If you're an incognito inspector from Mobil Travel Guide and a housekeeper walks into your hotel room when you have the "do not disturb sign" on, too bad for the hotel. Its celestial rating likely will fall a notch when Mobil hands out its stars.
For more than 40 years, Mobil Travel Guide has been sending inspectors to hotels and restaurants _ 9,000 hotels and 8,000 restaurants around the country now _ to help make life easier for travelers.
"There are a lot of choices for the consumer, and we're narrowing their decision process," says Shane O'Flaherty, Mobil Travel Guide vice president in charge of the inspection teams.
Mobil rates lodging establishments from one star ("considered clean, comfortable and reliable") to five stars ("provides consistently superlative service in an exceptionally distinctive luxury environment with expanded services and amenities").
Mobil has 50 facility inspectors who arrive unannounced but tell the hotels they are there to do a check. They have 200-plus questions, all aimed at the physical condition of the property.
"We just go in with a clipboard and answer the questions. Then the property ends up with a score," O'Flaherty says. If the hotel has four- or five-star potential, Mobil has six people make an additional visit incognito on a yearly basis, taking a critical look at service.
"There are more than 500 questions _ 25 questions alone on the reservation call. We end up with another score and marry the two."
In his four years with Mobil Travel Guide, O'Flaherty never has seen a 100 percent score. "Our system allows for hiccups in the road. The important thing is how they react to the hiccup."
O'Flaherty tells about one hiccup when an inspector was changing clothes. Without knocking, a housekeeper entered the room to turn down the bed. The inspector quickly jumped into the bathroom and waited. When he thought the coast was clear, he walked to the bed to retrieve his towel. The housekeeper returned, again without knocking, threw a chocolate on the bed and just missed hitting the inspector.
He also has stories on the positive side, like the time an inspector just happened to mention at check-in that he had a headache. He turned the corner and all of a sudden there was a tray with a glass of water and an aspirin.
"It's anticipatory service. It's the wow factor."
2004 Mobil Five-Star Award Winners Hotels/resorts/inns (and the number of years they have received the award):
+ Beverly Hills Hotel, Beverly Hills, Calif. (nine years)
+ Blantyre, Lenox, Mass. (two years)
+ The Broadmoor, Colorado Springs, Colo. (44 years)
+ Chateau Du Sureau, Oakhurst, Calif. (eight years)
+ Fearrington House, Pittsboro, N.C. (five years)
+ Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta (five years)
+ Four Seasons Hotel Boston (five years)
+ Four Seasons Hotel Chicago (nine years)
+ Four Seasons Hotel New York, New York City (nine years)
+ Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach (six years)
+ Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco (two years)
+ Hotel Bel-Air, Los Angeles (12 years)
+ The Inn at Little Washington, Washington, Va. (16 years)
+ The Jefferson, Richmond (four years)
+ The Little Nell, Aspen, Colo. (nine years)
+ The Lodge at Sea Island, St. Simon's Island, Ga. (two years)
+ The Mansion on Turtle Creek, Dallas (15 years)
+ The Mayflower Inn, Washington, Conn. (nine years)
+ The Point, Saranac Lake, N.Y. (seven years)
+ The Peninsula Beverly Hills, Beverly Hills, Calif. (11 years)
+ The Peninsula Chicago, Chicago (two years)
+ Raffles L'Ermitage, Beverly Hills, Calif. (five years)
+ The Ritz-Carlton (Four Seasons Hotel), Chicago (two years)
+ The Ritz-Carlton, Naples (16 years)
+ The Ritz-Carlton, New York, Central Park, New York City (one year)
+ The Ritz-Carlton, Palm Beach (two years)
+ The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco (eight years)
+ The St. Regis, New York City (nine years)
+ Twin Farms, Barnard, Vt. (nine years)
+ Woodlands Resort & Inn, Summerville, S.C. (one year)