Top-ranked hotel brands in J.D. Power survey, by segment:

• Luxury: Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
• Upscale: Embassy Suites Hotels (third consecutive year)
• Mid-Scale Full Service: Hilton Garden Inn
• Mid-Scale Limited Service: Drury Inn & Suites (fourth consecutive year)
• Economy/Budget: Microtel Inns & Suites (eighth consecutive year)
• Extended Stay: Staybridge Suites

At a time when falling rates and demand have been forcing hotels to cut staff and other operating costs, the annual J.D. Power and Associates survey reveals that four of the six industry categories have nonetheless managed to improve guest satisfaction this year.

But J.D. Power officials were quick to note that improved scores did not necessarily reflect better service and facilities. They might also be attributable to lower expectations or a higher forgiveness factor on the part of guests who know they are getting a great deal.

In addition, the recession has enabled hotels to more easily manage room reservations and correct booking mistakes because occupancy is down, said Michael Drago, director of the global hospitality and travel practice at J.D. Power.

"I don't want to diminish what hotels are doing," Drago said. "It's a cumulative effect."

For example, he said, "One of the biggest drivers of the guest experience is cost and fees. So even though people don't love the fees for things like high-speed Internet, if I have been watching that the [room rates at the] Hilton Hotel in Disneyland drop from $169 to $109 ... [that] increases the perceived value of what you get when you realize you are coming in at a bargain price."

Lower demand also makes it easier for hotels to satisfy their existing customers even if they have had to cut back on staff or on other costs, Drago said.

"One of the more common problems in hotels, for example, tends to be in reservations," he said. "When you're not at capacity it's a lot easier to manage and correct. I perceive it as a better value, and there's a bigger margin for error.

"If you wanted a nonsmoking room and they have 60 available, it's a lot easier now than a few years ago when it was, 'Sorry, we only have a room with a single bed. It's a smoking room, and it's in the parking lot.'?"

'Subtle touches'

Hotels in four of the six categories -- upscale, midscale full service, midscale limited service and economy/budget -- improved their levels of guest satisfaction in 2009 compared with last year, the survey showed.

Guest satisfaction with luxury hotels, which have seen the largest drop in rates and demand in the downturn, has remained stable year over year, while satisfaction with extended-stay properties has deceased slightly.

Four Seasons led the luxury segment, followed closely by Ritz-Carlton. Drago said those two brands continued to improve their guest satisfaction scores while the gap between them and their competition widened.

Four Seasons credits its top scores to the way its employees relate to the guests.

"It's about people," said Jim FitzGibbon, president of worldwide hotel operations for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.

"It's about building the confidence of the employees so the employee relates to the customer on a personal basis," he said. "It is really about the people in the building who genuinely care about providing high levels of service in a very practical way; not things that are over the top, but things that you actually use all the time and make your life more pleasant and make it easier to travel."

For example, Four Seasons said, it focuses on the subtle touches, like sewing on a loose button or providing workout clothes in the fitness center.

Two Hilton brands led their segments: Embassy Suites and Hilton Garden Inn.

Jim Holthouser, senior vice president of brand management for Embassy Suites, said brandwide physical upgrades and a strong focus on service standards helped his brand lead the upscale pack. And even in a downturn, he noted, "it doesn't cost you anything to be friendly and hospitable."

Consistency is key

The key for the top-scoring brands, Drago said, is consistency.

"They differentiate themselves by meeting customer expectations consistently, whether it's a guest's first stay with the brand or their 50th," he said.

Among the other large chains, Drago said, every InterContinental Hotels Group property, which include brands like Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza and Indigo, improved their rankings.

"Marriott wasn't highest-ranked in any single area but consistently was in the top handful," Drago said. "They are always there in that top tier."

Among Starwood brands, Drago said the W and Westin brands have regressed, while Sheraton did a little better than last year, ranking 11th in the upscale category.

In the economy sector, Wyndham's Microtel Inns & Suites ranked highest for an unprecedented eighth consecutive year.

Despite Drago's suggestion that guests might be more forgiving when they know they're getting a great deal on a hotel, survey results also suggested that guest expectations are higher than ever on hotel amenities.

Overall satisfaction with room quality deteriorated, as guests expect more of the amenities that many brands have added as part of the industry's pre-recession building boom and brand upgrade programs.

For the first time since the study began in 1997, bedding and pillow choices and free parking ranked among the top five "must-have" amenities for hotel guests.

Other most-desired amenities include complimentary breakfast, wireless Internet access and pillow-top mattresses.

Within the luxury segment, a high percentage of guests expressed the desire for in-room, high-definition, flat-panel TVs.

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