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Hotels court ratings from secret inspections

The high-stakes world of rating the nation’s best inns and resorts is full of secret inspections in which hotels strive to attain and retain high ratings. The reason? Pure economics: The more diamonds, the higher the room rate.
Carl Gronlund, general manager of the Mirror Lake Inn and Spa, stands in front of the Inn's newly renovated Lake Cottage in Lake Placid, N.Y.Todd Bissonette / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Diamonds can be a hotel’s best friend.

The Otesaga Resort Hotel in Cooperstown, winner of AAA’s four-diamond rating for five straight years after a $40 million renovation, uses the appraisal’s cachet to attract guests from thousands of miles away and keep business buzzing.

The Mirror Lake Inn Resort and Spa in Lake Placid is one of just a handful of hotels in New York state to have won a four-diamond rating from AAA for 21 years in a row. The 128-room hotel, offering every guest a view of pristine Mirror Lake and fall foliage near the venues of two winter Olympics, has won accolades from numerous travel magazines. But like many other inns, it covets the AAA rating most.

“It’s a very important stamp of quality,” said Carl Gronlund, Mirror Lake’s general manager for the past 16 years. “People are looking for diamonds or stars to verify the quality of the experience is going to be good.”

Welcome to the high-stakes world of rating the nation’s best inns and resorts. It’s a world of secret inspections in which hotels strive to attain and retain high ratings.

The reason? Pure economics: The more diamonds, the higher the room rate.

The Mirror Lake Inn charges from $180 to $350 a night for a standard room and up to $865 a night for specialty suites. Rooms at the five-diamond rated Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows in Los Angeles start at $395 a night and run as high as $5,200 for the Presidential Suite.

To get a rating, hotels apply to AAA’s national office in Heathrow, Fla. AAA then sends an inspector unannounced to the hotel. After a thorough once-over, the inspector assigns a rating between one and five diamonds, said Eric Stigberg, the marketing manager for AAA’s Northway division, based in Albany.

The Mobil Travel Guide offers similar ratings for hotels in the United States.

AAA inspectors look at the level of service, the cleanliness of the halls and rooms and the amenities offered, from well-lighted parking to heated swimming pools. Also counted is the decor across the inn, touches of style — from a well-placed antique lamp in the lobby or the lake view offered from a room’s balcony — that help set it apart.

Inspectors can show up at any time, so hotel staffers have no way to prepare, hotel managers say. The only thing they can do is keep their hotels up to snuff around the clock.

“Because of our rating and our price structure, every guest comes here with a high level of expectations,” said John Irvin, general manager of the Otesaga, a 135-room federal style hotel on the shore of Otsego Lake. “We don’t know when AAA is coming, so if we can exceed the expectations of every guest, we can exceed those of the inspector.”

A four-diamond rating indicates the inn is “upscale in all areas, refined and stylish,” Stigberg said, with an “extensive array of amenities, service and attention to detail.”

The Otesaga, opened in 1909, features oak-paneled conference rooms, a golden chandelier in the lobby and groomed topiary at the entrance. Its fern-decorated back porch overlooks a manicured croquet court, swimming pool and the championship golf course. Inside, the staff is quick to open a door, help with a suitcase and attend to other guest needs.

The rating is “extremely important,” Irvin said. “Our guests are a very sophisticated group. I really believe they look at that book to see where to stay when they’re traveling.”

Kari Akchurin, visiting Cooperstown from San Francisco for her son’s baseball tournament in the village that includes the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, said she relies on the AAA ratings.

“We travel to Hawaii a lot and we always use it,” she said. “What comes along with four or five diamonds is better service, better food and better amenities.”

The five-diamond rating, given to just 85 hotels nationally this year, indicates the ultimate in luxury and sophistication. Five of those are in New York City: The Four Seasons, The Peninsula, The Ritz-Carlton hotels in Battery Park and Central Park and The St. Regis.

A one-diamond mark indicates a hotel for the budget-minded traveler with nothing but the basics.

Just 3.3 percent of the 32,000 hotels AAA rated nationwide received a four-diamond rating this year.

“There is a certain amount of cost involved for that level of quality and an effort entailed in keeping that rating,” Gronlund said. “If you jump into that realm, you want to keep it. It’s not an easy task to do.”

Mirror Lake recently installed high-speed Internet access to all of its rooms, just the latest amenity top flight hotels are now expected to have.

And keeping the rating means keeping the best people on staff.

“The first step is trying to hire the right kind of people and then training them,” Gronlund said. “They need to have a great attitude and like to serve people.”

To head off any chance of a hotel trying to influence a rating, inspectors carry out their jobs anonymously, said Janie Graziani, a spokeswoman for AAA. And whenever a hotel’s rating is moving up or down a notch, the hotel is inspected several times and by different people.

Still, not all are convinced the ratings mean that much.

Lila Ford, the owner of Gallery of Travel in Rochester, N.Y, says her clients rarely rely on AAA for information and most of her business travelers simply want to stay in decent hotels near the places they are doing business.