Secret-Shop Your Hotel Before You Book

No one buys a car without testing it first. So why would planners book thousands of dollars in rooms and food & beverage based on a few hours at a site visit? Site visits can help you learn about the basics of the facility, staff experience, and other essentials. But only a test drive reveals the truth about areas like guest service and a knowledgeable staff.

Planners who invest a day "secret shopping" properties can save themselves headaches and money. To be a successful secret shopper, you don't have to don sunglasses and a trenchcoat. Take time to experience the property in the shoes of a conferee, using the following checklist of five key points:

Listen and Learn in the Lobby

Your meeting starts the minute conferees enter the front door, so check-in is critical. When you secret shop, take a notepad, sit in the lobby, and observe. Start with the entry. Is there a doorman? Does he assist guests with luggage and directions? Does the bell staff interact with guests? Next, focus on the front desk. Does the staff seem courteous, or indifferent? How long do guests wait in line? Sit close enough to hear conversations and note how the staff responds to queries and concerns.

Walk the Meeting Space

Locate an active meeting and if possible, sit where you can observe the break area. How long does it take to be refreshed? Do guests outside the group help themselves to the break displays? Obviously, the more frequently staff checks on breaks, the less likely groups will feel the food is disappearing. Also, ask a conferee on a break if he could share his thoughts about the property; you'll likely get an honest answer.

Confirm Housekeeping Service Levels

Housekeeping is more than making beds; it's about making guests feel pampered. Note whether public spaces are just clean enough, or if there are special touches like cloth rather than paper towels in public bathrooms. Housekeepers can also give you an idea of security standards. If you see a guest room being serviced, ask the housekeeper if you can see what the room looks like. If she lets you, it should raise a red flag.

Evaluate Staff Empowerment

For meeting planners and conferees, it's critical that the hotel staff is empowered to make decisions on your behalf. Being able to ask a front desk person to have a projector delivered and connected in your meeting room gives you more time to do your job instead of tracking down appropriate managers.

Engage with hotel staff—particularly those whom conferees might approach with questions, like bell staff or front desk staff. Find out how informed they are about the meeting space—not their knowledge of seating capacities, but how they'd handle, say, an early arrival of a special delivery for a conferee. Can the bellman answer questions about load-in for deliveries to the ballroom? Ideally, staff should be able to handle your needs without much effort on your part.

Check in and Observe

To see how the hotel treats average guests, stay overnight a few weeks prior to your site visit. Keep a journal of high points and low points—from the ease of making the reservation to the timeliness of wake-up calls. Order room service late at night to see if the property can offer quality food quickly to late check-ins. Have an early breakfast at the hotel restaurant and watch how the staff handles a morning rush. Note the attitudes of the staff and the quality of the food.

Secret shopping a hotel takes time, but it pays off. Confirm the bells and whistles of the site visit with your own research; avoid learning about pitfalls when the meeting is underway. Your group will enjoy a pleasant meeting experience, thanks to your extra work.

Fred De Sota is director of sales & marketing at the Crowne Plaza Chicago O'Hare, Crowne Plaza's largest U.S. convention/conference hotel. Contact him at [email protected]