12 April 1996

MAKING THE GRADE

WHY IT IS WORTH

Consumer confidence is what the quality grading scheme sets out to secure, with more bookings, longer stays and return visits to boost the operators profits. And quality can be achieved with modest facilities, as Ann Rogers

discovered when she went along to two of the five

quality awareness days run by ADAS and the English Tourist Board with the help of the Farm Holiday Bureau

The national tourist boards of England, Scotland and Wales have a common

classification and grading system for serviced accommodation. The word "Listed" and crown symbols, one to five in number, refer to the quantity of facilities that you can expect to find in a hotel, guesthouse or bed and breakfast establishment. Grades are indicated by

the words Approved, Commended, Highly

commended and De luxe which refer to the quality

of the establishment its service and facilities.

ONCE they had welcomed their visitors and refreshed them with coffee and biscuits, the Farm Holiday Bureau members hosting the ADAS/English Tourist Board-run quality awareness days disappeared from the scene.

The preparation of the buffet lunch for the party of farmhouse bed and breakfast providers who had come to learn more about the ETB grading of accommodation was not the real reason for their hostesses low profile. Instead it saved embarrassment as the days instructors used their rooms as a teaching aid – and in Barbara Tunnicliffes case saved her distress at seeing how they had trashed accommodation at The Beeches, Wardley, Derbys, to show how not to do things.

Clutter – unsightly and dangerous – was dropped on a landing while her first floor guests sitting room now looked more like a doctors waiting-room, though they would have had to strip the walls and cover the beams to eliminate all its charm.

The visitors were asked to comment and suggest touches that would make the room look inviting, increase guests comfort and enhance their holidays. The list they came up with included rearranging the lighting and the furniture, moving the dried flowers and putting in pictures, books and games.

First impressions on entering a room make a world of difference as Christopher Howard of the ETB pointed out. He had made the first of the bedrooms he took visitors into look far plainer than it normally would. He also made the bed look less comfortable with two pillows removed to the wardrobe (a laundry-saving technique) and the base of the bed exposed. But he could not hide the quality of the bed or of the carpet which, he admitted, was comfortable to walk upon even in bare feet.

"Screaming subtleties" was the phrase he used to describe simple touches which convey a strong message of welcome: A few flowers in a glass or foliage arranged in a bud vase would be a suitable touch that the farm garden could provide year round, he said. A few boiled sweets in a dish placed beside the notice that says "Thank you for not smoking," was a suggested "screaming subtlety" that could placate the smoker to who misses lighting up, he suggested.

It was lucky that Barbara didnt see how they had turned out her breakfast table – sloppily laid cutlery, odd cups and tatty cereal boxes were just a three of the items which said "Giving you breakfast is a bother," instead of "We care about your enjoyment."

There was no trashing of Rectory Farm, Northmoor, Oxon but a lot of very close scrutiny. As they gathered in the large dining/sitting room that Mary Anne Florey sets aside for the use of guests, visitors were handed check lists which covered the property in detail from exterior, through reception, bedrooms, bathrooms, public areas, bars, dining room/restaurant, parking, tourist information, departures and leisure facilities – though not all headings were applicable in the case of Rectory Farm.

The list included all the items that a tourist board inspector would take into account. "Ask yourselves, is this poor, acceptable, good or excellent; quite good, good, or very good?" said Stephen Barratt of the Southern Tourist Board encouraging visitors to begin by considering the quality of the room that they were in, beginning with the decor.

Be objective

Personal taste is irrelevant. It is the quality of the decorations that counts, he explained, and whether they are properly applied and in sound condition. Is the furniture, fittings and the flooring in good condition and suitable for its purpose? Is the lighting and heating adequate? How does the atmosphere and ambience rate and what about the cleanliness?

The inspectors had had a thorough hunt for dust and cobwebs the day before, they admitted, and failed to find any. There was no chance of finding any old socks or crisp packets under the beds in Mary Annes attractive rooms ("Its incredible what you find under there," said ETB inspector Steve Allen referring to other establishments he had visited.)

Signs at the roadside entrance and indications as to where visitors should park and enter the house were discussed. Although many signs were considered by the visitors to be undesirable in a place which is both a working farm and a home, a balance has to be struck so that visitors are not at a loss where to go or wander into areas where you wish them not to be.

The welcome

On the other hand hanging out a "vacancies" sign can be asking for trouble, warns Steven Barratt advising proprietors to give themselves the chance of saying they are full should someone they are uneasy about knock at the door.

When check lists were compared at the end of the exercise, Rectory Farm had the excellent column well ticked. But only half the points that an inspector gives relate to physical items. The rest are given for making paying guests feel welcome – starting with the way in which that first inquiring phone call is handled.

The greeting on arrival is very important – a friendly smile and a cup or tea is the recommended practice for a farmhouse. After that it is a matter of making guests feel you are happy to have them throughout their stay, by the attention paid to their comfort and ensuring that they have all that they might reasonably require, including local information – a useful marketing tool when it comes to extended stays or repeat bookings.

"High quality is seldom achieved by chance," declared Christopher Howard. "It is fitness for purpose and care and attention to detail allied to genuine concern for comfort and convenience of the end user."

Many operators are deterred by the cost of having their accommodation graded though the fee can be partly defrayed by the cost of the inspectors accommodation: "Who may be he, she or them," says Christopher.

But what you get for the money, the ETB officers point out, is not just an inspection but a consultancy service, with a de-briefing, a detailed written report and a rating that is a valuable marketing tool.

ETB inspector Steve Allen discusses the quality of the decorations of a room at Rectory Farm while the visitors consider how they should rate it.

ETB inspector Christopher Howard at The Beeches: This room was made to look less attractive but the quality of the bedding could not be denied.