deliver a service, as opposed to an experience. Unfortunately, not even the service is delivered flawlessly.

Here are some thoughts on the guest-employee or employee-guest interaction:

  • Guests prefer employees to come across as authentic, natural, unscripted, even passionate but by no means robotic; with brand standards in mind, they ideally treat the guest in exactly the same way as they would a guest in their own home, not as just another guest or number. Guests forget what the employee said but not how he/she said it, and how it made them feel.

  • Making assumptions on the guest's future behaviour and actions is not a good idea and certainly not what common sense suggests, so why not simply ask him/her? Let the guest decide! Put the guest in the driver's seat! Make the guest feel that he/she leads the conversation.

  • Please stop asking guests notoriously "How are you?" like it happened to me about five times on the way from my room to the breakfast area in a famous hotel in Marrakech the other day, if you don't really mean it. Rather say nothing. It needs to be finally understood that there are cultural differences in the way this phrase is interpreted, between English native speakers and the rest. As in most other situations, applying common sense does help.

  • Of course, especially as a non-native English-speaking guest I know exactly what it means not to understand every word someone is saying; for example whether the hotel provided brown bread rather than whole wheat bread-this is the kind of stuff I am really willing to overlook especially with young employees as life is, and should be viewed, as a never-ending learning curve. The willingness to learn is always more valuable than the lack of knowledge.

  • Routine is not a great approach when it comes to luxury experiences. When routine sinks in, people tend to be less attentive and proactive. This sometimes happens with seasoned employees. While it is great to have many long-term loyal employees in a hotel, my conclusion is that age is not the decisive factor from a guest perspective. There is no old and young, there is only good with the guest or not.

As a (mystery) guest, I not only like to play the devil's advocate from time to time, but also like to engage with the employees, encouraging them to engage with me, to bring out the best in them. I really like employees who make guests feel so comfortable that they openly express constructive criticism as opposed to bashing a hotel on social media post-stay.


High-end hotels typically try to accommodate almost any guest request, however, there are limits. Guests are by no means "entitled" to all kind of nonsense and the same rules apply to mystery guests.


Conclusion

The current situation is challenging for most hotels, to say the least. Many good and experienced people have left the industry and will not return.


This is a great opportunity to bring in fresh blood, young, talented, highly motivated and ambitious people. It is a great opportunity to start a career in one of the most exciting industries, in the most international industry.


However, while I fully understand the worldwide post-crisis issues related to the shortage of qualified staff, let us not use this as an excuse for the disappointing performance I and many others have witnessed during the past months, and even before March 2020.


Let's not forget, guests do have a right to have high expectations in establishments that charge 500 USD and more. But even for 200 USD, one could expect the basics to be in order.


My sense is that, as long as the luxury hospitality industry is dominated by just one player providing advice on what is, or should be, the very essence of luxury, quality and substance, mediocrity is here to stay.


We all know, perfection is hard to achieve, in part because lots of moving bits and pieces need to come together, and in part because, to some extent, perfection might even lie in the eye of the beholder. A GM once told me that as soon as you believe you have reached perfection, it is already somewhere else; but let me add, trying is no crime.

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