Life of an AA Hotel Inspector

Out and about with an AA Hotel Inspector

Nights spent in luxury five-star resorts, leisurely afternoon teas, aperitifs followed by three-course dinners with wine, room service, cooked breakfasts, weight gain, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation, loneliness...
"Everyone thinks this is the dream job, but you're on the road away from family, friends and colleagues for four nights a week, so it's quite a lonely existence". says Giovanna Grossi, AA Hotel Services Group Area Manager.

"Unfortunately you have to eat in this job too - I've had to get a whole new wardrobe because I've put on five stone since I started. I've also got a personal trainer now because as you get older you have to think to yourself, 'I've gone up quite a few dress sizes, this isn't healthy'."

But Giovanna isn't complaining. Although she has a degree in accountancy, she grew up working in her father's Italian restaurant in Southport and is driven by a real desire to raise standards in the hospitality industry.


Passion for the industry

"I am absolutely passionate about this industry and I believe to do this job well and for a long period of time you have to be passionate. It's certainly not a 9-5 job - you have to be prepared to order room service at midnight and go and test the leisure facilities at 6am because that necessity is there to fit everything in.

"You also have to love food and be prepared to eat anything, be it offal or food from different cultures."

And eat food we did when I joined Giovanna on one of her undercover inspections - at the Malmaison Charterhouse Square in the City of London. As always, the staff didn't know Giovanna was coming (she books under another name) and they certainly didn't know I was there to shadow her and find out exactly what goes into producing those shiny new AA hotel and restaurant guides every autumn. In fact, our identities were kept a secret until after the bill had been settled and we'd checked out the following morning.


The eating begins

The eating began almost straight away, when we headed downstairs to the bar for tea and sandwiches. Malmaison's funky bar snacks menu didn't offer anything so traditional as a sandwich, but after a brief discussion with a member of staff, Giovanna managed to order exactly what she wanted - a tuna sandwich.

I say 'wanted' but that's not strictly the case. She'd had a large breakfast at the previous inspection hotel - a five-star in the West End - and that three-course dinner was looming ever closer, but it had to be done.

Over tea Giovanna told me more about her week. She'd driven down from her home in Manchester to stay in a four-star in the Midlands on Monday, a three-star in Norfolk on Tuesday and a five-star in Suffolk on Wednesday.

"The week before I did a two-star and two guest houses. Every week is different. You could be in a coastal B&B one night and a corporate chain hotel the next.

"You have to be a chameleon. The minute you walk through the door of a property you have to start thinking the way a typical person who would stay there would think."

And you might expect Giovanna to look forward most of all to the nights when she's in a swanky five-star hotel - but not so.

"It's much harder work staying in a five-star because you don't stop from the minute you arrive - there are so many areas to test. You have to go to the concierge and say things like 'I want to buy this face cream, do you know where I can get it?' or ask the barman 'can you make this particular cocktail?' There are usually leisure facilities so I have to go and have a swim, I have to test the afternoon tea, and I normally have to do a hot meal room service check."

Of course, staying in five-star hotels does have its advantages though.

"You get lots of nice toiletries in the five-stars, so I often take them home and give some to my family".

However, another hazard of the job is that it can take the enjoyment out of going on holiday a little.

"We have a family home in Italy and a lot of my holidays are spent there because I do get fed up with staying in hotels, although I have to say I do love hotels. My partner and I like to have a couple of city breaks a year too. Last year we went to Barcelona where we stayed in a five-star, and I have to say we went to a couple of other hotels while we were there and asked to see some bedrooms - it does become a bit of an obsession."


Inspecting the bedrooms

With the sandwiches virtually eaten it was time to go and stake out the Malmaison's bedrooms, beginning with mine and then Giovanna's. She left no stone - or pillow, duvet or toilet lid - unturned when it came to a thorough housekeeping and comfort check. All surfaces, including the phone receiver, were tested for dust, the showerhead was scanned for limescale, curtains were moved, beds pulled out, lighting levels measured, TV tuning checked, and even appliances were plugged in and tested to make sure they worked.

Everything was in working order and looked very clean and shiny; the Malmaison's housekeeping inspection was looking rosy. Giovanna whipped out her laptop and began feeding in the hotel's scores so far - a figure between one and five which relates to the standards expected of a hotel with that equivalent star rating. She began by marking overall cleanliness, bedrooms and bathrooms, but there would be scores for food and service to add later.

All the while she referred to her "scoring bible" which explains the services and facilities required for each star banding. As Malmaison is a group of three-star hotels, Giovanna was looking all the time to make sure the hotel met the minimum requirements for a three-star, but on several fronts the hotel's offer actually fell more into the four-star bracket.

"If they wanted to go to four-star they could but they'd have to implement one or two things, like offering a cooked room service breakfast rather than just continental," she explained.


Time for dinner

I was particularly keen to find out how the restaurant would fare under Giovanna's scrutiny, as she'd heard on the grapevine that the hotel was hoping to increase its one AA Rosette to two.

We met in the lounge for pre-dinner drinks (when one of the bar staff impressed Giovanna with his wine knowledge) before being escorted (another brownie point for service) to our table.

My choice of what to eat was governed by Giovanna's need to test the chef's competence as much as possible. Thus we ordered the chicken livers and the scallops to start with ("both are very easy to overcook and then they're ruined"), followed by rabbit a la moutarde for me and fried skate cheeks for her.

I would have preferred cheese to a dessert but again Giovanna needed to test something that had been created rather than "just put together on a plate", so I went for the guanaja chocolate fondant, while she tried the fine apple tart. On this occasion the kitchen team came up trumps, with all three courses meriting two Rosettes (out of a possible five).

"There has to be consistency through the courses," explained Giovanna. "If the starter and dessert were two Rosettes but the main course was a clear one, well that's the main part of the meal, so I'd have to go with one Rosette. What I'm looking at is clarity of flavours, quality of ingredients, seasoning and timing. It is a snapshot but everybody gets the same opportunity and it's about consistency, so if the restaurant is not quite making it this time, they're not consistently making it."

She added: "If I go to a place and think 'wow, I've had a three Rosette meal here' we will get somebody back - or we might even get two people back - because at that level and above you really do need to see consistency."

Post-check-out debrief

There were certainly no complaints at breakfast the next morning either, following a great night's sleep (something Giovanna really cherishes, having experienced more than her fair share of uncomfortable beds). The cooked breakfast was excellent and the cold buffet selection more akin to four-star standard.

Again the service was excellent, too, but Giovanna was convinced it wasn't because she'd been rumbled.

"In London the hotels get a lot of corporate people staying on their own for one night, so they wouldn't know you were there. I used to work in the Lake District and the hotels are almost next door to each other and everybody knows everybody else's business. They don't get people in suits staying there - more elderly couples and families - so I very quickly learnt to dress a little bit more casual and swap my laptop case for a holdall."

After breakfast it was back up to the room to finish feeding the hotel's scores into the laptop, and a chance for Giovanna to gather her thoughts before the post-check-out debrief with the general manager. The hotel needed to achieve the minimum scores for a threestar in five areas - service and facilities, cleanliness, food, bedrooms and bathrooms - and it had exceeded last year's results across the board.

Giovanna doesn't always have such good news to tell general managers, but it meant she felt relaxed about handing over her business card and asking to see Anthony Thwaites. We all sat down together and Giovanna talked him through her "customer care journey" - her experience of being a guest from booking over the telephone through to check out - and then we went on a tour to inspect a few more bedrooms.

Anthony was relieved the inspection had gone so well. "I'm particularly pleased to hear such good comments about service because you can look great and be stylish, but at the end of the day it all comes down to good service," he said. "As a hotelier it's great to sit down with someone who has very in-depth criteria and get feedback that's spread out right from reservation to check out. Any feedback is a snapshot but you can use it to your advantage and improve for next time."

On that happy note we all went our separate ways - Anthony to congratulate his staff, Giovanna to Kensington for a lunchtime restaurant inspection, and for me, home, to do some writing and not eat again until dinnertime!