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A workday in the life of an undercover CAA hotel inspector
OPERATIONS - INSPECTION feature article from the FALL 2023 issue of STAY Magazine.
Audrey Whitehead has probably seen close to 50,000 hotel rooms in her 35 years as a Canadian Automobile Association inspector. She can analyze a Hilton in the time it takes a major league ballplayer to size up a 95-mph fastball.
I shouldn’t be surprised when she walks into a room at White Oaks Conference Resort and Spa in Niagara-on-the-Lake and immediately starts rattling off various elements.
“That’s a Five Diamond TV,” she says, looking at a television on the wall that’s only slightly smaller than your local NHL arena scoreboard. “There’s a conversation area with two chairs, which is nice if you want to chat or maybe have a glass of wine. There’s a good desk, a luggage bench and a place to hang your winter coat. That’s a bonus.”
Whitehead looks over at the bed and spots several USB ports on the wall. She notes some are the new Apple style, so it’s good for iPhone users. She also notes there’s a microwave and a fridge and other amenities.
“See that ice bucket? It’s a nice, polished silver one. It’s not cheap plastic.”
She checks out a coffee machine to make sure workers have removed the old capsule. A small thing, but indicative of a good cleaning staff.
Whitehead walks over to the dresser and pops open a drawer.
“Good,” she says.
“No dirty underwear.”
And so, it goes. Fingers are run over the tops of painting frames on the wall. Cushions are raised to look for dust or little treasures left behind. The height of a shower soap dish is carefully noted on her iPad.
Whitehead (not her real name) is one of many hotel and restaurant inspectors employed by the CAA to help with their diamond rating system. The association prefers not to divulge the number of inspectors but says they have multiple white-glove testers in Canada. Their Canadian inspectors regularly do inspections in Mexico and the Caribbean, as well, which helps consumers decide where to take their winter holidays.
The CAA and American Automobile Association currently have 54,000 hotels and restaurants that are Diamond-designated (the establishments first must apply to be rated), so there’s a great deal of effort behind the ratings.
The CAA rates thousands of hotels and restaurants across the country. Hotels are checked out every year, and restaurants every two years. The top places are given five diamonds, then four and three. They don’t provide one or two-diamond listings, but if a hotel meets minimum standards for things like cleanliness and guest facilities it will get an “approved” rating.
The guidelines are a full 43 pages long, and the detail is staggering. For example, the guidelines state that minimum requirements include a “nightstand or equivalent by each bed, a chair, a waste container, drawers/shelving and clothes-hanging.” Also required: “Two bath towels, two hand towels, two face cloths and two cups/glasses.” All approved hotels need to have smoke detectors, view holes in the doors and other features, Whitehead tells me.
It’s an important job that provides consumers with the confidence to book a place that could cost several days’ pay or even more.
At the request of STAY Magazine, they let a journalist tag along in June to see how their work is done. We checked out several rooms and public areas in three hotels in Niagara-on-the-Lake, all in a couple of hours before lunch.
“Anyone can say they’re a four-star property, but we do the work,” Whitehead told me at our first stop, the Holiday Inn Express. “When people look for hotels, there could be hundreds to choose from, but only a few have CAA approval.
“Our reputation is on the line, as well,” she notes. “I feel good about what we do. It means people know what they’re getting.”
The CAA says a hotel will fail inspection and can’t be listed as an approved place to stay if there are enough issues that need attention, such as housekeeping. Finding one leftover item in a hotel fridge would not be a major negative mark, but finding mildew in several would be a big problem.
Three Diamond hotels require “comprehensive amenities, style and comfort level.” A Four Diamond hotel needs to display “upscale style and amenities, enhanced with the right touch of service.” A rare Five Diamond rating is available for properties that boast “world-class luxury, amenities and indulgence for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Whitehead says a hotel gets extra credit if there’s free parking. They also take points away if there’s a resort fee, or if there’s a charge for Wi-Fi. In addition to the rooms, inspectors look for peeling wallpaper in hallways, what type of gym equipment is on hand, and the quality of the deck chairs at hotel swimming pools.
The guidelines contain dozens and dozens of criteria about everything from curb appeal to bathroom vanity styles and elevators. For exterior visuals, does the hotel have enhanced roofs, or window treatments? Is the artwork on display “modest,” or will guests find limited edition prints, tapestries and sculptures? Are bed linens “smooth to the touch” (Three Diamond), “very soft to the touch and tightly woven” (Four Diamond) or do they have “a luxuriously soft, silk-like feel” (Five Diamond)?
Service also is key. Properties identified as potential candidates for the Four Diamond designation must employ competent, full-time personnel and systems to provide guests with a comprehensive level of hospitality. To be considered for Five Diamond status a hotel must undergo multiple unannounced evaluations by an inspector and a final decision by a panel of experts. Properties that receive the Five Diamond designation are subject to “rigorous on-site assessments” of all guest service areas. Each section is assigned a point value based on the overall levels of competency, refinement and hospitality.
When she’s inspecting a place that might merit Five Diamond status, Whitehead will stay the night and call the front desk to request scissors or something else that a hotel should have on hand.
“I like to ask the concierge questions, too,” she says. “A really nice hotel will have a concierge who doesn’t just look things up on the web. They should know where to get the drinking glasses I like from the hotel restaurant.
“I remember asking a concierge once about a mosquito repellent product they had, and where I could buy it. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Try Amazon.’”
Whitehead says she doesn’t particularly enjoy delivering bad news to a hotelier.
“But I don’t mind failing people for poor housekeeping. I don’t want my sticker on the door” of a hotel that’s not worthy.
Some hotel managers get angry if their rating doesn’t measure up to what they expect.
“But a good hotelier takes the criticism and uses it to make his or her hotel better.”
There are only four Five Diamond hotels in Canada (Fairmont Pacific Rim and Shangri-La Hotel Vancouver, Four Seasons Toronto and Ritz-Carlton Montreal), so it’s clear their CAA status was hard-earned. By contrast, Trip Advisor lists 46 Five Star hotels across the country.
The CAA also has an “Inspected Clean” program, which came about during the pandemic and is still part of their inspection. Whitehead and other inspectors carry a handy machine with them that detects bacteria in just a few seconds.
Whitehead said inspectors are charged with testing eight high-traffic areas in each room, including the inside door knob, the thermostat and the toilet handle. Whitehead also likes to swab the underside of the bathroom sink faucet as it’s something a cleaner might miss.
The CAA doesn’t inspect public areas such as the lobby as too many people come and go.
The hotel needs to pass six of the eight tests to get an Inspected Clean approval and get a special sticker for the front window.
“We are not trying to hold them to the standards of a hospital or food manufacturing facility,” says CAA spokesperson Kristine D’Arbelles. “Therefore, hotels need to pass six swabs of the high touch areas in the guest rooms and guest bathrooms. If they do so while also passing their traditional physical cleanliness inspection, they are then considered “inspected clean” and receive the sticker.
At the Holiday Inn Express, Whitehead walks in and advises her visitor not to touch anything. She does her swabs, including the tricky bathroom tap, and all results are negative for enemy bacteria.
Whitehead turns to a hotel worker who’s along to open hotel room doors and learn about the inspection.
“You’ve passed,” she says.
The hotel worker is delighted and claps her hands.
“The machines definitely work,” Whitehead says with a chuckle. “I tried a swab on my thermostat at home and the (bacteria) readings were off the charts.”
Hotels know they’ll be inspected at some point, but CAA workers don’t announce their appointment schedule, so the actual day is always a surprise.
At the White Oaks Conference Resort and Spa, Whitehead opens a closet and sees a small safe. She gives it a rattle with her hand.
“This one’s bolted down,” she says. “You’d be surprised, but that’s not always the case.”
As my mind ponders the effectiveness of an unsecured room safe that could be carried away, Whitehead scurries off to check something else.
In all, Whitehead tries to scout out three rooms in every property she inspects. Multiply that by maybe 600 hotels in a year and three-and-a-half decades of experience, and you’re looking at someone who doesn’t take long to form an impression.
When I accompany her, she approaches the front desk of the Holiday Inn Express Niagara Falls and asks to speak to a manager. They’re tied up for a few minutes, but Whitehead waits patiently.
“We usually give them 20 minutes,” she says. If someone took too long, it could be that they’re sending a cleaning crew to a designated room before an inspector can arrive, and that’s not what they want.
So, I ask her while we wait for the manager, how exactly does one end up with a job searching for hotel dust bunnies in Montague or Mazatlán.
“My Dad answered an ad in the Globe and Mail in Vancouver many years ago,” Whitehead tells me. “I had worked for a tour company and as a travel agent, but he thought this would be more of a steady job.”
Thirty-five years later, it would seem her father knew what he was talking about.
Whitehead mostly works in Ontario but also handles Prince Edward Island and parts of Mexico regularly. It’s a lot of work. Inspectors are on the road pretty much five days a week.
“Home is anywhere I stay for more than two nights,” Whitehead says with a laugh.
Whitehead says CAA inspectors have to be fair about minor issues. At another spot in Niagara-on-the-Lake, I spot what looks like a bit of spilled coffee on a white closet door. She shakes her head and says it’s not a big deal.
“It’s not like it’s dripping grease or something like that. We want to be lenient but we have to put our members first,” Whitehead explains.
“Prices are higher (in today’s market) and people are paying more for hotels, so we want to give them the best information we can.”
The CAA also offers post-inspection reports to hotels so they can try to improve their score.
We finish our Niagara-on-the-Lake inspections, and Whitehead beetles out of the hotel in search of more USB ports, hidden bacteria, and crooked room mirrors.
After all, diamonds are not forever.