Our anonymous confessor has inspected and rated hotels and restaurants in the Mid-Atlantic region for the American Automobile Association for 19 years.
It's All About Diamonds
I'm one of about 65 full-time inspectors employed by AAA, paid to be fussbudgets when it comes to a smudge of ketchup left on a dust ruffle or crumbs under an armoire. The scores we give each hotel (in categories like Guest Services, Room Decor, and Ambience), are weighted and totaled to arrive at the diamond ratings consulted by 50 million members. But our impressions only mean so much. There are specific requirements each property must meet in order to be rated. For instance, to get one diamond a hotel must have vending machines, dead bolts on doors, and bathrooms with a box of facial tissue and at least two bars of soap. Some perfectly nice hotels are omitted from AAA TourBooks or listed without an official rating in a book's FYI section because they don't have dead bolts or vending machines, or they fail to meet one of the many other little requirements.
Call Me Jeremy
Obviously, it's essential that I remain anonymous while doing assessments. A hotel can scramble to clean up its act in seconds if it knows an inspector is checking in, and it's always a battle to make sure no one is on to me. That's why we disguise ourselves. I used to grow a beard every other year. One inspector I know dyes her hair. Another uses fake glasses. To keep my cover, I'll pay with credit cards that I've taken out in made-up names; American Express has never given me a hard time about these aliases, so long as someone is paying the bills. I pick whatever names pop into my head. One year my pseudonym was Jeremy Richards; the next, Bill Durkin.
One Annoying Customer
When checking in, I carry all kinds of extra bags to test the bellhops. I tell the front desk I need a late checkout, or a bed board, or a baby-bottle warmer, just to test the hotel's response. Occasionally, I trash my room to see if things get replaced. I hoard the pads and pens, throw the shampoo and lotion into a desk drawer, and maybe shred the toilet paper. A really well-run hotel will soon have everything looking just as it was, or better.
Bed Stains and Cockroaches
The job can be pretty grim when hotels aren't clean. There has been a lot of media hype about poring over bedspreads with black lights, but you can spot all kinds of stains with the naked eye just by looking carefully. And I don't simply look, but sniff. Often the upholstery will smell like beer, or worse. I'm always on the watch for critters, too. At one hotel restaurant, a column of roaches marched out of the knotty-pine paneling. Mice are common in hotels, since there are crumbs from room service. Once, a front-desk clerk showing me to my motel room started screaming as a rodent boldly ran down the hall.
When it comes to food, I'm extremely demanding. I have to order three courses in every restaurant I inspect, whether I'm hungry or not, so I'll taste a bite and ask the waiter to just take it away. I'll send back my flounder, telling him I think it's cod. During one of my tantrums at a place I'd gone back to year after year, the waiter wasn't fazed a bit. After I was done complaining about the chocolate mousse, he grinned and said, "No sweat. Whatever the AAA guy wants, he gets." It was time to start growing another beard.