40,000 North Americans stay at hotels as mystery shoppers, giving companies inside scoops on their services
By Kathryn O'Shea-Evans
Try finding a hotel mystery shopper willing to dish on one of their stays. Ask them to reveal the dirt on the unkempt suite, the coquette of a concierge, or the wilted flower that sullied the room service tray. You can't.
According to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association there are some 40,000 of them throughout the US and Canada, hired by luxury hotel brands to check-in anonymously and judge mercilessly. But like a secret agent or the rare hair stylist who'll keep your secrets - gossip is not in the mystery shopper's after-hours repertoire. Even if they don't name names, everything they unearth is strictly confidential.
Perhaps it's to be expected in an industry where everyone, from the booking agent to the bellhop, is famously discreet. If loose lips sink ships, a too-revealing mystery shopper could certainly submerge an hotelier or two. Thankfully, Stephanie Perrone Goldstein, vice president of sales & marketing for the New York-based Coyle Hospitality (whose clients include Starwood Hotels and Resorts and Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group), produced a nine-year veteran willing to answer a few questions.
The catch: we would speak by phone, with Goldstein playing watchdog, and the mystery shopper would remain nameless and description-less - more incognito than Brangelina on holiday.
Even by phone, the woman radiated confidence. She'd completed over 500 mystery shops in luxury hotels on four continents and her voice came through the wires sternly, as if she'd been in upper management a day too long. She works as an independent contractor (paid by the job). What she looks for at each hotel varies from client to client - some brands maintain a checklist of ten things to look for upon arrival, others more than 80.
"I pack a measuring tape, because a few hotels want me to get down to the nitty-gritty," she says. "Is the radius of light emitted from the lamp exact? Is the paint on the walls in a particular palette?"
Occasionally, she'll check in as the most obnoxious breed of hotel guest: the road-weary whiner.
"I'll call the front desk and say the room smells like smoke even when it doesn't, just to see how they'll respond," she says. Fake-outs are staged and executed thoroughly; she'll go as far as to empty the batteries from the remote and grumble about the fritzy TV or unhook the chain from the toilet to time how long it takes the staff to fix it. It's an exacting art. After she checks out, her report is written up, fact-checked by Coyle, and delivered back to the client in a matter of weeks.
"My goal, honestly, is to get hotels to provide the highest possible level of service," she says. "When I return to these properties personally - and I do, if they're great - I get such satisfaction seeing that."
In the era of Yelp and TripAdvisor, when travellers can report anything at all to the Googling masses, trustworthy accounts are more important than ever to hoteliers. Coyle isn't alone in providing unbiased evaluations to luxury brands that clamour for it.
Zachary Conen, senior vice president of sales and marketing at LRA Worldwide, a mystery shopping firm based in Pennsylvania, says they maintain a stable of 120 full time consultants who travel 42 weeks out of the year. They too are tight-lipped, but happy to tell you their standards, which alter depending on the client. Is there a seasonally appropriate fruit at the front desk? Did you get a call from the concierge within thirty minutes of check-in?
The concept of sending in a ringer to report back is nothing new. Mystery shopping began in the 1930s with three men touring the country, staking out Woolworth's and Kresge's (now Kmart) department stores. It gained traction during the civil rights era, when the government hired black and white "customers" to investigate the compliance and the prolific lack thereof, to desegregation laws in restaurants and corner stores alike. Today it's a $1.6 billion-a-year production - a large chunk of which is travel-based.
"In the late 1980s, Hilton was among the first luxury hotel brands to utilize the service," says Mike Bare, co-owner and president of Bare International and one of the original founders of the MSPA. Three decades later, it's common practice among hotel brands around the world.
Essentially, they're hiring people to complain so you never have to. And in the thoughtfulness-driven economy of high-end hotels, that might be the most considerate act of all.
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