May 28, 1995

Ratings For Guidebook Done By ‘Real’ Travelers

Jack Severson Philadelphia Inquirer

There are plenty of ways to find just the right hotel or resort for your next vacation.

You can ask friends, relatives and colleagues at work. But you have to trust their judgment - and hope that their tastes and yours are similar.

You can peruse dozens of brochures. But you have to trust the brochure writers, who, of course, work for the hotels or resorts.

You can trust your travel agent. But the agent - like your friends, etc. - should have more than a casual acquaintance with your tastes and needs.

Finally, you can consult travel guidebooks. But here, the informational waters get even murkier. Some guides do little more than list the accommodations available. Others provide subjective evaluations, but those assessments may be based on secondhand information, may not be current or - in the case of particularly glowing reports - may be the result of the authors having been provided with expensive suites for a week at no cost.

There is, however, a series of guidebooks for which the evaluations are done by folks like you and me, people who have no interest in the establishments they visit other than getting a good night’s sleep or enjoying a vacation. The series, known informally as the Zagat guides, is composed of 30 books, the bulk of them restaurant guides to major cities and regions of the United States.

Last month, Nina and Tim Zagat released the fourth edition of the “Zagat Survey of U.S. Hotels, Resorts and Spas,” a 584-page compendium of evaluations and information on more than 4,000 hotels, resorts, spas and hotel chains in the 50 states and Puerto Rico. It is a trove of information about hotels in 46 major markets, a dozen or so “second-tier” cities and the major resort areas of the United States.

The listing for each city or market provides Top 10 rankings for the hotels with the best rooms, best dining, best values, best service, best public facilities and best overall score.

And just who does the evaluating? Certainly not the Zagats, nor the Zagat Survey staff - it would take a staff of thousands to visit and assess all those properties.

No, the Zagats solicit their information from frequent travelers who, if not “exactly” like you and me (the typical survey participant stays in hotels 35 nights a year), can bring a high degree of objectivity to their assessments.

They also provide more than a little gloves-off candor. After the Top 10 rankings for each city/market, the major hotels are listed in alphabetical order, with scores from 0 to 30 awarded by survey participants in each of four categories - rooms, service, dining and public facilities. The rate for a double room is also included.

In addition, each entry includes participants’ comments on a hotel or resort. Here’s where the candor comes in. Participants who may have good things to say about several aspects of a place are nonetheless not shy about pointing out the warts.

Evaluations of resorts follow the same structure as those for the hotels listed in the guide, although the Top 10 listings are broken down by state and in only two categories: best value and best overall. The section on spas ranks only the Top 10 for value and overall and is not classified geographically; the major U.S. spas, with their evaluations and scores, are simply listed alphabetically.

And although the title doesn’t indicate it, this edition of the guide also includes rankings - with comments - of hotel chains, as well as the major airlines, both foreign and domestic, and U.S. rental-car companies. (These evaluations were provided by frequent fliers and renters, respectively.)

A total of 11,670 people participated in the survey for this latest edition of the guide, including more than 700 “travel professionals” - travel agents, meeting planners, airline personnel.

When all the results for the new guide were in, Ripp said, Palm Springs had nudged the PhoenixScottsdale area out of the numberone spot as the market with the best overall hotel ranking. Those two were followed, in order, by Honolulu, Dallas and San Antonio as the five top hotel markets.

In the back of the guide, there are helpful indexes, listing, by market, the hotels that provide any of 41 features, ranging from special amenities and ambience to location and facilities. The index categories include Beautiful Grounds, European Style, Elite Status, Pets Allowed, People Watching, Restful and Romantic.

It’s easy to participate in a Zagat survey if you qualify as someone who dines out or travels frequently. Send a request for a survey questionnaire, along with a stamped, self-addressed envelope, to: Zagat Survey, 4 Columbus Circle, New York, N.Y. 10019. The Zagat folks send to each participant a free copy of the guide in which a participant’s survey was used.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email