By Michael Matthews
February 12, 2009 -- Let's face it, things are bad. There's no sports on television unless you like the Daytona 500 qualifying races, skating or bowling. The stock market has eaten your 401k. Your best pals are being laid off. Even the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition has gone up in price.

And just to make things even worse, maybe your company has mandated that you downgrade your accommodations while you're on the road. Maybe, they're saying, you should stop staying in good hotels and start checking into places where they keep the light on for you.

But I'm going to go out on a limb and make a suggestion that will give you a lot of satisfaction and comfort in these trying times. Instead of blindly following company orders and trading down, why not treat yourself instead? Try a stay at a five-star hotel instead. You'll feel better, believe me! Move up, not down and your life on the road will be much more satisfying. And, these days, it won't cost all that much more than staying in places that boast about the color of their roof.

Here's why moving up won't cost that much more. Hotels at the bottom of the lodging ladder are doing fine because travelers who normally stay in the mid-tier properties are being forced to downgrade. The mid-tier properties are hurting, too, because their rooms are not being filled by travelers dropping down from the five-star rung. Why? There are far fewer hotels in the top tier and, thus, fewer travelers downgrading to the middle tier.

That said, luxury hotels at the five-star level are hemorrhaging just now. Their revenue per available room, a crucial measure of financial health, is off 16 to 20 percent. And occupancy rates have plunged to the 50 percent level.

But that means opportunity for you. Luxury hotels are discounting and cutting rates like there's no tomorrow. (And for some of them, there may not be a tomorrow.) You'll be able to snap up luxury lodging at nightly rates that we haven't seen for years and might not see again for years to come. So make the best of it and think about upgrading to the top of the lodging ladder before you reflexively trade down.

Why are luxury properties called "five-star hotels?" Believe it or not, that benchmark is determined by Mobil. Yep, that Mobil, the gas company that is part of the ExxonMobil monolith that also happens to be the world's most-profitable company.

Mobil defines a five-star hostelry this way: an "exceptionally distinctive luxury environment offering consistently superlative service and the ultimate in amenities." The properties pay "attention to detail and anticipat[e] every need."

Hotels that receive this rarified rating are inspected twice by Mobil. The second time, the inspection is incognito and the reviewer stays and eats in the hotel and checks more than 550 service standards. The inspector largely focuses on the guest experience and consistency of service as well as the physical facilities and amenities.

Five-star hotels have to meet or exceed a long list of criteria, including ridiculous things such as having a telephone in the bathroom. Let's be honest: When have you ever answered a phone while you are in the bathroom? And do you even use a hotel phone anymore in any room?

Other Mobil five-star mandates are 10 coat hangers in the closet (just nine hangers rate just four stars) and a "functional" CD player (although I am unaware of hotels that use non-functioning ones). Mobil also demands that its five-star properties offer hot food from room service 24 hours a day and insists that mixed drinks be presented with modified or full-club service. (I've been in the hotel business for 50 years and I don't even know how to modify club service!) Another requirement for five-star properties: There must be cloth towels in the public washrooms.

The 2009 Mobil Five Star Awards have just been published and they include the usual Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton properties. But of the 44 that rated the honor, fully 50 percent of the properties were independent hotels unaffiliated with any brand or chain.

And that's where you should look if you want to score a five-star room at a three-star nightly rate. Independent properties are not as constrained in their ability to reduce rates or give you a deal. There is no corporate office, brand manager or chain-wide dictum telling the general manager what to charge or how to discount. They are independent men--and most are, in fact, men--running independent hotels. They run their own properties, set their own rates and, when times turn nasty, discount as they see fit.

As I've said numerous times in this column, your best strategy is to call the general manager and negotiate rates directly with him. Believe me, he wants your business, especially just now.

What will a five-star property cost you these days? Probably around $150 more than you'd pay for the fleabag hotel that your travel department has booked for you. Prices vary by city, by date and by property, of course, but rates at some five-star hotels have fallen into the mid-$200s on some nights this winter.

I think it's worth it for the comfort, self-esteem and bragging rights. While you're at it, splurge on that Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and read it in bed while you're surrounded by exceptionally high-thread-count linens, having eaten a hot meal from room service with your glass of wine poured from the bottle by an immaculately dressed English-speaking waiter.

Except for the SI, those are five other required amenities at a five-star hotel.
ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Michael Matthews in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Matthews. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Michael Matthews.

This column is Copyright 2009 by Michael Matthews. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.