How To Make Sure You Don’t Get Burned When Staying at a New, Independent Hotel

Being the first among one’s friends to visit a new hotel in a great place is always lot’s of fun, however, there’s nothing worse than getting there and finding that it really isn’t as nice at it looked in the pictures, the vibe is incongruent with one’s desires, or there is just a variety of flaws that were hard to pick up in advance.
Staying at a Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Peninsula, Aman or other top luxury hotel groups have always been a way to ensure expectations are generally going to be met, and hopefully exceeded. If something is wrong, there is a feeling that there will be decent service recovery and a corporate contact who can get property management to act if really needed.
However, changing times in the luxury and near-luxury sector are making choosing the right hotel more difficult. It’s one of the reasons we give you our Special Reports on individual hotels and resorts.
Recently, I was comparing Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure‘s* lists of what their editors consider the best new hotels, opened since the beginning of 2015. Of Conde Nast’s picks in the US and Europe, only nine of 37 were part of groups such as Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons. In fact, of those nine, two were from Soho House, not a traditional hotelier, and one was from Baccarat, at best a fledgling hotel group. Only 12 of T+L’s 49 self-described “best new hotels on the planet” were part of branded groups.
*(Note: If you don’t like slide shows, send somebody out to get print copies of the above issues I linked)
The term “lifestyle” is being widely used to fuse hotels in the four-star category with five-star properties, making sorting out new hotels particularly tricky. The trend towards smaller hotels can often mean some of the elements you expect at a luxury hotel aren’t there. I’m talking about use of quality building materials so rooms have an acceptable level of soundproofing, staff that have a professional level of training, strong enough management that if you have a problem, there is a caring and resourcefulness to get it sorted out, as well as things like having a professional concierge, 24-hour room service and on-site IT support when hotel internet isn’t working properly.
The proliferation of independent hotels is being spurred as more consumers seek a local, authentic experience or just something different. The tradeoff, is knowing what you are getting, the delineation you get between a Ritz-Carlton and Marriott or St. Regis and Westin.  So what can you do to ensure if you are going the independent hotel route, you get a hotel that matches your expectations and needs, particularly if it is newly opened?
I talked to a number of top travel agents who specialize in luxury, executives with travel agent groups as well as executives in groups that represent independent hotels to ask how they vet new hotels before they will sell them to their clients or put them in their networks.
Here’s what they do and a list of suggestions you can use:
– Find out if they part of a collection or group
Many agents say their first step they do is to check out if the hotel is part of one of the groups that represents independent hotels. The most prominent are The Leading Hotels of the World (the Good Housekeeping stamp, say some), Preferred Hotels & Resorts (which has various tiers), Small Luxury Hotels (the name says it), Relais & Chateaux (lots of tiny gems) and Design Hotels (design-driven luxury). Marriott International has Autograph Collection, which is for hotels that are not owned or managed by Marriott and are independent hotels, in both four and five stars, although it doesn’t delineate. Marriott acts as a sales and marketing resource, while Starwood (soon to be Marriott) has The Luxury Collection, which is limited to five-star hotels on a similar basis, although it does own and manage some of the properties, they each trade under their own names. The Phoenician and The Royal Hawaiian are examples.
Ted Teng, the CEO of Leading says, “We accept new development on a provisional basis. We evaluate the hardware, architecture, design, and amenities, and the people and service strategies behind the project. We review their sales and marketing plans. They get two inspections in the first year after opening before becoming a full member.”
Lindsey Ueberroth, the CEO of Preferred says they monitor “daily consumer review scores” and there are “periodic field reviews” which are third-party unannounced inspections. Non-compliant hotels are not renewed. This means you have some assurance that there was due diligence before the hotel was accepted, and if there are ongoing problems, it can be thrown out.
– Browse lists from magazines that visit the properties
Publications like Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler claim to anonymously visit the hotels they put on their lists before they write about them. However, most lists in magazines or websites you see were put together by somebody sitting in a cubicle at a keyboard looking at pictures from a website. Since few travel journalists are high net worth, they often miss the details you would probably notice, as the hotels they are staying in are probably nicer than their own homes in most cases.
However, the lists are at least worth a look for gathering ideas. Mary Jean Tully of Tully Luxury Travel puts it this way: ” For small boutique hotels, unless I have personally been there or have a high recommendation from someone’s whose opinion I trust, I generally don’t book them. With that being said if Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure or Afar recommend them, I them find out who reps them and try to get them into my office to do a presentation. If nothing else certainly a lengthy call to find out more.”
– Find out if all the facilities are open
 
Soft Opening generally means not all the rooms and facilities are operational. While most hotels are pretty good that they won’t sell rooms or suites they know won’t be ready for the dates you’re requesting, facilities that might be important to you, such as the spa, bars, gym or children’s area, and even pools sometimes, don’t open for weeks and months after the hotel is accepting guests. Don’t trust the website. Call the hotel and specifically ask. Don’t trust the answers you will get from the front desk or operator either. Speak to a manager during the day, and request a written confirmation that the facility that is important to you is scheduled to be open when you arrive. If the hotel can’t confirm it, then know you might not be using a temporary gym in a converted meeting room.
– Ask if there will be construction while you’re there
If a hotel is open but not finished, you can assume there will be construction to finish the unfinished parts. Find out if that construction will impact your enjoyment. Hotels obviously try their best to minimize noise, and in many cases it may be impossible to tell there is working going on, but ask. Also, ask if your view will include any construction areas or areas being finished. Depending on location, it can take months for landscaping to fully grow in. In other cases, the owner has gone to town, shipping in 150 fully grown palm trees that look like they’ve been there for 25 years.
– Look at Forbes and AAA Ratings
Forbes and AAA both have star-rating systems based on an extensive checklist and anonymous property visits. The shortcoming is they have limited destinations, particularly outside the United States. They also don’t rate properties until they are open, so it could be a year to see what type of rating a new property gets.
– Ask who’s the boss?
Stacy Small, the owner of Elite Travel International, says, “I’m always interested to see who the team behind an unbranded hotel is. If there is a general manager or sales team in place I’ve worked with before that adds instant credibility.” Tully agrees, ” I also like to know where the GM or owners came from. Were they previously in the hospitality hotel business? That matters a lot. Also, how long they have been open.” She notes, when Four Seasons or the bigger luxury groups open properties, they have the resources to bring in team members from other properties to work alongside and train the new folks. For independent properties, it’s critical, according to agents, to have management that has experience opening other luxury hotels. Any general manager will tell you, opening a hotel is a different art form than running a property that’s been going for five years.
– Talk to somebody who has already been there
Most luxury hotels host key agents before they even turn the lights on, giving them hard hat tours, showing them model rooms, walking them through the property so they can envision the flow. Today’s travel agents often spend well over 150 nights a year on the road specifically trying to get a first-hand look at new hotels, visiting during those early periods to make sure any opening kinks are getting worked out.
Stacy Fischer, President of Fischer Travel Enterprises, says that when she hears about a new hotel she thinks could be of interest to her clients, she or one of her team will go visit, or if they can’t, she will have a local representative make an inspection. After, the agency makes a detailed report, including deficiencies, which is sent to hotel management. She says, only after she is satisfied about the standards will her agency start selling.
Michael Holtz, CEO of SmartFlyer has over 225 travel advisors located worldwide. He says, “We have the luxury of dispatching one of our agents to new properties (and then) use internal crowd sourcing to distribute information to our team.”
Doug Easton, owner of Celestielle Travel visits 120 hotels a year spending two nights at each property.  While he prequalifies the ones he visits, he says, even then, up to 10 percent of the hotels he visits, he won’t sell. He says, “There’s no perfect hotel for every client,” but adds, he doesn’t think brand alone assures an acceptable standard. “Even in the major groups of hotels, we come across properties that we wonder how they got in, or it’s been a long time since they got a renovation,” he says.
– Ask if the property is in your agent’s hotel program
Many independent travel agents are members of groups you may not have heard of. Virtuoso, Travel Leaders, Traveller Made, Signature, Ensemble and Affluent Traveler are consortia of independent agencies that specialize in luxury. The groups organize different marketing programs for their members, and each have their own hotel programs. Hotels in the programs give perks similar to what you might get with American Express Platinum card’s travel program, so late check-out, free breakfast, a welcome gift or something like that.
These agency networks have standards for the hotels they accept. Christina Gambini, who oversees the Travel Leaders programs says, ” Properties are fully vetted by a team of luxury experienced past hoteliers and travel professionals   with the most discerning taste.” Albert Herrera, who does the same for Virtuoso, says his group “utilizes recommendations and reviews from our network of travel advisors who have personally visited and sent clients to the property , recommendations from Virtuoso consumers, editorial staff reviews (it publishes a magazine) , and third party ratings such as Leading Quality Assurance.”
In the luxury space, travel agents are a very important source of revenue for hotels, and hotels value their inclusion in the programs these groups put together for their member agents to sell. When you book a hotel in the program, if something goes wrong, there’s a good chance your agent will have the clout via the group’s headquarters to get it fixed if you need help.
– Trip Advisor is worth a look, if you’re strategic
I know you are probably busy and don’t have time to spend a couple hours sorting through hundreds and even thousands of reviews a single hotel on Trip Advisor can generate. However, you can narrow it down by specifying your traveler “type,” choosing from families, couples, solo, business and friends. If there are a several hotels you are interested in, have your PA print out the poor and terrible reviews. In my experience, you can tell pretty quickly, are the worst complaints fairly minor or are there major problems. While many of the reviewers may have went on highly discounted rates and weren’t staying in pricey villas or suites, you will also get a feeling for how management deals with unhappy patrons. In many cases, I see great service recovery over complaints that seem negligible. In others, I see the possibility of deeper problems that perhaps I would want to avoid.
– Ask for floor plans
Jack Bloch, owner of JB’s World Travel Consultants, like all the agents believes the personal visit is best, specifically so he can make notes about the various rooms, suites and villas. I increasingly see a number of hotels that publish the floor plans of their suites and villas, so definitely ask. Acqualina, a resort in North Miami, launched an app with floor plans, even showing connecting room possibilities.
Easton adds, making sure he puts his customers in the right room, villa or suite is as important as putting them in the right hotel. “It’s not about the money. It’s about their time, and they don’t want to waste it. If they come back and only say, ‘It was good or nice,’ you’ve probably lost a client. Everything, everyday has to be flawless.”
 
Travel Agent Resource List:
Jack Bloch, JB’s World Travel Consultants                  jackb@jbsworld.com
Douglas Easton, Celestielle Travel                  doug@celestiellegroup.com
Stacy Fischer, Fischer Travel Services                   stacy@fischertravel.com
Michael Holtz, SmartFlyer                                    michael@smartflyer.com
Stacy Small, Elite Travel International    stacy@elitetravelinternational.com
Mary Jean Tully, Tully Luxury Travel         maryjean@tullyluxurytravel.com
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