Image: Chef de rang Yann Bousseau, at Joel Robuchon, MGM Grand hotel and casino
Jae C. Hong  /  AP file
Chef de rang Yann Bousseau sets a table at Joel Robuchon, a Michelin three-star restaurant, at the MGM Grand hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Details such as pronouncing a hotel guest's name correctly, delivering room service within five minutes of the appointed time, and anticipating what guests will want next are crucial to attaining the top ranks from such agencies as Mobil, AAA and Michelin. Higher rankings mean higher room rates for operators.
updated 12/7/2007 6:41:52 PM ET 2007-12-07T23:41:52

In the rarified world of luxury hotels, it's not only the thread count of the sheets or the sheen of the marble but the sincerity of the staff that separates the best from the rest.

Casino developer Steve Wynn recalls getting the bad news that his Bellagio resort would be getting four stars instead of five from Mobil inspectors more than a year after its opening in 1998.

"It was an unfortunate exchange at the front desk with the anonymous shopper," said Wynn of the property now owned by MGM Mirage Inc. "And room service trays, after people had eaten breakfast, were left outside the door in the hallway."

While such minor annoyances might have been acceptable in the land of free drinks, bargain buffets and sequined showgirls, such service no longer passes muster in upscale Sin City.

As budget options like the Stardust and New Frontier have been imploded to make way for more expensive, classier resorts, a battle is being waged for the tourist dollars of the upper crust.

Details such as pronouncing a hotel guest's name correctly and delivering room service within five minutes of the appointed time are crucial to attaining the top ranks from such agencies as Mobil, AAA and Michelin.

Higher rankings mean higher room rates for operators. Likewise, restaurateurs covet the rankings, which bring headlines and crowds of big-spending customers.

In the case of The Venetian, owner Las Vegas Sands Corp. was able to raise the average daily room rate in the first three quarters of 2007 by $22 from a year earlier — to $259 — after spending $100 million on renovations to achieve five-diamond status from AAA.

For the 4,000-room hotel, which opened in 1999, that means millions of dollars more to the bottom line, said senior vice president Paul Pusateri, who spearheaded the drive to improve its four-star rating.

The property doubled the number of pillows on each bed to four, increased the thread count to 260 on its sheets in standard rooms and installed flat panel TVs and automatic drapes.

Slideshow: Vegas then and now It also began running secret shoppers through its property at least every two weeks, testing employees on hundreds of AAA and Mobil rating criteria, such as making eye contact, dealing with communication breakdowns and responding to requests quickly.

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When service slips, employees are notified immediately.

"It is as simple as one team member not being able to pronounce the name of the shopper and therefore not using it, for example," hotel operations vice president Kirsten Dimond said.

At the Wynn Las Vegas, whose Tower Suites hotel-within-a-hotel was awarded Las Vegas' only Mobil five star resort rating last year, average room rates were a market-leading $282.

"Rich people know what the best hotel is in every city of the world," Wynn said. "Mobil is a confirmation of that."

The key to great hotel service is the arrival sequence, and it begins beneath the covered driveway known as the porte-cochere.

On a recent, unannounced annual inspection, The Associated Press accompanied an AAA inspector into the Hilton Grand Vacation Club on the Las Vegas Strip, most recently ranked as a three-diamond hotel.

The green Subaru wagon arrived on a not-busy Tuesday afternoon and the visitors already were out of the vehicle before three valet workers moved to assist them.

"I see the valets, and they're just sort of chitchatting," said the inspector, who asked not to be identified so she could perform occasional anonymous stays. "This could be a four. Did I get four-diamond service on arrival? No."

Inside a room, assistant executive housekeeper Gerardo Chavez-Mendoza nervously looked on as the inspector ran her hands over the granite countertops and then into the coffee maker, with the drama of a mother inspecting her teenage son's room.

"You're not going to like this," she said, pulling out a wet, used coffee bag.

"Wonderful," Chavez-Mendoza said, visibly upset.

North America's most popular guidebooks — Mobil and AAA — rank up to three levels on their respective star or diamond charts with in-person, unannounced inspections. A rank of four or the highest, five, requires an incognito stay.

As a result, property managers encourage their employees to be on the ball — all the time.

"After the first six months, they really realized there's no point in trying to find out who the shopper is," said the Venetian's Dimond.

Cleanliness, safety and reliability are the base standards for obtaining a listing in the guides and the lowest one star or diamond rating. From there, standards diverge slightly.

At the highest levels of service, Mobil rates only 37 hotels and 16 restaurants as five-star in North America; while AAA gives its top designation to 100 hotels and 60 restaurants in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Michelin, known more as a restaurant guide, gave its top three stars to 68 restaurants in 22 countries, but it's unclear how many hotels got the top honor of five red pavilions.

Because of differing standards, it's difficult to say which rankings are more exacting. Some operators said Mobil's targets are tougher than AAA's to meet, since they cover more areas of service, such as at poolside or in the casino. Michelin, operating in North America since 2005, is a more unknown quantity on the hotel side.

Whatever the standard, more Las Vegas resort developers are getting in on the upscale act with billion-dollar developments.

Las Vegas Sands' $2.6 billion Palazzo is set to open its doors by the end of the year, while Wynn's $2.2 billion Encore property opens in early 2009. The $2.8 billion Fontainebleau, along with MGM Mirage's $7.8 billion CityCenter are to open later that year. Boyd Gaming Corp.'s $4.4 billion complex, Echelon, is scheduled to open in 2010 and developer Elad IDB plans to spend more than $5 billion to open The Plaza hotel and casino on the Strip in 2011.

When Wynn won his coveted Mobil five stars last year, he said he spent millions advertising it, not only to flaunt the distinction, but to egg on his competitors.

"Since I made a fuss about our five stars, that will inspire other people in town to be jealous and to upgrade," Wynn said. "The more that Las Vegas is perceived to be a really high-class destination, the bigger the market gets. That's a good thing for all of us."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Welcome to Vegas

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  1. Welcome to Las Vegas

    The Bellagio's fountain show entertains visitors nightly. In the background is Bally's Las Vegas, left, and Paris Las Vegas, which has a 50-story Eiffel Tower replica in front. Over 37.5 million people visit Las Vegas each year. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Fremont Street Experience

    Located in downtown Las Vegas, this exciting pedestrian promenade is home to approximately 16 million lights, making it one of the largest LED screens in the world. (Brian Jones / Las Vegas News Bureau) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Looking for Lady Luck

    Casion visitors play slot machines at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dunking Elvis

    An Elvis impersonator performs a slam dunk during the 2007 NBA All-Star Game on February 18, 2007, at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. (Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAEGetty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Grand casinos

    Lights from passing vehicles are seen in front of the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Poker face

    Jamie Gold, right, of California and Paul Wasicka of Colorado go head-to-head on the final table of the World Series of Poker no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event at the Rio Hotel & Casino on Aug. 11, 2006, in Las Vegas. Gold outlasted more than 8,700 other poker players to win the top prize of $12 million. Wasicka won just over $6.1 million for finishing second. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Glitz and glamour

    A Canon display is seen inside the Las Vegas Convention Center at the Consumer Electronics Show. Las Vegas is the nation's top business travel destination, with easy airline access, numerous hotel rooms, low rates, plentiful convention facilities and a wide range of dining and entertainment options. (Karl Polverino / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Over-the-top entertainment

    Performers ride a Volkswagen Beetle across the stage during a preview of "The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil" at the Mirage Hotel & Casino on June 27, 2006, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A New York minute

    The New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas recreates the Manhattan skyline, complete with replicas of the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Entertainment mecca

    Kenny Chesney performs "Out Last Night" at the 44th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas on April 5, 2009. (Mark J. Terrill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tying the knot

    From left, Elvis Presley impersonator Norm Jones plays guitar as Bruce Barnett of Virginia Beach, Va., escorts his daughter Gayle to her wedding ceremony at the Graceland Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Graceland is the oldest wedding chapel in Las Vegas and offers ceremonies with or without Elvis impersonators. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Explosive attraction

    The $25 million, newly redesigned volcano display in front of the Mirage Hotel & Casino features 150 choreographed FireShooters sending fireballs more than 12 feet in the air and a custom soundtrack created by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for MGM Mirage) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A night on the Strip

    Hotels and casinos line the Las Vegas Strip. From thrilling roller coasters to erupting volcanos to art museums, Las Vegas' many attractions appeal to people of all ages and interests. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Fight night

    David Diaz and Manny Pacquiao fight during the fourth round of the WBC Lightweight Championship at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on June 28, 2008, in Las Vegas. Pacquiao won in a ninth-round knockout. (Harry How / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Day at the races

    Rookie driver Shawn Langdon earned his first No. 1 qualifying position of his career at the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on April 4, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Richard Wong / NHRA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Fabulous shopping

    The Juicy Couture retail store at The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace is seen before the grand opening February 5, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for Juicy Couture) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Stunning shows

    Buyi Zama as “Rafiki” in the opening number “The Circle of Life” from THE LION KING Las Vegas. (Joan Marcus / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A slice of Italy

    Visitors take a gondola ride at The Venetian in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Get into the groove

    Dina Buell, left, and Carla Giordano, both from California, dance at the pool at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino during Rehab, the resort's weekly pool party, in 2005 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Let’s get this party started

    Party goers gather for the grand opening of LAX Nightclub Las Vegas in 2007. (Chris Weeks / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Big laughs

    Comedian Ellen DeGeneres performs at a taping of ''Ellen's Even Bigger Really Big Show'' during The Comedy Festival at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in 2008 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A kingly stay

    The Excalibur Hotel and Casino features a castle motif with newly refurbished hotel rooms. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A dancing fountain

    Visitors are silhouetted against the backdrop of The Bellagio's fountain show on the Las Vegas Strip. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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