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Hotel guests are paying more but enjoying their stay less

More bucks, less bang. When it comes to travelers’ satisfaction with their hotel experiences, a new report suggests the industry’s efforts are more dud than dazzling.

Released on Wednesday, J.D. Power and Associates’ 2012 North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study shows overall guest satisfaction dropping to 757 on a 1,000-point scale, down 7 index points from last year. Although small, the drop is significant, says the report, because it masks even larger drops in key sub-categories, including check-in/check-out, food and beverage and guestrooms.

In other words, it’s not what guests are paying that has them peeved — satisfaction with costs and fees was down slightly but is still high by historical standards — but rather, what they get for their money.

And which hotels are giving guests what they want? Analyzing the industry across seven categories, the top-scoring hotels were:

  • Luxury: The Ritz-Carlton (864, third consecutive first-place finish)
  • Upper Upscale: Omni Hotels & Resorts (811)
  • Upscale: Hilton Garden Inn and SpringHill Suites (tied at 811)
  • Mid-scale Full Service: Holiday Inn (776, second consecutive year)
  • Mid-scale Limited Service: Drury Hotels (841, seventh consecutive year)
  • Economy/Budget: Jameson Inn (751)
  • Extended Stay: Homewood Suites (838, third consecutive year)

High-scorers aside, however, overall guest satisfaction has been on a downward track in recent years as hotels have been slow to renovate or add staff even as the economy has rebounded and more people are traveling.

“During the downturn, occupancies were also down so it was quicker to check in, easier to get upgraded,” said Stuart Greif, vice president and general manager of the company’s global travel and hospitality practice. “Now it’s reversed. There are more people on property so lines are longer, you can’t get upgrades as easily and it’s more crowded in the gym.”

In fact, according to Greif, four of the seven categories studied — check-in/check-out, food and beverage, hotel services and hotel facilities — received their lowest scores since 2006 while a fifth — guestrooms — declined to within one point of its seven-year low.

Despite the declines, this year’s study also suggests a possible path for future improvement. For the first time, researchers developed a Staff Opinion Model, which took a more in-depth look at how overall guest satisfaction was impacted by interactions with staff across various departments.

“If everybody has nice rooms and puts omelets out for breakfast, what is it about the hotel brand that sets it apart?” said Greif. The answer: employees and the degree to which they make people feel welcome.

Take front-desk staff. According to the study, guests reported an average overall satisfaction of 797 at hotels where they were addressed by name but just 702 at properties where they weren’t, a difference of almost 100 index points.

“A smile is not a hard cost,” Greif told NBC News. “It doesn’t have to be part of a $5 million property improvement plan.”

Furthermore, what’s good for guests is also good for hotels as customers who reported higher satisfaction with staff were also more likely to return, recommend the hotel to others and even spend more on food, beverage and other amenities.

“A number of the highest-ranked brands have that human touch,” said Greif. “It’s not just a cliché to say we want guests to be happy. It really is an important part of brands’ success.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

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