It was a warm, spring morning the day I met Anne for brunch outside a hip restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, known for its eggs Benedict and farm-to-table cuisine. We greeted each other, chatted about the lovely weather and the wonderful things we had heard about the restaurant. It was a seemingly normal brunch meeting between two colleagues, except Anne wasn’t my companion’s real name, and besides her job title, I can’t reveal anything about her identity.
No, Anne isn’t a government spy; she’s a AAA spy – of sorts. Formally, Anne’s a AAA Approved Accommodations Inspector, which means she’s an expertly trained, highly skilled restaurant and hotel evaluator. Her job is to assess AAA Diamond Rated dining and lodging facilities to ensure that AAA endorses and promotes to its members only the best properties, ranking them appropriately according to AAA Diamond Rating guidelines.
I spent the entire day with Anne, sharing a meal with her while she rated the restaurant, then heading downtown to shadow her on a hotel evaluation, which followed a different procedure. Here, Anne approached the front desk, identified herself as a AAA inspector, and informed the agent that the staff would have 20 minutes to accommodate a tour of the facility and several rooms. The nervous-looking general manager – we’ll call him Bob – appeared moments later, and we were off.
Throughout the day, I learned some fascinating things about AAA inspections, the Diamond ratings and how the entire program ensures AAA members have the best possible experience while traveling.
The AAA Diamond standards change
The factors that make up a AAA Diamond Rated property aren’t static; in fact, they’re constantly updated to align with industry trends. AAA recently released an updated set of restaurant standards that place more weight on food, a shift Anne says reflects modern dining trends.
“Previously, the standards focused more on preparation styles, but now we’re seeing the trend of locally sourced ingredients adding into the mix, and they’re now a consistent thing we look for at the Three-to-Five Diamond level, where oftentimes purveyors are listed right in the menu,” she said. “This reflects a shift in industry trends as people are becoming more aware of where their food is coming from. Our members like this cultural and trendy shift, so we need new standards to reflect that.”
The ratings, updated about every five years, are calculated based on a formula that places specific weight on elements members have expressed are important when they travel, information obtained from member surveys, focus groups and industry trends.
Hotel standards were also updated, and the new criteria include more outlets at nightstands for charging mobile devices, excellent Wi-Fi strength and smart televisions.
The AAA Diamond Rating inspection is always on
Upon entering the restaurant, Anne requested a table in the corner. As the hostess led us through the dining room, I saw that the inspection was already in full swing before we had even sat down. Thirty-five percent of the restaurant’s rating is based on service, and the evaluation began the moment the hostess smiled as we entered through the door. Fifteen percent of the rating is based on the restaurant’s décor and cleanliness. The paper napkin, she pointed out, was a One Diamond element, while the fresh flowers on the table, Three Diamond. She also visits the bathroom in every restaurant, to check its cleanliness and neatness.
On the hotel side, Anne made pleasant conversation with Bob as he led us around. He spoke to the property’s latest innovations, renovations and upgrades, eager to push the property to a higher rating. She listened intently but was clearly absorbing every detail of the tour. She checked to make sure the batteries in the TV’s remote controlled worked, the coffee maker was clean, dresser drawers were empty, the furniture was free from nicks and scratches and that there were no dust bunnies living under the bed. No detail seemed too small, and she pointed out that the small details a guest might complain about are weighted more heavily in the rating formula. For example, members like having a light switch at the room’s entrance so they don’t have to walk into a dim, strange space.
Inspectors LOVE technology
While the inspectors have the Diamond Ratings guidelines pretty much memorized, they rely on technology to help calculate them. Each inspector enters their ratings into an iPad loaded with special software. The software uses an assessment formula to calculate the property’s Diamond Rating.
As such, inspectors can get the results of their inspections and updated ratings to members even sooner. The AAA mobile app and website are updated every two-to-four weeks to ensure that members have the most up-to-date information available.
Anne said smartphones have made her job easier when it comes to evaluating restaurants. “The job was harder before smartphones,” she said. “I would have to take notes on postcards and it would be awkward to take a photo of my food. Now it’s a normal thing to take photos of your food; everyone does it.”
They pride themselves on keeping AAA Diamond Ratings up-to-date
AAA constantly reviews rated properties and looks for new properties to feature. Hotels are reviewed once per year, while restaurant review time periods are based on ratings. Five Diamond-rated restaurants are reviewed once per year – more frequently if they hire a new chef, change ownership or amend their menu – while One to Three Diamonds are rated about every five years.
Any hotel or restaurant can fill out an application to be rated. However, inspectors can also conduct cold calls on properties of their choice.
They work hard. Really hard. But it’s totally worth it.
If being an inspector sounds like it’s an awesome job, that’s because it is. But it also comes with a lot of hard work, training and knowledge. There are 50 inspectors that review properties in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean, each in charge of a specific territory. Anne’s territory encompasses several Northeast states, and she’s responsible for providing members with updated information on every Diamond-Rated property in her territory. She usually inspects three to four hotels and one restaurant per day, which means she travels a lot.
“It’s a demanding job,” she said. “You have to have flexible hours, be able to stay away from home a lot and have an understanding family. But I also get to eat at about 215 restaurants per year, and without this job, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do that.”
They take preserving their identities very seriously.
In order to provide members with unbiased reviews, it’s important that inspectors remain anonymous. If inspectors feel their identity has been compromised, they enlist the help of their fellow inspectors, sending one from a different territory to review the property in their place.
In addition, once an inspector identifies a hotel as a potential Five Diamond property, they’ll send another inspector on a blind overnight stay to inspect further and confirm the rating.
Not only does such teamwork help preserve the inspectors’ identities, it also helps them stay on top of their inspecting game.
“It’s important to stay fresh by getting out of your territory and comfort zone and seeing other properties,” Anne said.
AAA Five Diamond isn’t always the best
The AAA Five Diamond rating is sought after by many hotels and restaurants, yet only awarded to a 0.4 percent of hotels and 0.2 percent of restaurants after extensive review. However, not all properties work toward – and not all members want – a AAA Five Diamond rating.
“The most coveted rating is the Three Diamond,” Anne said. “This is where most properties want to be, as it is seen as the most approachable by the American traveler. They only want Four-to-Five Diamond places for fancy vacations or special occasions.”
She brings up the example of New York City, where delis and pizza places are often rated as One Diamond because they’re casual, quick-service restaurants, despite the fact that their food is some of the best in town.
At the end of the day, inspectors are team AAA
Inspectors work for, and ultimately have, the best interests of AAA members at heart. Anne takes her position as an unbiased reviewer very seriously.
“Ratings are provided as a service to our members,” she said. “There’s so much out there; inspectors want our members to have the best information and the most honest reviews. I have the mentality of if I wouldn’t stay there or have my family stay there, I won’t approve it.”
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Click here to learn more about Diamond Ratings and search for Diamond Rated hotels and restaurants.