by Martha C. White | September 01, 2007

Secret AgentWhen Pamela Allison visits one of many Hilton hotels in the Southeastern United States, she checks how clean her room is, records how long it takes room service meals to arrive and notes whether there is visible security in public spaces. Allison isn’t just a finicky traveler, though; she’s a managing partner at Orlando-based Service Quality Solutions Inc., a so-called mystery shopping firm that focuses strictly on the hotel industry.

“If mystery shopping is done routinely, then the staff must stay in top shape,” notes Dave Buckalew, Allison’s fellow managing partner at Service Quality Solutions. He adds that a growing segment of the hospitality industry is waking up to the fact that being “graded” by unbiased, anonymous auditors is one of the best ways to take the pulse of service levels.

“We’ve tripled our business in nine months,” notes Allison. She says Hilton is a major client, and her corporate contact there recently signed on to have not only Hilton, but Doubletree and Embassy Suites properties evaluated.

Allison’s day job is far from unique. John Swinburn, executive director of the Dallas-based Mystery Shopping Providers Association, says demand for such services in the hospitality industry is increasing significantly. “The industry at large is growing at 11 to 12 percent per year,” he says, “and anecdotally, hospitality mystery shopping appears to be on the rise.”

“We’re seeing a very significant, pervasive adoption across almost every segment of the hospitality industry,” says Jeff Hall, president of the St. Albans, U.K.-based International Mystery Shopping Alliance and president of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based mystery shopping firm Second to None.

What’s more, it’s not just hotels and resort properties that are employing mystery shoppers. A growing number of trade show exhibitors and even managers are hiring companies to come in and anonymously audit their exhibits. All of this activity benefits planners, since mystery shopping lets vendors drill down to the person-to-person interactions that distinguish good service from poor.

“You do have to be able to have a measurement tool to assess customer service, and customer comment cards are not enough,” notes Beth Cooper-Zobott, director, conference services at Equity Residential in Chicago.

Undercover guests

Hotel mystery shopping falls into two categories: Shoppers either evaluate the property from a guest’s perspective, or they test the sales and convention services departments by pretending to be meeting planners.

“We observe room cleanliness, the condition of the hallways, the vending machines, workout facilities, room service and the general attitudes of employees when you pass them in the hall,” says Chuck Paul, president of Norcross, Ga.-based mystery shopping company A Closer Look. He says his shoppers also take note of things like the availability and cost of Internet access and business services, which conference attendees often use.

For her part, Pam Allison of Service Quality Solutions says many of her evaluations focus on property security. Her team will note whether security guards patrol the meeting space, they’ll make sure doors are locked, and they’ll request an escort to their room or the parking area to gauge a property’s responsiveness to guests’ personal-safety concerns.

“Our hotel mystery shops are very in-depth,” says Kathy Doering, president of Naperville, Ill.-based Ann Michaels & Associates Ltd. “We do everything from recording the phone conversation with the reservationist to measuring the response time that it takes to get a requested service, such as asking for someone to come help adjust the temperature in a guest room.

“Hotels tell their people they’re being mystery-shopped, so staff thinks every potential guest could be the shopper. They try to do everything right and make them feel welcome,” Doering says. “That’s the whole point of mystery shopping.”

Meeting managers like Alexandra Wagner, director of corporate event marketing at SunTrust Banks Inc. in Atlanta, agree with this assertion. “Mystery shopping gives management feedback they have no other way of obtaining,” she says.