AAA's hotel inspector comes calling
Note: This story has been corrected to include the true number and names of AAA four diamond hotels and restaurants in Idaho.
Excellent hotel inspections — like the one Tuesday by AAA at The Grove Hotel in Downtown Boise — are duller than the bad ones.
Once, an AAA hotel inspector opened a hotel closet to find a snake. Another time, an inspector found a meth lab. Then there are the generic lousy inspections, where inspectors find booze or dirty sheets.
Inspector 12, an inspector for 23 years, says he and his colleagues have seen them all. “Those types of things disqualify properties from receiving a diamond rating,” he said.
AAA invited the Idaho Statesman and a Boise TV station to accompany Inspector 12 to show how the nationwide automobile and travel club rates hotels and restaurants. AAA rates hotels in its annual TourBooks. In this year’s TourBook for Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, The Grove received four diamonds, AAA’s second-highest rating. Hotels and restaurants hope to maintain ratings for the exposure and prestige stemming from listings and the right to hang shiny plaques in lobbies.
The question Tuesday was whether The Grove still measured up.
AAA asked that the inspector not be named and that his face not be shown so he can remain anonymous to the establishments he inspects. The Statesman agreed.
Inspector 12 works in Florida, where he now mostly manages other AAA inspectors, though he still gets out now and then, as he did by traveling to Boise.
He arrived unannounced, with the reporters and photographers trailing, for this year’s inspection. He asked for the manager. That is John Cunningham, who is also CEO of Block 22, the ownership group controlling The Grove, the adjoined CenturyLink Arena and the Idaho Steelheads minor league hockey team that plays there.
Cunningham abruptly left a board meeting to greet the inspector and the media. He agreed to Inspector 12’s request to let the media follow him.
50 Number of AAA inspectors nationwide, including one who lives in Twin Falls
Cunningham, dressed in a pinstripe suit and tie, was no stranger to the inspection process. The Grove has held a Four Diamond from AAA for years, a distinction shared in Idaho by only the Coeur d’Alene Resort, Sun Valley Lodge and Sun Valley Inn, and the Shore Lodge in McCall. The state has one four-diamond restaurant, Beverly’s, the onsite restaurant of the Coeur d’Alene Resort.
Idaho has no Five Diamond hotels or restaurants.
But he looked a little uncomfortable Tuesday, especially as the inspection started. Inspector 12 said most general managers do.
“That’s natural,” he said. “They get a little nervous even when they have a good product.”
The men exchanged small talk. They discovered they hail from nearby towns in Rhode Island. Both enjoy hockey. Cunningham seemed to relax, especially when Inspector 12 started noting positives on his tablet.
Cunningham said the process is always “a little nerve-racking,” though picky customers can be more critical than inspectors, he said.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, we get things right,” Cunningham said. “Hopefully, there are no breakdowns today. But it does happen.”
0.4% Percentage of properties that receive the AAA Five Diamond score, which requires overnight stays and multiple inspections
0 Number of AAA Five Diamond-awarded hotels or restaurants in Idaho
AAA bases ratings on a hotel’s most affordable rooms. Cunningham first took the inspector to a room costing $149 to $219 per night, depending on occupancy. It overlooked the new Clearwater Building and the rainy Downtown skyline.
Inspector 12 worked through hundreds of items on the checklist on his tablet, checking for detritus in drawers, spots on sheets, streaks on windows.
“And now, for the most important feature in the room,” he said. He pressed the power button on the TV remote. The TV lit up. He tapped the checklist.
He inspected four rooms, which yielded demerits for light dust on the top side of the frame of a wall mirror, scuffs on an elevator wall, and other minor housekeeping and maintenance issues. Inspector 12 talked through the list with Cunningham and said The Grove would maintain its Four Diamond rating.
“There’s not a lot,” the inspector said. “You’ve done a really good job here.”
Cunningham shook the inspector’s hand and thanked him for coming. He chuckled.
“I’ll believe it when I see it in writing,” he said.
Afterward, Inspector 12 and two staffers from AAA’s Boise office went to lunch at Fork, which holds a Triple Diamond rating.
Inspector 12 washed his hands after ordering, as he always does. He learned his lesson once in Wisconsin when, after inspecting a hotel “that didn’t do too well,” he ruined a perfectly good lunch by wrapping hands coated with dirt from the hotel room around a sandwich.
Inspector 12 doesn’t identify himself at restaurants to ensure he receives typical service. He asked the waitress a few questions about the menu and said he found her knowledgeable, personable and funny. His halibut sandwich was good, though the presentation wasn’t as strong as several other dishes he spotted around the dining room.
The decor was nice and family-friendly, all consistent with Fork’s Three Diamond rating, he said.
Inspector 12 said he sometimes struggles to turn off his critic mode. He notices imperfections when he’s shopping in grocery or department stores. There’s a coffee stain on the floor of AAA Boise’s office. He noticed that.
But he still loves his job after 23 years, in part because he’s enjoyed some of the finest restaurants and lodging in the country.
The job does have its awkward moments.
“There are those really nice, romantic dinner places, and I have to go by myself,” he said. “That can feel a little uncomfortable.”