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'Test sleepers' describe not-so-dreamy job
2013-03-22
By Ruby Gao

BEING a professional "test sleeper" and rating beds, restaurants, spas and facilities in five-star hotels and resorts sounds like a cushy job, especially with all expenses usually paid.

But what sounds like vacation for most people is demanding and painstaking work for those who do it for a living, or for part-time work.

They have to work fast, there's a lot of pressure and they often find themselves being finicky, even taking a magnifying glass to look for stray hairs in a bathtub.

Eleven Zhuang was one of the first three full-time hotel test sleepers in China (now there are many more), starting out in 2009 when the first online hotel reviews were kicked off.

She used to stay in around 10 different hotels in one month, experiencing the room, dining, MICE and gym facilities, and writing detailed reviews with photos. Reviews are supposed to provide independent and reliable online evaluations for travelers. They are posted on Chinese travel websites such as Qunar.com and Ctrip.com, both known for hotel reviews.

"It's impossible to relax and enjoy the pleasure of hotel services if you must move quickly from one hotel to another in different areas in a short time," says Zhuang, who has decided to give up her full-time work.

The work gets more demanding when a review compares the same facilities or aspects of various hotels. This could mean comparing the benefits of different hotel groups' membership cards, comparing their MICE facilities, or recommending hotels for the World Expo 2010 Shanghai.

"My work doesn't start when I stay at a hotel," says Candy Fu, a part-time hotel test sleeper. "I do a lot of research in advance to choose a hotel, explore the latest hot travel destinations, find newly opened hotels, analyze news from big hotel brands and the whole hospitality industry."

Fu has been on the job for more than three years.

Luca Wang has been a test sleeper for one and a half years and finds herself getting much fussier than before she started scrutinizing and evaluating. She takes out a pocket magnifier to check whether there's any hair left in the bathtub and even turns over the mattress to check the supplier through its logo.

The job seems easy at first glance, without specific education requirements and work experience. But applicants must submit a certain number of quality reviews online and they must be enthusiastic, according to sleep tester recruitment notices on travel website Qunar.com.

"It's not as simple as it seems. We require quality reviews," says Jenna Qian, the deputy general manager and company spokesperson at Qunar.com. "Our criteria call for keen and comprehensive observation, the ability to stand in another person's shoes and commitment to the job."

Hotel reviews will be drab and not meaningful without keen observation, which is important when staying at a global brand hotel and focusing on consistency of guest experience.

"When writing my first Hyatt hotel, everything was new and merited recording. But presenting the distinctive characteristics of the second, third and fourth Hyatt hotels requires acute observation, focusing on minute details," Zhuang says.

"I stand in the shoes of different travelers, such as a business traveler and a mother with a baby, thus, I focus on different details," says Fu.

"Role-playing is the main difference between an ordinary customer and a professional hotel sleeper," says Zhuang. "That's why we experience many hotel facilities that regular travelers easily overlook, such as function rooms, business centers, gyms and swimming pools, as well as facilities in the hotel's neighborhood," she says.

Furthermore, a dedicated sleeper may find herself or himself spending too many nights in hotels and not enough in their own bed, which can erode job enthusiasm, Qian says.

Big challenge

Hotel sleeping started in China in 2009 with Qunar.com, and the prospects of "career sleepers" looks promising, since many travelers choose their hotels based on such reviews.

"There are so many hotels to choose from. Sleeper's reviews, if they are independent and detailed, help save time, for example, time wasted in traffic by choosing a hotel in an inconvenient location," says Shanghai-based businessman Jack Wang, who spends a third of his time on the road.

Some five-star hotels consider objective sleepers' reviews as a major factor in their promotion and success.

"The hotel will carry out an investigation when there's a negative review. If a problem does exist, we try to ensure that it doesn't happen in the future," says Johnnie Huang, director of marketing and communication at the InterContinental Shanghai Ruijin.

Many people, websites and hotels are getting into the hotel testing business, creating a major challenge for independence, objectivity and credibility. Reviews by unbiased observers are prerequisites for their survival and the business of travel websites and hotels.

"I don't think reviews by Chinese hotel sleepers qualify to be my reference because they lack professionalism and independence," says Pu Jiayu, the senior hotel editor at Eastern Channel, a travel magazine. "I rely on reviews by some foreign bloggers and reviews by hotel sleepers that seem unbiased and useful.

"It's impossible to get a truly independent review from a hotel test sleeper hired by travel agency websites that cooperate with hotels for room booking and advertisement," Pu says.

Reviews are reliable if the hotel sleepers are hired and managed by third-party hotel associations, Pu emphasizes.

Three Shanghai professionals writing for travel websites describe their work in interviews with Shanghai Daily.

The owner of a media company, Luca Wang has been a part-time hotel test sleeper for one and a half years. She specializes in B&Bs, especially in ancient Chinese towns and remote mountain areas. She has visited 25 hotels in six Chinese cities and three cities overseas. She spends an average of 30 nights in hotels each year.

 

Q: What inspires you to test sleep?

A: It's about fulfilling my travel dream. Because of my personal interest, I devote myself to the travel industry. Being a hotel test sleeper turns my hobby into a lucrative sideline.

Q: Why do you prefer B&Bs?

A: I can harvest something distinctive from a B&B, which is unavailable in modern five-star hotels. First is location. Many B&Bs are also locals' residences and they are inside a historical building in the center of an ancient town. Modern hotels can't build there. Further, only in a B&B can you chat the owner all night and learn about local culture and customs. Breakfast presents authentic local flavor.

Q: How do you rate a hotel?

A: Criteria include price performance, mattress comfort, bathroom hygiene, water pressure, food variety in the mini-bar, efficiency of service and personality of the owner, whether warm and friendly, or not. I take photos of rooms, bathroom, lobby, dining area and surrounding environment.

Q: Describe an impressive hotel.

A: My stay at Koala's House, a small B&B hidden inside a historical wood building in Fenghuang County, an ancient town in Xiangxi Prefecture, Hunan Province, known for its Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties architecture. My bedroom window overlooked the river and I could see mountains in the distance.

Q: Do you have a dream hotel?

A: Ningbo Guanzhi 22, a post-modern motel, in which every room is designed distinctively.

A sales of fast moving consumer goods, Candy Fu has been a part-time hotel test sleeper for three years at Qunar.com. She visits both boutique and business hotels. She has spent 365 days in hotels and written hundreds of reviews.

 

Q: How do you rate a hotel?

A: I start at check-in, noting efficiency and my first impression of the staff. Besides basics like the mattress and bathroom, I focus on bedding material, from pillows to sheets, which determine sleep quality. I take lots of photos, from the wardrobe (inside and out), to food and drinks. I photograph the room during the day and at night to rate the lighting.

Q: Describe an impressive hotel.

A: I once stayed in a Victorian-style hotel in a South Korean seaside city. I was the first Chinese staying there so the butler took good care of me, not just cooking snacks for me personally, but also helping plan my travel schedule.

Q: Describe a bad experience.

A: It was terrible. I stayed at a Beijing budget hotel. After checking-in and getting the room key, the bellboy prepared to take me to my room. But he used my key to enter another guest's room where a bare-chested man was watching TV.

Q: How do you stay independent?

A: I stick to my principles. I was once pressured by a hotel to delete negative comments online. I refused.

Q: Do you have a dream hotel?

A: Songtsam Shangri-la, a boutique hotel in Songzanlin Monastery, the largest Tibetan monastery in Yunnan Province. Besides the views, the staff are all local Tibetans.

 

Now working in an IT company, Eleven Zhuang specializes in five-star luxury hotels and boutique hotels, exploring how leading brands give high added value. She has been a full-time test sleeper for over three years, writing more than 200 reviews in more than six countries.

 

Q: What inspires you to test sleep?

A: I am interested in writing reviews and was once a food critic. Reviewing hotels seems more attractive than reviewing restaurants.

Q: How do you rate a hotel?

A: My rating methods of luxury business hotels and boutique hotels are different. For business hotels, I first rate location, traffic and travel convenience, as well as room quality. I also rate whether the hotel is large enough to hold a big meeting.

Second, I rate its public MICE facilities, including function room space, scale and efficiency of the business center, gym and swimming pool, whether the dining area is suitable for business banquets.

Third, I check in-room facilities and whether they are designed to be business-friendly. This includes availability of fax, printer and international call service; speed and stability of wifi; whether the bathroom has wet-dry separation and double shower heads; the design of plug panels; the quality of laundry and ironing service.

For a boutique hotel, I consider whether location and architecture reflect local culture and landscape; whether it provides exclusive service with a personal touch; how it designs outing activities for guests.

Q: Describe an impressive hotel.

A: In Sri Lanka I stayed in a boutique hotel surrounded by trees in the middle of a wetland. Guests checked in by boat. The hotel has only two suites, each with its own swimming pool and a big terrace. There's no restaurant but the hotel has its own fruit garden and farm. The chef inquires about guests' preferences, then collects the fresh farm produce and cooks it for you. The whole experience is natural and exclusive. The fruit you leave on the terrace will soon be carried off by birds.

Q: How do you stay independent?

A: I shoot photos and take videos of facilities and the natural environment. These are comparatively objective, balancing my writing, which is inevitably subjective.

 

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