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Lodging industry gets high marks, with some reservations

Travelers are generally satisfied with U.S. hotels, surveys show. But about those phone charges ...

June 20, 2004|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

Call it the ultimate guest comment card. If Americans collectively wrote one on the lodging industry, it would read like this:

Basically, you're doing solid, consistent work. But you could do better.

Improve the room lighting. Adjust the heat and air conditioning. Spruce up the decor. Charge less for phone calls. Be friendlier. Make us feel hip and cool. Offer more for the money.

For tips on improving, take a meeting with Walt Disney Resorts or SpringHill Suites by Marriott.

That review is based on recent consumer surveys that took different tacks but arrived at the same conclusion: We're pretty happy with U.S. hotels, but we have some pet peeves that need to be addressed. The extent to which the studies agree is amazing.

Overall it's a positive picture.

In a survey of 35,000 readers published in the July issue of Consumer Reports magazine, nearly seven out of 10 said they were "very" or "completely" satisfied with their hotel stays. That compares with 60% in 2001, the last time the magazine polled its readers on this topic.

In the most recent American Customer Satisfaction Index, based on 20,139 interviews and produced by the University of Michigan Business School and other entities, the lodging industry scored 72 on a 100-point rating scale. That was on par with energy utilities and higher than airlines, at 66.

Although down a bit from last year -- and below such industries as parcel delivery/express mail, at 81, and hospitals, at 76 -- the first-quarter score for lodging has varied by only one or two points in a decade.

The consistency didn't surprise Tod Marks, Consumer Reports senior editor who worked on the magazine's surveys in 2001 and 2004.

"It's a mature industry of staid and steady players," he said.

Chains perform much the same year after year unless there's a management shakeup, ownership changes or major financial problems.

Even though opinion surveys shuffle the categories differently, certain names keep rising to the top.

In the most recent Consumer Reports survey of 50 hotel brands, the highest ratings by category were Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons, tied in "luxury"; Walt Disney Resorts in "upscale"; SpringHill Suites by Marriott in "moderately priced"; and Sleep Inn in "budget."

Three years ago, Four Seasons and Sleep Inn were No. 1 in their categories, and Disney was No. 3. (SpringHill Suites, a newer brand, was not rated.)

Disney and SpringHill Suites also took top honors in their classes in the most recent quarterly report, based on surveys of 35,000 hotel guests, by Market Metrix, a research company in San Rafael, Calif.

SpringHill Suites took the sweet spot in the "mid-priced limited service segment" last year in J.D. Power and Associates' North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study, based on responses from 12,850 guests. (This year's study has not yet been released.)

Certain complaints keep popping up across surveys too.

Poor room lighting, unattractive decor and problems with the heating or air conditioning were among guests' main gripes in this year's survey, said Charles Daviet, director of survey research for Consumer Reports.

Some chains in particular -- the magazine identified Hyatt, Sheraton and Westin -- drew fire from 45% or more of their guests for "excessive phone charges."

Having recently been dinged $2.28 each time I dialed a toll-free number from my room at a Westin in Chicago, I found that last figure believable.

But could poor lighting really be guests' chief complaint about U.S. hotels, cited by 10% in the Consumer Reports survey?

Apparently so.

In the Market Metrix study, guests gave "proper room lighting" the biggest thumbs-down when registering their opinions of lodging products.

Other low-scoring categories were "value for price," "employees' can-do attitude," "friendliness of reservation agent" and "telephones answered quickly."

When rated for the emotions they engendered in guests, hotels overall struck out on "hip/cool," "inspired" and "elegant."

When I asked Jonathan Barsky, a partner in Market Metrix, about the survey results, he noted that lighting and decor were costly and subject to personal taste.

What's right for one guest may be wrong for another. So those items "are constant targets" of complaints, he said.

In his survey's breakdown of satisfaction factors, top-ranked Disney resorts inspired guests to feel entertained and excited. Staff members also scored with their knowledge, "can-do attitude" and friendliness.

SpringHill Suites scored well on "value for price." That's because the chain generally charges less than other hotels in its class, Barsky said. Price was the only quality on which SpringHill Suites strongly surpassed competitors, but it was enough to push it to the top.

Expectations have much to do with how we feel about hotels.

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