After just spending lots of time in upscale hotels in Mexico and Belize this summer, I’m even more convinced that the difference between a good hotel and a great hotel boils down to one word: service.

You can spend millions on the best sheets, the finest marble, and the newest electronic gadgets, but if the staff doesn’t have their act together, you’re still running a second-rate hotel. Unfortunately, Latin America is one of those regions where first impressions can be deceiving and it’s why pretty photos on hotel websites are a terrible indicator of quality. In Mexican resort areas especially, staffers all wear a crisp uniform, there are day beds with billowing curtains on the beach, and rooms have pretty much everything you would expect and more.

But how good are they at executing on the basics of service, then going beyond that to anticipate your needs? Has the staff been trained to the point where they seem to know what you’re thinking and show up with what you need before you have even asked? Or do you have to hunt down someone who can speak English and ask three times before you get what you want?

I experienced some truly stellar service at a few spots on this latest trip, most notably from Machaca Hill and the Francis Ford Coppola properties in Belize, as well as the new Banyan Tree in the Riviera Maya. A couple that have barely squeaked into our listings still have some work to do.

I’ve reviewed hotels for close to 15 years now and I can usually tell during a five-minute stroll around the public areas who has invested a lot of time and money in training and who has not. Clue one is whether there is a manager around. In the best hotels, you see someone with some authority walking the grounds or on the edge of the restaurant. They’re talking to guests, pointing out lapses, and making sure everything is just right. In a so-so hotel, the managers are holed up in an office.

In a great hotel, attentive staffers look you in the eye, explain how things work there, express some thanks that you are there, and ask lots of questions about preferences and plans. They don’t dodge your complaints: they welcome them as a chance to shine. They don’t just go through the motions: they figure out which motions you prefer.

What signs do you look for to separate the good from the great?