Photo by Lara Dalinsky
From using an alter-ego alias to messing up perfect pedicures, there’s more to evaluating a hotel than you might think.
In our new series, we explore what it takes to land—and work—the world’s coolest travel jobs. Previous installments featured interviews with an avalanche forecaster, a wildlife photographer, and a polar scientist. Up next: an undercover hotel inspector.
Can you imagine a line of work where “sipping cocktails by the pool” is actually part of your job description? Amanda Smith* can—and for four years, she worked what many would consider a dream job: undercover hotel inspector. The gig involved secretly rating hundreds of high-end hotels, restaurants, and spas all over the world. We caught up with Smith in New York City to ask her about her alter-ego alias, overrated room service, and why inspectors are the world’s lousiest hotel guests.
How exactly does one become a inspector?
“A friend of mine was doing it and told me about the opening. I applied, figuring why not: I love traveling and I love food. The interview process included trial tests. I had to eat breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton in Battery Park , write about the experience, and answer all these questions. They’re looking to see how well you pay attention to detail and if you can blend in and be discreet. That’s when I first realized how detailed and thorough the job was. The company I worked for looks at the entire guest experience from start to finish. For breakfast, let’s say, we begin rating from the minute we make a reservation. We evaluate the host: What are they wearing? How do they address us? Where do they seat us? Can the server describe the dishes on the menu in an easy-to-understand way? Are there vegetarian options? Healthy options? How is the plating? Are the ingredients fresh? Is anything canned? Do they fold my napkin when I get up to use the bathroom? We’ll even time how long our water glass sits empty. The evaluation is as much about the service as it is the food.”
If you’re rating restaurants undercover, you must use an alias to book. So forget Instagramming the meal, right?
“When I started the job, Instagram was just starting to get popular. Twitter was still the thing. Once I accepted the inspector job, I stopped doing social media. It’s a challenge for the company because it’s hard to find people who are knowledgeable but don’t have a following.”
Your alias had her own email account and AmEx card. Did you build a whole character story?
“We made up a lot of stories! [Laughs] I said I was a personal brand consultant and that’s why I was traveling all the time. It’s a vague enough profession, when people asked questions, I could say, ‘I can’t really discuss my clients with you.’ And strangers are really inquisitive! Like, why is this girl sitting alone at a fancy bar in the Peninsula on a Friday night? Why is she at an expensive resort by herself? I would make up stories like, ‘Oh, my sister was supposed to come with me but she had to cancel . . .’ or ‘My friend just had a baby, so I’m in town visiting . . .’. Part of our job at the hotels is to test the concierge; I’ve even asked them where to buy baby clothes, just to keep up my story. You have to make up a story and stick with it!”
But when you’re evaluating a hotel, isn’t most of what you have to review on the property itself? Don’t they wonder why you so rarely leave?
“Some hotels are clueless. Others were probably suspicious. I’d always try to leave for a good chunk of time, even if it was just to work in a café.”
Did you ever get caught?
“I only booked restaurants under my fake name because hotels ask for ID. Most high-end restaurants Google their guests, so if I go under my real name, they might see I have a food background. A lot of them know our company is coming, too, so they’re kind of on the lookout. But there were times I was eating a three-hour meal by myself and it obviously looked a little suspicious. I was at a hotel in New York once and the waiter was like, ‘Do you just really like food or something?’ [Laughs] I was like, ‘Yeah . . . I do.’ Once you get found out, it’s obvious—everyone is super attentive, you’re sent extra dishes. It’s a horrible feeling. You know they know and they know you know, but no one says anything. You just have to sit there.”
How would a restaurant know someone from your company was coming?
“Most get reviewed at least once a year. The company also has a consulting side, where a property can pay for an inspection to see how they’re doing. Ratings are separate, however, and cannot be bought.”
So let’s say you’re on assignment in the Caribbean. Would you jump around to a bunch of different hotels, restaurants, and spas on one trip or focus on a single place?
“For cost-saving purposes, we would do up to four or five different properties. And because it would be kind of weird to go to a romantic place like the Caribbean by yourself, we were allowed to bring companions. My sister came on one trip and my company paid for her flight and all of her meals; all I had to do was put the reservation under her name. It was a huge perk.”
Your friends and family must’ve been really upset when you left the job.
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“They were so sad. [Laughs] Just the other day, my sister was like, ‘Don’t you wish you had your old job back? I do!’”
OK, so walk me through a typical assignment. How did it work?
“We would get our schedules about a month ahead of time. We avoided major holidays like Fourth of July and Labor Day, because hotels are already overwhelmed; we want more of an average guest experience. We’d usually book a second-tier room, which is usually a little bigger and nicer than the entry-level room. But if it’s a really big price jump—like 500 euros—we won’t do it. Staying in a suite is not an average guest experience.”
Would you book online?
“We usually book over the phone, so we can call and ask questions about the hotel. Again, we’re evaluating the hotel from the minute we make the reservation until we check out. We cover about 800 separate points. As soon as we get to the hotel, we record the interaction: How soon do they greet us at the door? Do they take our bags? At the reception desk, do they confirm the number of nights we’re staying? Do they offer us a newspaper for the morning? We call this anticipatory service—anticipating what a guest needs before they even ask for it.”
What happens when you get up to the room?
“The first thing we do is take photos of everything: the bed, the bathroom amenities, the curtains, and any damages. We’re not, like, crawling under desks or using a blacklight, but if you’re sitting in bed and you see a giant crack in the ceiling or scuff marks all over the place, that’s not great. After the room survey, I’d usually go to the gym. Do they have towels and water? What is the condition of the exercise machines? Is there someone there to help you?”
You’re actually exercising or just poking your head in?
“No, we’re exercising. We’d do 30 or 40 minutes and try different machines, make sure they all work. It’s funny: You’re working out like a normal guest but also writing down notes on your phone. I’d pretend I was texting someone and even make faces like I was reacting to a text message while I was really typing notes. [Laughs] It sounds crazy.”
What comes after the gym?
“I would usually go to the hotel bar but set up the room for turndown service. To test housekeeping, I would unfold clothes to see if they’d fold them, scatter shoes to see if they’d pair them, and leave towels on the floor. I’d pretend I took a nap on the bed by jumping in, moving the covers around, and putting dents in the pillows. I’d crumble food around and spill things just to see if they vacuumed and wiped it up.”
You were basically a jerk guest.
“Yeah, and I always felt really bad! Inspectors are the worst kind of guests. So anyway, after I set up the room for turndown service, I’d go to the bar and ask questions about the wine list. I’d do a deep look at how many cocktails they offer, do they use fresh ingredients, how is the presentation, how long does it take them to make the cocktails, and so on. We even look at the snacks. Most high-end hotel bars give you at least two premium snacks—like house-marinated olives or thick-cut potato chips with some kind of cool salt.”
Since you were usually at the bar alone, did people try to hit on you?
“Yes! It’s very uncomfortable. I’d usually sit at a table or bring a magazine or book, because I didn’t want to invite conversation. But that doesn’t stop people. Men would sit down at the table with me. And I’m undercover, so I can’t be like, 'This is my job, get out of here!’”
Did you wear a fake wedding band?
“I did. I would try to look busy, but it’s hard. If you give off a really cold, mean Resting Bitch Face vibe, the staff won’t talk to you—and I need them to check up on me!”
After the bar inspection, do you go back to the room to see how housekeeping did with the turndown service?
“Yes, exactly. If it’s my first night at a hotel, I might order room service—I need to see how long it takes to arrive and what the table setup is like. I feel like everyone loves room service, but on the whole it’s not usually fantastic. Most of the time I dreaded it.”
When things go awry during an inspection—say, you spot a cockroach on the breakfast buffet—how do you handle it?
“I once had a rat run across the dining room when I was eating outside—it wasn’t the hotel’s fault, but no one wants to see a big rat run by dinner. What I do is stay as calm as possible and not make a scene. Inspectors never want to be memorable. In the case of a cockroach on the breakfast buffet, I wouldn’t do anything on the spot, but I would put it in my notes and take it into account when writing up the report.”
It’s interesting that you wouldn’t tell a manager about the problem and then evaluate how they handle it.
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“It’s tricky. I had a situation where my hotel room smelled like vomit. Any normal guest would have complained, but I can’t risk being remembered. We had other ways to test how managers handled difficult situations. For example, if something in the room was broken, we would see how long it’d take to get fixed. Or if a concierge couldn’t get us into a restaurant, do they say ‘We’re really sorry; let’s get you in somewhere else.’ But we could never be the Angry Guest.”
Would you make a point to look at TripAdvisor reviews in advance of visiting a hotel, just to see what other guests did and didn’t like?
“I usually looked after I went. I never wanted to go in somewhere with a preconceived idea of whether or not I would like it. The whole TripAdvisor thing is really hard now, too; people think they have the power to destroy a hotel. But in looking at reviews after the fact, I agreed with a lot of the negative comments.”
Let’s go back to the hotel breakfast. Hopefully there are no roaches. What are you evaluating?
“Breakfast would usually take 45 minutes to write up; it’s very detailed. I’d order coffee to see how long it took to come out. Then I’d evaluate the buffet: Is everything labeled? Is the juice half empty? What is the quality of the berries? Does the oatmeal look congealed? Are dishes piled up? Are the spoons coated in eggs and gross-looking? After breakfast, I’d usually go back to the room and work for a bit, or head down to the pool. We’d get drinks and test out the scene. If there was no pool, I might test the concierge.”
Tell me about the hotel spa reviews.
“The spas were amazing—such a nice perk. We always did either a body or facial treatment, plus a manicure or pedicure. Sometimes I’d have three spa sessions in a week and they’d ask ‘When was the last time you had a massage?’ I couldn’t say, ‘Oh, yesterday.’ [Laughs] If I’d just had a pedicure and needed to get another, I’d literally scrape my toenails on the cement outside, just to mess them up. I felt so bad destroying a $100 pedicure.”
Most of the places you covered are pretty expensive. Did you have to front the money?
“Yes. We put it on our credit cards and were later reimbursed. There were some months when I had a $30,000 credit card bill! But we got to keep the points, which was great.”
Let’s play a quick-fire round of highlights. I’ll throw out a category and you tell me the first place that comes to mind. Best pool?
“Hotel Fasano in Rio de Janeiro. It overlooked Ipanema and was so stunning. But, oh! There’s also Ladera Resort in St. Lucia. It was a three-walled room with a private plunge pool. I saw a rainbow one time that went between the two Pitons—like, wow. So memorable.”
Best hotel bar or best cocktail?
“The Lanesborough in London used to serve this amazing Old Fashioned with coffee beans. They took it off the menu, but the bar itself is beautiful—like an old-school library—and snacks are served on a tiered tray.”
The coolest surprise in a turndown service?
“St. Julien in Boulder, Colorado, gives you homemade chocolate-covered Oreos. They are so good. I stopped the turndown attendant once and was like, 'Can I please have more?’”
You mentioned disappointing room service. When was a time that it wasn’t?
“Sandy Lane in Barbados had really great room service: good quality food, lovely presentation.”
The grandest lobby?
“The Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris for its flower display. It’s a work of living art.”
“The Opposite House in Beijing. It feels like an indoor outdoor shower. The floors are wood, one of the walls is a stone slab, and the whole top of the ceiling is the shower. It rains down as if the heavens opened. I’m obsessed.”
Tell me about a time a concierge blew your mind.
“I was in Paris once when my sister, who speaks French, asked me to pick up this book. I went to the concierge at the Peninsula and asked if he could tell me a bookstore nearby where I could find it. The concierge calls the bookstore, puts a request in, sends one of the bellmen over to pick up the book, and then just charges it to my room. My jaw dropped. It was unbelievable service.”
What’s one hotel that was so good, you would pay out-of-pocket just to visit it again?
“The Dolder Grand in Zurich. The spa was unbelievable: They had an outdoor whirlpool and an ice room with actual ice in it. The property was beautiful, the rooms were new, and the service was fantastic.”
This sounds like a dream job on so many levels. What are the downsides?
“The travel really wears on you; sometimes I’d be gone three weeks a month. You’re constantly packing, unpacking, repacking. And it gets lonely. You miss birthday parties, anniversaries. It’s hard to lead a normal life.”
Now that you’re off the inspector beat, are you able to take a normal vacation?
“Yes! I went to the Miami Beach Edition with my sister and it was so nice to just relax and enjoy it.”
But can you ever really turn off an inspector brain? Or do you still notice, like, how the towels are folded?
“I still notice. Once you know the rules, it’s hard to stop thinking about them. But it makes me happy when a hotel does well. I’m always tempted to go to the front desk and say, ‘I used to be a hotel inspector. . . . You did good!’”
*This article was revised to remove certain proprietary information. The interviewee's identity will not be revealed since her duties included incognito services.
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