An unsettling thing happens each year when AAA and Mobil Travel Guide issue their lists of top hotels and restaurants: They don't agree. And yet, on paper, they should.
Both use one-to-five scales -- diamonds for AAA and stars for Mobil -- with similar definitions. One diamond in AAA's setting means "clean, safe and well-maintained"; one star in Mobil's firmament signifies "clean, comfortable and reliable." Five AAA diamonds mean "striking and luxurious, offering many extra amenities"; five Mobil stars signify "consistently superlative service and expanded amenities in a luxurious, distinctive environment."
Both raters employ anonymous inspectors who check into hotels or sample food under assumed identities.
Despite such similarities, AAA this year listed 137 five-diamond hotels and restaurants while Mobil found 43. If you think that makes Mobil more exclusive, consider this example, one of many: In California, Mobil gave five stars to the Four Seasons in San Francisco and Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, which AAA rated only four diamonds.
Behind the disparities are differences in how AAA and Mobil do inspections, plus the inescapable human factor.
"We do our best to take the subjectivity out of the process," said Shane O'Flaherty, the Mobil Travel Guide vice president who oversees inspectors.
To that end, Mobil's professional snoops wield checklists with more than 1,000 items. Does registration take more than five minutes? That could knock a four-star down to three. No phone in the bath? Your five-star could be a falling star.
The key word is "could." Despite frequent grumblings from hoteliers that criteria are rigid and arbitrary, Mobil and AAA are flexible, spokesmen said. Stocking a guest room closet with nine hangers won't make a five-diamond hotel lose its status, even though 10 is the guideline, said Michael Petrone, AAA's director of tourism information development. Inspectors look at the big picture.
"I think there are some things in there you don't need," Brent Martin, general manager of the Hotel Sofitel Los Angeles, said of AAA guidelines. Armoires to hide TVs, for instance, are newly required for four-diamond guest rooms, but "designers hate them," and a larger TV may mean more to guests, Martin said. (His hotel is not rated by AAA this year because it is being renovated.)
Guests may also rightly wonder: Does it really matter that there are two phones instead of one in the room (required for Mobil's three stars) or that the "amenity package" in the bath has seven pieces instead of five (required for AAA's five diamonds)? The answer depends on your taste.
Whoever you are, you should know this: A three-diamond or three-star rating or below says little about a hotel's or restaurant's service quality. That's because AAA and Mobil mostly reserve service inspections for four-diamond or four-star establishments and above; those below are rated largely on their facilities, not on the quality of service they provide.
That said, even a one-star or one-diamond hotel can be a great place to stay. It may have a solicitous staff and simply lack some amenities, such as elevators or a swimming pool, that higher-rated hotels have. Just to be rated, hotels must meet basic standards of cleanliness and safety.
Here's how AAA and Mobil measure up against each other:
* Size: AAA is the larger operation. It employs 65 full-time "tourism editors" who evaluate nearly 50,000 hotels and restaurants each year. Mobil inspects about 12,000 properties each year, using four full-time employees to evaluate service (at about 500 places) and 50 independent contractors to evaluate facilities.
* Exclusivity: Mobil bestows fewer top ratings overall. But that doesn't mean it's fussier. For one thing, it evaluates fewer properties. On a percentage basis, Mobil and AAA grant five diamonds and five stars at about the same rate -- to fewer than 1% of the places they inspect.
* Process: AAA overhauls its ratings standards about every five years, then invites industry representatives to critique them before issuing the final version. "We have some healthy discussion and debate," Petrone said. AAA publishes its criteria at www.aaa.biz/adsales. (Click on "Rating Info & Applications.")
Rated establishments have "opportunities" to buy advertising in AAA TourBooks and rights to use the AAA logo, but those choices don't influence the ratings, Petrone said.
Mobil publishes general ratings guidelines at www.mobiltravelguide.com. (Click on the "Mobil Stars" tab, then "Lodging Stars" or "Restaurant Stars.")
But it doesn't disclose detailed criteria to restaurants or hotels, said O'Flaherty, who compares the inspections to closed-book examinations. "We don't give the properties any feedback," he said. Mobil, he added, doesn't accept advertising from hotels or restaurants.
* Latest changes: For the next round of hotel awards, for 2005 (announced in fall 2004), AAA is implementing a major revision of standards that was delayed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.