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Luxury hotel groups are serious about quality

If members don’t follow standards, they are kicked out

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Everyone likes validation. For many a luxury-seeking traveler, it's comforting to arrive at a lodging and see a shiny brass plaque that says "Leading Hotels of the World" or "Preferred Hotels & Resorts Worldwide." Or a framed notice at the front desk that says "Small Luxury Hotels of the World." Or maybe the thrill came in advance, when the traveler was perusing hotel brochures and found one with the "Relais & Chateaux" seal of approval.

The world is full of marketers trying to catch the attention of big spenders. So how do these hotel groups choose their members? And if they're so exclusive, do they really eject hotels that start to slip?

The answers vary, but all of these luxury hotel groups rely on inspections (usually unannounced, usually by hotel-business pros), and all claim they drop faltering members every year.

Each of these groups has been convened to help upscale independent hotels market themselves against formidable chain competitors. Usually these luxury groups offer a central reservation service and information through a toll-free phone number and Internet site. In exchange, the groups collect fees from member hotels. How much usually depends on revenues and the number of guest rooms. As time has passed, most of these groups have grown, which challenges them to balance their claims of exclusivity with the desire for strength in numbers.

Here, alphabetically, is a survey of four leading luxury groups. To give a sense of the hotels involved, each group's San Francisco members are listed.

Leading Hotels of the World, 1-800-223-6800, founded in 1928, was originally called "Luxury Hotels of Europe and Egypt." It began with 38 members, including the Savoy in London and the Mena House in Cairo. It is based in New York and claims 340 hotels in 68 countries.

Applicant hotels face inspection by two professional hoteliers. Later, an executive committee votes. In a typical year, 50 new hotels are admitted from 150 applicants, a spokeswoman said.

Hotels must pass two unannounced inspections every three years.

Six member hotels were dropped last year because of declining quality, and about two dozen "did not renew on their own because they realized their standards had slipped," the spokeswoman said.

San Francisco members include the Mandarin Oriental (154 rooms, brochure rates $470 and up); the Pan Pacific (329 rooms, $245 and up); and the Ritz-Carlton (380 rooms, $349 and up). Web site: www.lhw.com

Preferred Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, 1-800-323-7500, 32 years old, includes 115 hotels in 25 countries.

To keep members on their toes, the Preferred group annually dispatches inspectors, unannounced (hired from an outside quality-assurance organization), to complete an evaluation form with 1,600 line items. (Room service alone takes up 60 line items, including whether it answers the phone in four rings or fewer.)

Would-be members apply, are inspected twice (once by a third party, once by the general manager of a member hotel, both unannounced), then face a vote by the member hoteliers who make up the Preferred group's board of directors. Last year, 150 hotels inquired about membership, 18 made full-fledged applications, and 13 were successful, said Rob Cornell, the group's vice president for development. While those new members were joining, three member hotels were dropped for failing to meet standards.

San Francisco members are the Huntington Hotel (140 rooms, brochure rates $275 and up; also a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World) and Campton Place (110 rooms, $295 nightly and up). Web site: www.preferredhotels.com

Relais & Chateaux, 1-800-735-2478, which has its headquarters in Paris, traces its roots to 1954, when eight hoteliers along the Paris-Nice road got together to market themselves jointly. Boosted by a 1975 merger with two rival organizations, the group has grown to 363 independently owned hotels (all with restaurants) and 64 stand-alone restaurants.

Cuisine is a higher priority for this group than for the others, and rural locations are more common. One-third of the members are in France; the rest are spread among 43 countries, including 72 in the Americas.

Member hotels average 31 rooms. A spokeswoman said the group has hotel professionals who make periodic anonymous inspections, focusing on "the five Cs": character, courtesy, calm, charm and cuisine.

Members are placed in three categories: purple (the highest, including some lodgings that are castles — literally); yellow (often converted mansions); and blue (often converted abbeys, mills and convents, usually with lower prices than those in the other categories).

The low end of the Relais & Chateaux price range is around $200 nightly.

The group has accepted 31 new members this year from about 150 applications, a spokeswoman said.

In San Francisco, the Relais group is represented by the Sherman House, an 1876 Victorian whose eight rooms and six suites rent for $350 a night and up. It has a yellow classification. Web site: www.relaischateaux.fr

Small Luxury Hotels of the World, 1-800-525-4800, was founded more than 30 years ago and includes 256 hotels worldwide.

The group, based in London, took on 36 new members in 1999, about one of every nine hotels that applied, a spokesman said.

Eight hotels were dropped last year.

Member hotels are inspected every other year. Until three years ago, the group used inspectors from an outside organization. Now the group uses "repeat guests and loyal SLH patrons" as inspectors, a spokeswoman said.

In San Francisco, the Huntington Hotel belongs to the group. Web site: www.slh.com