Vimana Enlists Mystery Shoppers to Help Mind the Hotel

WINDERMERE, FL—When you think of “mystery shoppers,” does your mind instantly conjure up the image of someone on a secret spy mission? Well, when your hotel is subjected to a surprise inspection, it can certainly feel that way.

As hotel brands seek to surprise and delight guests at every turn and maintain a preferred level of quality, inspections play an important role in ensuring standards are upheld and customer expectations are being met.

Hoteliers eager to improve or exceed their property’s performance see it as an opportunity to get an inside look at a property from the guest perspective, according to Steve Belmonte, CEO of Vimana Franchise Systems, a franchisor of Centerstone Hotels & Key West Inns, based here. He enlisted the services of A Closer Look, a Norcross, GA, company with a crew of mystery shoppers available nationally. Belmonte hired the firm to do a full-scale review of the properties and reduce the costs of having to send a member of his own team to do inspections.

“We knew we had to inspect properties and, in the past, I would have our company president fly out to the property, meet with the owner, do a little PR and then a property inspection,” Belmonte said. “The truth is, it wasn’t very efficient.”

Ensuring brand loyalty and the overall quality of the product is just as important as the customer experience, which is what prompted Belmonte to find a better way to get the job done right. “There are people out there who do it a whole lot better than we do and they’re located nationwide,” he said. “I don’t have to fly people to Texas or Chicago. They’re already there.”

Belmonte doesn’t believe in surprise or unannounced inspections, preferring instead to alert the hotel owner when the inspection is going to occur. He believes it’s a more productive way of focusing on what matters most: quality and the guest experience.

“I learned back when I was a CEO of Ramada for over a decade that unannounced inspections don’t help anyone. If the hotel owner is on vacation, then someone else needs to handle it and that’s not always ideal. It’s a franchise mentality that needs to go away,” he said. “We announce it and properties that do well can expect inspections one to two times a year. If there are issues, they can expect more frequent inspections.”

The results of the property inspection are input into a form, with a copy provided to the owner and then there is a discussion of the findings between the owner and the franchise manager, detailing what went well and where improvement is needed.

“It explains what you can do to get a higher score and we walk through it, so it’s a meaningful document. If there are serious issues, then the property could fail. If it fails, they’re given 30 to 60 days to make the changes required or a property can face default of the license agreement. “We have never had a situation yet where we haven’t been able to work though a plan with the owner. At the end of the day, everybody wants a nicer hotel, even the owner, but he may have financial restrictions so we find out how we can work with them to remedy the issue. Let’s go through the steps before we arbitrarily terminate someone. We really go through intense steps to make sure it’s the last step when all else has failed.”

A Closer Look is just one of the several new services Vimana is partnering with as the company undergoes a restructuring and plans to emerge in the coming months with a new name and expanded offerings.

“Who we are today is going to be extremely different than who we are in 2017. When we launched our franchising company, our goal was to create a model that was different, friendly and fair. We did so with a very specific target audience and those were people who were tired of the old franchise model—12% all-in fees—and came out with a franchise-friendly model of 3%. Everything we did was with the mentality of the franchisee than the franchisor,” he said. “We’re currently in the process of finalizing a financial restructuring of our company and that will allow us to infuse a significant amount of cash into the company to greatly enhance its infrastructure in support services, advertising, marketing and more. A Closer Look is one of 15 services we’re going to expand upon.”

—Corris Little