The idea of starting a secret shopper business came to Jim Coyle, now 57, when he was working as a shift manager at a Manhattan hotel. The hotel school graduate had just seen his property undergo a standard inspection, carried out by a secret shopper-like road warrior posing as a guest. It took weeks for him to receive the final report, long after the issues he raised had potentially dissipated, he told Insider. Worse yet, he focused primarily on quantitative rather than qualitative feedback. Coyle knew he could do better, so he set out to create a new type of guard gumshoe for luxury hotels.
That was in 1996, and nearly three decades later, Coyle Hospitality is at the pinnacle of its industry. The company has 80,000 independent inspectors on its roster and a who’s who of hotels as clients, including Marriott, Hyatt and IHG (owner of Six Senses, Kimpton and Regent), who turned to its team to assess properties, using information from company first hand. reports to help them improve all aspects of their hotels. Coyle has also expanded his inspection expertise beyond hotels to restaurants, real estate, retail and even healthcare.
Here’s a look at how his business works.
Inspectors don’t work for Coyle full-time, and that’s what makes them such impressive hotel snoopers.
Coyle instinctively understood that a kind of road warrior, one who lives in hotel rooms and travels most of the year to inspect them, would tire, lose perspective, and likely take shortcuts as a result. On the other hand, he believed that part-time snoopers would remain vigilant and vigilant, even more so if they belonged to groups in a hotel’s target market. Five-star travelers know firsthand what five-star service should entail.
Coyle decided to send ordinary guests as secret shoppers, with a little guidance from his team. Their team of independent reviewers, consisting mostly of white-collar workers from around the world, can deliver reports in two to three days, rather than weeks or even a month, making their comments timely and specific.
Coyle Hospitality receives around 30,000 applications a year for its independent reviewer positions and accepts less than 10% of them, using a proprietary algorithm to select those worth interviewing. Certain professions stand out, Coyle said, like professional musicians. “When the curtain goes up on a show, they know they have to start; it’s the same when they get to a hotel and they know they have to perform,” he said, adding that his ability to take instructions, whether from Coyle or a conductor and the innate instinct to work as a team are added bonuses.
Teachers, professors, and other types of educators are organized and communicate well, as are the spouses of those who travel for work: A woman who works for Coyle travels the world with her husband, a corporate lawyer, and can easily turn those trips into assignments. Small business owners are also a favorite with her, whatever their industry. “They understand how important guest service is and they know things won’t be perfect, but they can see the big picture,” she said.
How an aspiring hotel inspector wins a Coyle Hospitality job
Most hotel locations have four annual inspections and spend an average of around $10,000 with Coyle. But Coyle won’t be sending a first-time inspector first class for an extended stay in a beachfront suite in Hawaii. “They start with simple assignments, which could be calling a reservations clerk and asking about room types or ordering takeout at an upscale sushi restaurant,” he said. Raters submit reports and receive a score of 20, much like an Uber rating: Coyle Hospitality counts communication, accuracy, and other elements to outline a profile of your particular skill set.
When a client hires Coyle for an assignment, he notifies his group of inspectors. The report they receive may contain psychographic or demographic requirements to narrow down potential hires. She then waits for them to bid on an assignment. “Let’s say we have a three-day stay at a Kimpton hotel. We’ll ask them to bid on what they’ll do that job for, and we usually have 80 to 100 bidders,” she said. “We have all kinds of performance data on them, so we have an algorithm that determines who gets the job. There are a lot of factors, and it doesn’t always go to the highest bidder.”
The tender business model keeps costs low, both in terms of fares and travel expenses. Let’s say someone on your list has booked a trip to Monte Carlo and has already booked a flight; you could look for an inspection job to cover your accommodation. “The bidding system virtually eliminated all travel from the cost of a quality inspection, saving one customer over $40,000 in travel that way,” she added.
What hotel inspectors look for when rating a room
The basics of an inspection are universal. Human hair anywhere, for example, will score low. “The presence of the previous guest is the nuclear bomb,” she said. “That will create a visceral response: If you open your dresser drawer to find something to write with, only to find a crumpled map. It’s about suspending disbelief, the idea that this room is yours and it’s ready for you.” . only.”
Coyle always advises looking at the manager at the front desk: his dress code may be shorthand for the state of the hotel. A general manager in a wrinkled shirt and ill-fitting suit, Coyle said, is a warning that the hotel as a whole is likely to be in trouble. “The GM’s personality is 90% of what sets a hotel apart.”
However, in addition to these basics, each gig will have specific tasks, again generally related to the type of customer they want to better understand. Take for example the luxury resort in Arizona that asked Coyle to find young families to report on his product. He assigned a woman with a husband and children from her database. The service was graceful and prompt, she reported, but there was a problem upon arrival: The bellman took the bags out of the car and left them outside on the luggage cart, telling the family to wait a few minutes. “Meanwhile, her suitcase is sitting in the sun, with baby formula, and when she went to get it, the man said, ‘No, we’ll take care of that,’ not understanding why. That was an ‘aha’ moment for the operator, learning that they were leaving bags in the sun.
Another hotel hired the company to find out why its solo female guests were complaining about paying much higher rates than male travelers of a similar age. Coyle sent over some female executives from her list, who discovered three problems: Men were treated with more respect at check-in, they said, and were given a much more attentive formality by staff; hallways were also poorly lit, creating anxiety for any woman late at night; and the bustling bar was worst of all. “The bartenders were guys who would high-five and approach the women, so it felt more like a frat party, even though it was a very chi-chi lounge,” Coyle said. All it took for the hotel was to retrain and get some brighter bulbs to reduce the negative feedback.
Sometimes Coyle’s team discovers more than just dirty laundry.
A five-star hotel came to Coyle because they couldn’t figure out why their exclusive spa scored so poorly in paid reviews. There was no clear reason, until the inspection team booked some treatments. They found out that a staff member was the problem. “He was a masseur, he would make very off-color comments, like about clients’ weight or back acne. They were so mortified they didn’t bring it up with anyone,” Coyle said. “He thought he was being helpful, but he was speaking too freely.” Coyle said he doesn’t know if the hotel fired that particular employee, but his contracts include language that expressly prohibits guests from using the reports alone as firing tools.
Occasionally, Coyle’s team will expose criminality, such as when they uncovered hoaxes at a luxury resort in New England. His business model was focused mainly on repeat guests, and it used to be 100% full during the tourist season. Such booking levels prompted regulars to plan ahead, leaving a small deposit for the upcoming season after each stay, and the hotel’s accounting team would automatically transfer and bill the guest in full at the end of their stay at instead of deducting the deposit. of this year’s account. This practice surprised the Coyle inspection team and they called for a full refund as they did not plan to return next year. Even after calling for a refund, it never came, because the manager had been pocketing those deposits for over two years.
The pandemic hit the travel industry, but Coyle was poised for a turn
Like many in the hospitality industry, Coyle saw a major downturn in business as shutdowns and travel slowdowns brought his core industry to a standstill. “My business revenue was down 10% in almost a week, and we consider ourselves lucky. Many clients’ revenues were down to zero,” he said. He had already experienced two similar recessions: after September 11, 2001 and after the Great
– so it was prepared to turn around, focusing on generating revenue streams in other sectors that it had already dallied in during the last recession. Today, 50% of its customers are hotels, while restaurants make up 25-30%, with other sectors like healthcare, retail, and even cannabis startups making up the rest.
His inspectors have highly transferable skills, he said, allowing them to assess establishments like walk-in medical clinics. They may qualify if they are greeted courteously at the front desk and how quickly they are accommodated.
One homebuilder, Coyle said, wanted help creating a Four Seasons-like experience at its sales centers. “We created measures like, ‘Is the salesperson someone you’d like to have a cup of coffee with?'” Coyle said. He often suggests that high-touch companies like this one adopt the 10-in-5 rule, which is standard in hotels: If a guest is within 10 feet, look them in the eye, and if they’re within five feet, greet them. before I greet you. .
Nor are you worried that user-generated reviews (think Tripadvisor and company) will doom your hotel inspection business in the long run. “The people who visit those sites are usually not typical customers,” he said. “The time of wealthy people is too valuable to go to these forums and spend it writing a complaint.”