Industry Update
Opinion Article 6 October 2020

Does Quality Assurance, as we know it, have a future?

By Jochen Ehrhardt, Founder of TRUE 5 STARS / Cofounder of DNA-QA

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Hotel group revenues are down by as much as 90% across the boards for the second quarter of 2020. The third quarter isn't looking much better, with many hotels only re-opening in the fourth quarter. The global demand-reduced crisis is here to stay and any recovery to 2019 levels is expected to take years, not months.

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As a result, hotels are forced to cut costs wherever possible: Anything that is not considered an essential part of the core business is put to the test.

Quality Assurance falls into this category, raising the question whether traditional Quality Assurance hasn't been an anachronism for some time anyway, with the current crisis only being the final nail in the coffin. For example, luxury hotel operator Dorchester Collection abandoned traditional Quality Assurance some time ago, preferring to focus entirely on guest reviews that are collected 24/7 from multiple booking channels, as well as directly from the hotels.

However, the vast majority of the luxury hotel operators still stick with one provider of traditional Quality Assurance. While decision makers at the operator head-offices claim benchmarking is the main argument for working with the same provider as their competition, a growing number of hoteliers on the ground question the relevance of the up-to-three annual audits. In addition, tying hotel management's pay to the result of such anonymous audits is seen by many as a questionable practice.

Let us recall quickly how traditional Quality Assurance typically works:

  • Anonymous 45-hour audit executed by a professional inspector;
  • Checking 800 - 1,200 boxes (yes, no, n/a) covering all departments relevant to the guest experience;
  • Focusing on facilities, service quality, and EQ (emotional intelligence);
  • Disclosing the nature of the hotel stay to the GM upon departure;
  • Commissioned by the hotel operator's head office.

For many hotel companies, the major selling, or for that matter, buying argument appears to be benchmarking, which necessitates a standardised approach in order to facilitate comparing results with a hotel's peer group. This, at the same time, is also the major weakness, a uniformist, one-size-fits-all and lowest-common-denominator approach that does not serve the purpose—at least for individual, differentiating value-propositions, especially for high-end 5-star+ brands that aspire to exceed. Furthermore, what exactly is the value of finding out that a hotel, for example, scored 1.88% higher or lower than another hotel? In general, why would an operator work with the same advisor as its competitors in the first place, in what should be the core competence, delivering quality that reflects each property's unique DNA? This, obviously, assumes that the operator believes such a DNA exists.

One conclusion is that this uniformist approach to quality contributes to the fact that most luxury hospitality brands lack differentiation and therefore are interchangeable in the guests' eyes. As always, a few exceptions prove the rule.

In addition, many inspectors have to work their way through two checklists of standards during an audit, one for the third-party Quality Assurance provider and another for the brand. As this equates to roughly one box checked every minute, how on earth is the inspector supposed to grasp and inhale the very essence of a hotel's offering, DNA, or value proposition? How can he or she accurately observe and assess the critical human interaction between employees and guests under such time pressure? Doesn't this push the inspector into being a box-checker, similar to a book-keeper?

In light of the currently dire economic situation and lukewarm outlook, coupled with a sub-par approach to what should matter most to high-end products—quality—what could be a practicable solution for those brands wanting to stand out?

Here's a suggestion for Quality Assurance 3.0:

  • Stay longer than 45-hours, spend more time on what really matters; focus on the human interaction, guest engagement as the key aspect, and service quality;
  • Let the facilities take a back seat, i.e. just summarize strengths and weaknesses, as the hoteliers typically are fully aware of their property-related deficiencies;
  • Jettison the 800+ standards, the need to tick boxes, as it prevents the inspector from performing properly.

Having said this, a useful set of standards needs to be embedded in the inspector's head, serving as a reminder or mnemonic device—a useful set of standards being up-to-date, detailed, not a lax, feel-good standardisation—that enables the inspector to gauge accurately the aspirations of companies in search of true excellence and without reference to the competition.

This non-standardised approach would be reflective first and foremost of a brand's demanding and ever evolving clientele, not of the clientele of another brand or the brand's past clientele and its expectations.

For those who'd rather focus on their own strengths and product differentiation, wouldn't the current economic slowdown be a propitious opportunity to revisit the subject and switch to the future of Quality Assurance?

Jochen Ehrhardt

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