Auditing the Auditors: The Art of Finding the Pulse
Part II of a three part series...
By Steven Ferry Chairman, International Institute of Modern Butlers | August 19, 2018
Gauging performance of one's hotel or resort, guest sentiments, and presenting the right image to potential guests, used to be accomplished by professionals: internal audits, PR, and marketing departments, travel agencies as independent marketers; and later on, third-party audits, and for higher-end properties, membership in such as LHW or the Mobil/Forbes list to make a statement about what quality a guest might expect. There was some measure of control, and whether or not the audits and surveys were accurate portrayals of the existing reality, they were generally balanced and comprehensive.
The downside to this paradigm being that the ratings afforded were not transparent to the guests and perhaps tended toward the hyperbolic, losing some meaning for guests. Added to the failure of some hotel companies to maintain brand standards and the tendency for travel guides and PR pieces in magazines and media to paint too-rosy-a-picture, one driven by commerce rather than the quality of the actual guest experience, and consumers were too often led astray in their selection of a hotel or resort.
Enter the 21st Century and the ascendancy of the virtual world over the real one-and more particularly for hospitality, the replacement in the minds of those raised in the digital era, of thorough assessments and statements by hospitality professionals as a means for evaluation of hotels and resorts they were considering visiting, in favor of amateur and usually narrowly focused consumer feedback. Suddenly the guests, empowered by the social media, held sway over the hotels and resorts they frequented.
Where before hotels could be accused of putting their best foot forward at the expense of guest understanding of the true state of affairs, what has replaced it is not necessarily better: while many consumer posts are genuine, the anonymity made possible in the virtual world has opened the door to unreasonable venting, fake identities, bots and the like, generating inaccurate pictures and thus assessments that reach far and wide, forcing the industry to focus on image management over guest servicing.
The most telling example of "fake reviews" is probably The Shed at Dulwich, which was London's top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor in 2017-until the truth emerged that it was actually a spoof by a freelance writer, who himself blew the whistle. The restaurant did not exist in the real world, but the web page and (burner) phone number (to take calls from frustrated Londoners wanting to book and finding it constantly overbooked) did exist, as did the photographs of the haute cuisine dishes (made from household products such as bleach tablets and shaving cream). The writer's inspiration came from the writing he had been paid for previously: posting fake reviews for real restaurants in the capital city. So likewise, within five months of being accepted by TripAdvisor, the 104 fake reviews posted by friends and family, who rated their experience as 5* with a few 4*s, catapulted The Shed at Dulwich from dead last in London (18,149th) to #1. Toward the end of its virtual life, 89,000 people from around the world visited the web site for The Shed at Dulwich in just one day.
The upside of this C2C collaboration via social media platforms is that hotels and resorts exist to service their guests, so what could be wrong with keeping a very big finger on the pulse of guest satisfaction? That was how independent audits started in the Sixties in England, with a very big concern, as discussed in Part I of this series (Auditing the Auditors: A Report Card on Independent Quality Assurance ) for emotional engagement and guest satisfaction. Somewhere along the line, however, the hospitality industry became short sighted and focused its QA standards on the objects of its trade-the buildings, the rooms and their servicing-not even including anything as basic as chatting with guests during an audit, to find out what they were experiencing.