When 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
“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
“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.
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
“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
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