There's something rather exciting about being holed up in a luxurious hotel bedroom with two undercover Scottish Tourist Board inspectors. The excitement is twofold. It's partly because we know what we are up to but - we hope - nobody else in Edinburgh's Bonham hotel does, and partly because the STB has officially changed the role of its grading officers and this is one of the first visits.
The frisson is heightened because the only safe place to talk about it without our inspector status being rumbled by the staff is in the bedroom.
Tony Mercer, head of quality assurance and deputy director of visitor services, is explaining that STB inspectors will now not just grade properties but will advise owners how to improve their businesses. And to that end they are no longer called inspectors or grading officers but quality advisers.
It's been a long time coming. "Inspectors" were giving advice in an unofficial capacity even before 1997 (when plans to harmonise the classification and grading systems across the UK came unstuck and the STB launched its own quality grading system). And they are well placed to do so - not only do most quality advisers have experience of running their own businesses, but the job puts them in a prime position to garner information on trends and standards across Scotland. That knowledge has now been harnessed as a resource.
"When officers arrive somewhere, they automatically ask, ‘How's business?' So they had all this knowledge, but it wasn't being used," says Mercer. "We are now using that information and building on it."
To co-ordinate all this data, the STB has recruited a knowledge manager, Kim Ross. The idea is that quality advisers will come back from visits armed with data about trends, problems and requirements. Ross will process it all and then disseminate the information back into the industry through the quality advisers. They, meanwhile, have had two weeks' training to bring them up to speed on what help is available to the hospitality industry.
So, what's in it for the STB? First, all the information on trends can now be analysed. Second, this obviates the need for expensive research. And third, but, perhaps most important, the scheme is expected to help raise the standard of hotels throughout Scotland.
Research shows that between 1990 and 1997, when Scotland's inspectors started their informal advisory role, hotels and guesthouses invested some £134m over and above what the hospitality industry had traditionally invested. In 1997 alone, the extra investment totalled £34m. As senior quality adviser Malcolm Smith points out, this represents a huge improvement in the accommodation on offer. "Even 10 years ago," he says, "I remember a couple of places with chamber pots and lino on the floor."
And, in Smith's view, the new advisory role is a good way to keep pushing standards up. "I'm happy to do it," he says. "There's so much useful information that is disappearing, and people are desperate for it. Most large hotels are switched on, but smaller ones aren't."
So now, if a hotel scores low on, say, porterage or housekeeping, the quality adviser will not merely suggest that the owner trains his staff, but be in a position to recommend relevant training organisations and any opportunities for grant aid. He will also share information about market trends - for instance, what the average German tourist is looking for. And he will act as a one-stop-shop, disseminating information from the STB, local tourist boards and local enterprise companies so that busy hoteliers aren't burdened by too much literature.
What's helped get the scheme off the ground is a pledge of nearly £500,000 from the Scottish Executive. This has allowed the STB to boost the number of quality advisers in the team by seven to 29 so that they can spend longer with each business. Until seven weeks ago, officers would visit 13-14 hotels or guesthouses a week; this is now down to eight or nine visits a week. Officers will also specialise in one region rather than being thinly spread.
Overseeing the scheme is a committee, comprising, among others, the BHA, the Association of Scottish Self-Caterers, the Scottish Consumer Council, a few independents and most major groups. "Everything is done with the committee overseeing it," says Mercer. "We see ourselves working with the industry."
And the industry is already becoming a smaller place, as the STB's foray into IT gathers momentum. Part of the Scottish Executive's investment in the advisory scheme has been spent on laptops for all the advisers.
On a basic level, this allows them to present hoteliers with more professional-looking print-outs of grading scores and comments, rather than hand-written ones. But laptops also enable the quality advisers to show hoteliers the www.visitscotland.com and www.scotexchange.com Web sites set up this year to promote Scotland as a world destination and funded by a £2m Scottish Executive grant. Even more usefully, they can show hoteliers the benefits of the on-line booking service, which was launched in July.
Critics have mocked the on-line booking service, which initially handled only 40 businesses and 18 bookings. But Mercer argues that, as the site had been active for only six weeks, the criticism was unfair. Smith is equally optimistic and reckons that some 65% of hoteliers already have access to computers and many of them will subscribe to on-line bookings once they have been shown the benefits of the site.
A further spinoff from www.visitscotland.com is that at least one page is devoted to explaining the quality grading system. This should help clear up any confusion surrounding the new system - some hoteliers, particularly in more remote areas (see Caterer, 8 June, page 30), still think that four-star means luggage stands, porters, swimming pools and trouser presses.
Mercer stresses that hotels are graded according to their target markets. "Most people expect a TV but, if an owner says his customers are trying to get away from it all, we respect that," he says. "The hotelier won't deliberately upset his customers by not having a TV. He decides what guests he wants."
In short, quality advisers are assessing quality and condition. Service, atmosphere and furnishings are scrutinised, but new furnishings count for nothing if they are of poor quality. The benchmarks are set out in booklets, with examples of which standards achieve a top grade of 10. Mercer is also keen to make clear that the quality scheme was not devised because Scotland has so many remote hotels and guesthouses.
"We make no allowance about it being difficult to transport materials to remote islands," he says, "but we put a rural hotel in context, so we would expect a welcome in the country to be less formal than in a city."
In fact, even given the remoteness of many properties, and the fact that the first hotel visits under the new advisory system have only just been made, the STB is keen to expand the new regime. From September next year, it will also grade Scotland's restaurants, cafés and pubs.
UNDERCOVER WITH THE STB
It's 3pm, and Malcolm Smith, senior grading and classification officer at the STB, is keen to order room service at the Bonham hotel in Edinburgh. It's a good test, he reckons, because often, in the lull between lunch and dinner, the kitchen is ill-prepared.
As it turns out, the order takes a smidge over 20 minutes to arrive, which in Smith's book is acceptable. Unfortunately, the waitress doesn't have one of the orders, although she does come back with it quite promptly.
Smith, however, is concerned that the waitress doesn't hand the coffee straight to the person who stands up to receive it. Instead, she avoids eye contact and places it on the desk. It's one of the details he'll point out to operations director Simon Williams later.
His next task is to note how long it is before someone returns to collect the debris. Annoyingly for him, he has to live with it until the turndown service. But it's all part of being an STB quality adviser.
"My role is a passive one," explains Smith. "We don't create situations, we see what's on offer and ask for what a normal guest would ask for, and see what happens. Sometimes it's difficult, because you have to wait to see how long it takes for someone to do something, whereas in real life you'd go and get whatever it is you want."
Quality of service is often down to staff initiative and it is much prized by Smith. He was pleased, for instance, that one of the porters interrupted what he was doing outside to rush forward and greet him, but disappointed that, instead of offering to carry his bags, the porter simply opened the door and led him to the reception desk.
Lack of initiative is something Smith comes across repeatedly. He cites the example of one modest hotel owner who didn't get newspapers delivered, because the newsagent was just across the road. "Owners should be anticipating guests' needs, not letting them take the initiative," he says. "That's the difference between lacklustre places and top-class places, and combating attitudes like that can be the most difficult thing."
Once he has made himself known to Williams, Smith asks to look over eight to 10 rooms in the 48-bedroom hotel to check consistency of furnishings, cleanliness and so on. Besides looking for all those things that are crucial to a hotel room - adequate lighting, chairs and so forth - he is checking for deterioration. "In a busy city centre hotel, I would expect refurbishing every two or three years at the top end," he says.
Williams is keen to hear Smith's opinions and says it's timely that quality advisers will now provide information, as he needs guidance on how a member of staff can do an MBA. Smith doesn't have the answer to hand but promises to get back to him on whether grants are available and so on.
"You may say that isn't much further forward, because I'm not solving their problems," says Smith. "But we are pointing them in the right direction. We are not the experts - other people have those skills and we help businesses access them."
Although it's Smith's first visit as an adviser, he's already proven that the advisory service is useful even to on-the-ball city centre hoteliers. One useful brochure he discovered at the local enterprise council is the Second Complete Business Support Guide, which surprised both him and Williams as neither had even heard of the first guide.
All in all, Smith is more than satisfied with the Bonham from check-in to checkout, and it keeps its four stars. No matter how good it is, however, the townhouse building's constraints mean that it has too many smaller bedrooms for it ever to be awarded five stars.
Assessors for the English Tourism Council are already equipped with laptop computers, says Mandy Lane, head of quality standards. They have also always had a strong advisory role, albeit unofficially. As with the STB, however, the ETC's on-line bookings system is experiencing slow take-up.
While the STB is moving to extend its grading system to restaurants, cafés and pubs, the ETC has no similar plans.
STB star rating system
Web site: www.visitscotland.com
* Very good
\* Fair and acceptable
Some 8,300 properties are members of the STB, representing 90% of the accommodation stock in Scotland.
Some 70-80 properties were failed last year - most of those were new applicants.
The cost of joining the STB is between £70 and £700, depending on the business.
Since the quality grading scheme was implemented, the number of STB members has risen by 20%.
The new quality grading system's success was measured in the summer of 1999 through half-hour interviews of guests. About 90% said that the star award for the property they were staying in met expectations. Asked whether the property came into the top of the star band, 60% said that it came in the middle of the band and only 8% said it came at the bottom.
To ensure that quality assessment is objective, a senior quality adviser usually does a follow-up visit.
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 19-25 October 2000