Anonymity is important for AAA Inspector 598. The woman, who cannot be identified because of the nature of her job, does surprise inspections of hotels in Los Angeles and Orange County.
The club inspects roughly 28,000 hotels a year. Ratings range from a single diamond for budget accommodations up to five for the poshest of resorts.
On Tuesday, Aug. 8, Inspector 598 and her supervisor, Inspector 63, marched into the office of the four-diamond Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa and announced they were there for an inspection.
“Most of the properties that know about our program are used to seeing us. Newer hotels seemed surprised,” Inspector 63 said.
The hotel was asked to get the keys for unoccupied rooms, and two hotel employees accompanied the inspectors as they examined the public spaces before heading to the rooms.
The first room is typical: a large bed, mini-fridge and large TV. Inspector 598, wearing a trim suit with her hair in a tight bun, carried an iPad and carefully pulled back layers of sheets, looking for hairs and stains.
She ran her hands in cabinets, poked her head under the bed and examined the bathroom. Her eyes scanned the chrome finishes on bedside lamps, looking for a sparkling, smudge-free finish. Same for the water glasses.
In a room with a balcony, she went outside to check the condition of the furniture and for any stains on the ground.
Her eyes missed nothing. In a hallway, she spotted a small piece of wallpaper peeling up.
Also on her inspection tour: The business conference rooms and the spa. She checked the railings at the pool for rust and loose rails, the pool deck for stains and the trash cans to make sure they weren’t overflowing. She inspected the gyms, which must have sanitation equipment (wipes used to clean off machines when guests are finished using them) and water for guests.
“We’re looking to see that the property is maintaining our standards,” 598 said.
Standards matter, especially in a county known for its tourism.
In 2016, 48.2 million visitors came to Orange County, up 2 percent from the year before. They contributed $12.1 billion to the local economy, up 6.8 percent from 2015. The industry overall is responsible for 164,000 jobs, according to the Orange County Visitors Association. The numbers are big business for travel companies like AAA, which offer recommendations to its 56 million members in the U.S. and Canada.
Inspections from AAA keep hotels on their toes. And no, they don’t use black lights to find bodily stains, they just use their eyes, noses and hands to spot flaws.
On a typical day, an inspector starts his or her day at a bigger property, which takes longer to inspect, and typically completes four to six inspections a day in the same geographical area. The Hyatt inspection took Inspector 598 more than two hours, while a smaller property might take her only 45 minutes.
After finishing, 598 headed to her car where she completed her inspection notes and submitted them to Inspector 63.
The Hyatt sits just south of two high-dollar neighbors: the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort and the newly constructed Pasea Hotel and Spa. Keeping up with the Joneses means updating the Hyatt’s rooms and shared spaces to maintain a stellar AAA grade.
An ongoing renovation at the Hyatt recently focused on its pool deck. The property added new plants, cabanas and a section with tables and chairs for private functions.
A remodel of the lobby and guests rooms will start in November, according to Cathy Scott, the hotel’s manager of marketing and communications. The upgrades, which will include new furniture, carpet and bathrooms, will be done by summer 2018.
Inspector 598 got an early look at an incomplete remodel of one room. She immediately honed in on an exposed pipe in the bathroom, calling it a “3.7.”
An exposed pipe, she explained, is not a four-diamond feature.
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Renovation for the win
Renovations are becoming increasingly common in Orange County hotels.
“All hotel owners recognize that it is becoming more competitive because of new construction coming into the market,” Atlas Hospitality Group president Alan Reay said. “You’re seeing a tremendous amount of capital being invested back into the hotels. And owners have the money available, they are seeing record profits and have the money available to renovate.”
Just blocks from the Hyatt Regency, the Hilton’s Waterfront Beach Resort completed a $140 million financing deal to add a suites-only tower. Existing public spaces also will undergo a makeover. The pool and pool deck will be rebuilt and a grab-and-go market will be added.
“The high-end resort, when you look at the rate they are charging, the hotels in the higher-end category — it’s much more important that they stay ahead of the renovation curve,” Reay said.
The hotel industry hit a record in California in the first six months of 2017, with 206 properties changing hands for roughly $3.2 billion, Atlas reported.
In Orange County, 16 hotels sold for $372 million, Atlas reported, a 200 percent increase compared with the same period in 2016.
Statewide, the number of hotel transactions was up 43 percent, while the total dollar value increased 67 percent. In Southern California, transactions for the period were up 23 percent.
Reay said that a “tremendous amount of capital” was going into renovating newly purchased hotels.
“In a lot of these hotels the owners have not done a lot of upgrades,” he said.
63, who oversees a 13-county territory and a handful of other inspectors, says she has seen renovations just about everywhere.
“We’re always concerned that it will impact the guest stay, but most do it in phases so it doesn’t alter the member stay,” she said. There are four inspectors in Southern California.
Most renovations, she added, are to make hotels “trendier and marketed to younger people” by adding more electronics and introducing communal tables.
But the AAA ratings may not be as important to these hotels as in years prior.
“In the old days, a lot of people used the AAA guide and the ratings were a lot more important,” Reay said. “Today, with the Internet and companies like TripAdvisor, it’s less important than it was 10 years ago. People go by TripAdvisor ratings and other ratings from websites more so than AAA and similar categories.”
Inspector 63 said the service is a value to its members and the group takes into account what they want to see in a hotel when examining properties.
4 diamonds at Disneyland?
Snaring a four-diamond rating near Disneyland is part of the strategy for a handful of new hotels being built around Disneyland.
The last guests of the Anabella Hotel checked out Tuesday, Aug. 15. The hotel will be torn down to make way for a luxury resort, boasting already that it will be a four-diamond property.
“We make it clear what needs to be done to meet our standards,” 598 said.
The hotel will still be inspected once completed.
FJS, a subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Wincome Group, is developing the $220 million project.
Last year Anaheim approved two Wincome and one Walt Disney Co. projects in exchange for tax reimbursements for the developers. All are expected to be four-diamond hotels.
“They make a big deal about it because of the tax incentives given by Anaheim were predicated on that the hotels had to be four-diamond ratings or better,” Reay said. “They did not want to give tax incentives to a standard hotel. That was their definition of luxury hotel, that it is rated four diamonds or better.”
About the ratings
The AAA has been inspecting hotels for more than 80 years. The Automobile Club of Southern California has included hotels and garages in its TourBooks since 1909. The more formalized inspection process began more than 80 years ago.
“Our ratings are not objective, we have strict standards,” 63 said.
Less than 0.3 percent of hotels examined by the AAA receive five diamonds. Five diamond properties are defined as “ultimate luxury, sophistication and comfort with extraordinary physical attributes, meticulous personalized service, extensive amenities and impeccable standards of excellence.”
Only 5.9 percent of hotels examined receive four diamonds. Four diamond properties are “refined, stylish with upscale physical attributes, extensive amenities and a high degree of hospitality, service and attention to detail.”
If after a property is inspected it does not meet AAA standards, the hotel will first receive a warning before a diamond is dropped.
As for the Hyatt Regency, the report is still being processed.
Inspector 598 will be back in about a year, she just can’t say when.
Orange County five diamond hotels as of January:
• Monarch Beach Resort (Dana Point)
• The Ritz Carlton, Laguna Niguel (Dana Point)
• Montage Laguna Beach (Laguna Beach)
• The Resort at Pelican Hill (Newport Coast)
Orange County four diamond hotels as of January:
• Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa (Anaheim)
• Avenue of the Arts, Costa Mesa, A Tribute Portfolio Hotel (Costa Mesa)
• Blue Lantern Inn (Dana Point)
• Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa (Dana Point)
• Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa (Huntington Beach)
• The Waterfront Beach Resort, A Hilton Hotel (Huntington Beach)
• Surf & Sand Resort (Laguna Beach)
• Balboa Bay Resort (Newport Beach)
• Fairmont Newport Beach (Newport Beach)
• Island Hotel (Newport Beach)