With a recent discussion about a resort shop offered to the overall shopping public gathering so much interest, James Bond 007.5 approached me about setting the record straight on what resort shops entail. While each different company has it’s own methods and requirements, there are basic similarities with all of them when it comes to financial outlay, workload and a massive amount of reporting. While many shoppers have expressed interested in these types of shops, there are also a lot of questions I’ve seen about the value and/or potential ‘enjoyability’ of the shops. In order to set the record straight, I offer up for Mystery Shopper Magazine a breakdown of what transpired on a recent resort assignment that I undertook.
Let me start off by saying that I am the definition of a ‘lifestyle’ shopper; meaning that I don’t shop for the income it produces. I shop for the income generation requirements that it offsets and travel opportunities offered, as I am a confessed travel junkie. My goal in accepting assignments is to (1) have a great experience that I could not otherwise afford and (2) not be out of pocket any money for the experience, with the added bonus of (3) potentially adding to any travel memberships that I am active in.
The Set Up
A scheduler emails me last August about an assignment that’s coming available for October. It’s a great location in the California wine country at one of the top resorts. It includes a three-night stay with a lot of food and beverage evaluations, sports lessons and a spa visit, and all travel is covered. It pains me to tell her that I can’t fit it in my schedule due to work conflicts, but she promises to contact me for the next round. [These types of assignments are usually not posted up on job boards. They are usually offered privately to evaluators who have a good track record with the company, and I have a more than 10-year history of completing hotel and resort assignments for this company.]
The scheduler emails me again in February of this year and lists the available timeframes for the three assignments that will take place that year. I have a break in my schedule coming up and ask if May will work. We go back and forth over a series of 15 emails over the next 60 days, since the clients often block holiday dates out. In this case, weekends are allowed and I finally land on a weekend in May that has good availability at the hotel. [It’s good practice for resort shops to check the online room availability before requesting dates. Times when the hotel is overly busy will often have the request rejected, and if you agree on a date, but then find the hotel is sold out, you are back to the starting gate with scheduling.]
About a month before the check-in date, I get instructions about making reservations. More research is needed since the client has recently renovated certain rooms of the hotel and only wants those rooms evaluated. It requires a little ‘web-sleuthing’ in advance of the reservation call to be sure I am selecting the correct room category. The reservation call goes smoothly, but I also find that the resort charges the entire hotel stay to my credit card upon booking, and the rooms are over $1,000 per night! I let the scheduler know that my reservation is set and she asks for a travel budget to submit for approval. I put flights on hold and look up rental cars for the trip, then submit a travel budget of around $600. The scheduler asks me to check a smaller airport that’s closer to the resort and might not require a rental car. Luckily, those flights price out at higher than $600, since I have no interest in flying into the smaller airport that my preferred airline does not service. [Much of the benefit derived from travel assignments comes from getting my airfare paid on my preferred airlines, and that allows me to maintain my frequent flyer status with them.]
When looking further into flights I have on hold and car rental prices at the airport, I soon realize that it makes much more financial sense to fly out the night before, spend a night in the city and rent a car there before heading to the resort. One of my preferred hotel companies offers me discounted rates (from a status I gained by shopping them), so I send and updated travel budget and get that approved. That allows me to also set up an airport shop for lunch upon departure and a dinner shop in the city (and I find a really great one across the street from the hotel).
Three weeks before the shop, the scheduler calls to go over the shop requirements. A lot of them are still tentative, but she suggests making dinner reservations as far in advance as possible, as one of the restaurants at the resort is extremely popular. When I call, the restaurant is totally booked out for the time I will be there. I’m number two on the waiting list just to get a seat in the restaurant! Now I’m inside the no-cancellation zone for the reservation and what ensues is a series of 14 emails back and forth until the client finally decides to drop the dinner evaluation and send us on a private wine tasting adventure instead. At this point, it’s two days before check-in and when I call to set up the wine tasting, the concierge promises to have someone be in touch.
On the morning of departure, I pre-pay the airport parking and print out the reservations for both hotels and the rental car, as well as going over the lunch instructions for the airport shop. We get to the airport on time and the shop there goes smoothly. I finally get a call back from the resort about the wine tasting as I am boarding the flight. I frantically jot down notes from the call before the flight leaves and receive the finalized shop instructions during the flight (I’m online during the flight submitting the airport lunch shop at that point). From the airport, we take a train into the city, check into the first hotel and go to the dinner shop. We are exhausted after the meal and crash out early. I wake up and submit the dinner shop, go over the resort instructions and it’s then time to check out and get the rental car.
As is pretty typical for many resort shops, the instructions require a message to be left for me in advance of my arrival, so my guest makes the call from the car on the way there. We then stop for a quick lunch so we can be alert for the check in. Once I get notes from the hotel check-in completed, I need to grab a full set of photos from the amazing and spacious guest room they offered us. However, the bigger the room, the more pictures there are to take! After that, we head out to visit the welcome wine reception and report on that. We come back to find out that the room has been turned down and again have to take a full set of photos. My guest heads off to the spa/massage inspection and while she’s gone, I order room service dinner. When we are done with diner, we are once more exhausted. We crash out early, but not before remembering to set a wake-up call and take notes from that.
The next morning offers more room service for breakfast and of course, all of the room service meals include a full set of pictures as well as narrative. Housekeeping requires a full set of photos twice each day, so I get the first set before we head out for lunch. After lunch, we have sports lessons to report on.
A real challenge arises at this point. We still have a bar and dinner inspection scheduled for that night, but I have business associates in the area and they have invited us to join them for a meet up. I can’t refuse, since they are important clients, so we quickly evaluate the first bar, push the dinner reservation as late as possible and then head out to meet my clients. We rush back to the resort just in time for the latest dinner reservation available and my guest is practically falling asleep during the meal. After another set of pictures from turndown service after dinner, another wake up call and we again crash out from exhaustion.
We finally get to sleep in the next morning, but then we are off to the pool for drinks and lunch. I warm my guest about drinking too early in the day, but she’s a sucker for free drinks and enjoys a glass of wine with her lunch at the pool. From there we are off on our wine tasting adventure and more wine gets consumed. That ends with a picnic I was required to have the concierge set up. While the food reenergizes me, my guest is sleepy from all of the wine consumption and so I head off to evaluate hiking trails at the resort while she naps. I set a wake up call for her before leaving, then hit the hiking trails, visit the concierge, send a fax to myself and visit the business center for some printing before we shower and head out for yet another bar and food evaluation. My guest has learned her lesson at that point and is sticking to coffee for the bar visit, but I still have to hurry with the turndown pictures after dinner since we are both ready for some well deserved sleep.
In the morning, we go to breakfast in the hotel restaurant after my guest heads off to evaluate an early morning personal training session. I return to the business center to check on a defect I saw the previous day and then we check out. That means another long drive back to the city, turn in the car, hop a train for the airport, download and name all of the resort photos while on the flight, and once more crash out from exhaustion after returning home.
Since we were pretty much busy, eating, drinking or sleeping 100% of the time we were at the resort, I have completed most of the checklists, but absolutely none of the narrative when on property. The report is due within 72 hours of check-out, so I block out the next three days in my schedule to work on it, while my guest works on her portion during her lunch hour and before bed each night. On day two, I get a call from the clients I met during the assignment and they want to take a meeting that day. That takes the rest of my day and now I’m behind on reporting. Though I have more than a decade of experience doing these reports, I somehow never learn my lesson and have also scheduled a dinner party at my home on the fourth night after we return. Despite a serious effort to be done by then, the narrative is taking longer than expected, so I beg the company for an extension and finish the shop the following day. Two follow-up emails come over the next week that I am able to quickly answer, and the report is finally done. Whew!
In the end, I’m gone from home for four nights, and reporting for another five. The total spent on my credit card for the resort is $5,515.28, with another $130 in cash outlay, $497.57 in travel expenses, and $193.50 in reimbursements for the two additional food shops. The hotel charges are reversed within days of me submitting the assignment and the remainder is covered by payments from the mystery shopping companies after about 60 days, including a $325 in fees for completion of the assignments.
If you break the fees into the nine days it took to complete, it looks like I made about $36 per day, and that does not include over 50 emails and phone calls, plus almost a year of planning to set up the assignment. However, I had very few lifestyle expenses for four of those days. The only meals I wasn’t reimbursed for during the trip were the lunch on the way to the resort and another lunch at the airport upon our return, and that’s easily absorbed into the shop fees, along with the gogo in-flight internet charges.
Was is exhausting? Definitely. Was it worth it? I guess each shopper has to make up his or her own mind about that. Considering that I get reimbursed for over $500 charged to my travel credit card, 2,000 miles credited to my frequent flyer account for the flights, frequent guest credits for both the rental car rental and hotel stay, plus a vacation valued at over $6,000 that left me with money in the bank, it works for me…and the wine tasting experience was something that my guest and I will remember for the rest of our lives. Are there easier ways to earn $6,000? Probably…but I don’t know of any that are more memorable.