Throughout its 80-year history, AAA’s Diamond Program has seen a good deal of industry-altering developments that impact the ways in which people travel and hotels operate. AAA Diamond Program Director Scott Hammerle says that AAA has adapted to these evolutions, most recently unveiling updates to its Diamond Program and adding a Best of Housekeeping designation for the top 25 percent of AAA Diamond hotels that achieved the highest levels of cleanliness. Then COVID-19 swept across the United States, forcing hotels to shut their doors or operate at record-low occupancies and staffing levels. While AAA inspections are on hold during the pandemic, inspectors have remained active, venturing out to hotels for what Hammerle calls “advocacy visits” to check in on owners and operators. He shares with LODGING how the program is staying keyed into what’s happening at the property level, observations from inspectors’ site visits, and more.
How has AAA’s Diamond Program been impacted by the pandemic?
In January, we rolled out some revisions to the designations. In the past, hotels were approved with one through five Diamond; under the new system, it’s three, four, and five Diamonds. As we rolled that out, everything began to happen with the pandemic. We haven’t gotten through a full cycle of inspections with those revisions. Once we get ramped back up, we’re still planning to inspect the same 27,000 hotels that we’ve done in the past.
Now more than ever, being consistent in what we promise is hugely important.
Right now, we are not inspecting, but we didn’t want to be absent from the marketplace; we felt there was an opportunity to support the travel industry as a key partner. We were in a unique position where we had the spread and the bandwidth across the country to actually check in on people in a way that nobody else could. We worked out a system with our inspectors where they identify places where they feel comfortable going. They’re visiting these properties, checking in on people, and trying to find out how this is impacting the business.
What are some of the challenges inspectors have reported or seen when they’re out visiting properties?
We’ve taken the AHLA [Safe Stay] guidelines and guidelines each of the major hotel chains are putting out for adapting to COVID. We’re seeing that the actual execution of those guidelines definitely varies to the point where we tell our inspectors if they go somewhere and they don’t feel comfortable, then it’s important for them to remove themselves from that situation. Ultimately, everybody’s safety is the most important thing.
The inspectors are having to be much more fluid than they ever have been and having to do a lot of pre-planning. We’ve given them mapping tools and other things so they can see where COVID-19 cases are happening. We’re also trying to minimize overnight stays and focusing on drive-distance visits. We’ve taken a two-weeks-on-the-road, two-weeks-at-home approach, which maximizes the opportunity to make sure we’re keeping inspectors safe and healthy.
Do you have any advice for hotel owners and operators when it comes to consistently implementing the hygiene and safety programs they are putting in place?
If you say you’re going to do it—do it. If you’re putting out on your website that you have certain things in place, people are trusting that those are going to be in place when they get there. Be consistent, be thorough, and be transparent.
It’s not just a particular segment, it’s not just a particular chain versus independent—it really is down to an individual property. Management needs to be very conscious of that. I know that in many cases, they’re understaffed—we have seen GMs who are cleaning rooms and then checking people in. But at the end of the day, it’s our responsibility as travel industry professionals to deliver on that promise to our guests. Now more than ever, being consistent in what we promise is hugely important.
What are some of the trends and shifts you are watching right now?
I think we’re going to see what used to be a nice amenity—like contactless check-in or even being able to use your own phone as a TV remote—is now going to become an expectation. In the past, we looked heavily at the amenities in the room and the quality of the room service. Well, in the future, room service may not even exist the way it does today, at least for the next year. The amenities in the room and the expectations for those check-ins are definitely things that I could see having staying power.
One of the interesting things we’re hearing is operators are saying they’re getting the most complaints about the breakfast buffet—people want that hot meal. I think that’s going to change back to where it was.
What does the current environment mean for AAA’s Best of Housekeeping designation?
We have gotten a lot of questions and energy around the Best of Housekeeping badge because it is one of the only markers out there that allows people to look at a property see that it meets a certain standard of cleanliness over multiple years—and there are no complaints from AAA members on file. That is a tool for those that have won that badge in the past to communicate to people their dedication—not what they are saying they are doing or what their brand is saying, but coming from a source that has independently gone to the property, seen it, and verified that they follow those practices and are up to that standard. We’re talking about the top 25 percent of all of the properties that we inspect—it really does put them in a different category and it’s something that can build trust with people who are looking to travel.
Is there anything that you’ve learned over the past six months about the industry that has informed your approach?
The thing that has impressed me the most is the ability of the industry to adapt so quickly on the fly and do so with a lot of compassion for one another. There is a “how do we get through this together” attitude that’s very impressive and shows the heart of service that exists within the hospitality industry. I think that informs these advocacy visits: What can we do to help? Is there a way for us to help the traveling public get confident in traveling again but in a way that’s safe and upholds our mission of giving objective, honest, truthful observations about the properties we visit? That’s the balance that we’re trying to find right now.