Guiding Stars

25th July 2006 (Last Updated July 25th, 2006 18:30)

Are stars useful any more in a world where guests discuss hotels on websites? Thanks to the internet, rooms sell on price, while the current buzzword is no longer excellence but experience. So, is the old system obsolete or is it still useful in managing guests’ expectations?

Guiding Stars

A cursory scan of blogs and fora on the internet dealing with hotel accommodation will reveal a raft of splenetic and exasperated comments, particularly in relation to certain five-star hotels.

Even allowing for the mean-spirited hyperbole that still characterises many internet exchanges, there is clearly a problem, with the experiences of individual bloggers frequently endorsed by other correspondents.

One small, allegedly five-star hotel in Brazil reportedly stank of urine, with another former guest adding to this the presence of cockroaches and an occasional lack of hot water.

Apocryphal evidence such as this undermines the five-star standard and strikes at the reputation of every property in the category. The same level of criticism has a similar impact right down the star rating chain.

It could be argued that the main victims of this uncertainty are independent hotels, as they tend to lack branding and internet presence.

Independents therefore have a vested interest in seeing a reliable rating system. John Cavanagh, general manager of Dublin’s five-star Fitzwilliam Hotel, asks: “How would we compete against other people if we didn’t have a five-star
grading? We would be at a severe commercial disadvantage because we are an independent hotel.”/p>

Few hotel professionals accept that the rating system, which varies from country to country and sometimes from region to region, is ideal, but, says Cavanagh, it is all there is: “How are you ever going to get a fair and equitable assessment
where everyone is happy? It’s an impossibility. The only way is to get as close as you possibly can.”

A FRAGMENTED SYSTEM

The goal of creating uniform international hotel standards is over 50 years old. The UN’s World Tourism Organisation (WTO) has been nibbling at it since its creation in 1975, seeking first to encourage regional standards.

In 1982, the then EEC started its own initiative along with the Confederation of Hotels, Restaurants and Cafés (HOTREC), but over the years moved away from grading toward creating a standardised information system.

Nevertheless, the EU’s Standardisation Committee (CEN) again took up the hotel gradings issue in 1996 after the International Standards Organisation (ISO) was asked by two automobile club umbrella groups to do the same job.

The only ISO that has so far emerged, ISO 18513, deals with terminology. It is mirrored by a 2001 CEN document (‘Tourism Services – Hotels and Other Types of Tourism Accommodation’), which, despite its title, actually focuses on
quality management of tourist services, not just hotels.

The idea of an EU or ISO 9000 standard for hotel grading has been stoutly resisted both by HOTREC and the International Hotel & Restaurant Association (IH&RA). The latter, which favours country-by-country regulation, did, however, agree in
2002 to work with the WTO to try to establish what standards actually existed where, and by whom they were set and enforced.

IHRA pulled together existing research and classification and also ran global questionnaires to local hotel associations, while the WTO quizzed its National Tourism Administration members.

“The stars have to give the guests an idea of what to expect.”

The resulting 2004 report, ‘The Joint WTO & IH&RA Study on Hotel Classification’, gives the best overview, predominantly in Europe and the Middle East, but demonstrates the difficulties of implementing a single standard. In some
countries such as Austria, the industry regulates itself; in others such as Egypt and Greece national regulation is linked to taxation; in still others such as Spain and Germany regulation is regional; while in Israel there is strong resistance to any
formal classification at all.

The study concluded that consumers did not understand ‘complex classification systems’ and based their choices on price and location.

For Bruno Maini, senior vice president of business development at Distinguished Hotels, this confirms his fear that the star rating system has had its day. For him, hotel classification systems focus excessively on the ‘hardware’ of hotels
(room sizes, lifts and shoeshine machines) while ignoring the all-important ‘software’ elements of welcome and quality of service.

This is supported by the WTO/IH&RA study, which showed that very few countries, including France, Denmark, Turkey and the UK, experienced surprise inspections, which might be more likely to supply evidence of poor hospitality or inadequate
facilities. Most countries had scheduled inspections.

Maini believes that the international hotel industry is too fragmented to make a universal standard workable.

He points to the fact that in the UK the AA will only award a maximum of three stars to a hotel without a lift, completely excluding some small country house hotels which indisputably provide what is generally recognised as five-star service.

Indeed, John Cavanagh recalls that until the Fitzwilliam redesigned its lobby two years ago to accommodate more seating, this highly rated Dublin hotel could not qualify for five-star status.

STAR SIGNS

If an international classification template is as unachievable as it currently seems, are country-by-country systems still relevant? Hotel associations would argue that they are because they show best in class.

Even if relationships between official tourist authorities and local hoteliers are sometimes difficult – for instance, over the promotion or demotion of properties within the star system – the country-by-country classification system
generally seems to work.

“The stars have to give the guests an idea of what to expect,” says Cavanagh. “On balance I am not too sure if there are any five-star hotels in Ireland. If you want to talk about what a world-class five-star hotel is, I don’t
know any more. But to me it is to do with quality of service and customer comfort.”

On that basis, Cavanagh has no doubts that in Ireland Dublin’s Fitzwilliam is among the best in class.

The irony has always been that guests have had precious little to do with the award of hotel classification. At best a complaint to a tourist authority might have prompted an inspection.

The internet is changing all this. Websites such as Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com), working underneath the banner ‘Get the Truth and Go’, allow guests to rate their stays. They also rate, sometimes very critically, the performance of
third-party intermediaries.

Though partial, subjective and occasionally unfair, such platforms may ultimately short circuit the quest for international classification standards. How long will it be before someone writes a program that pulls together every guest opinion expressed
anywhere on any site and automatically generates a star rating for each hotel? Hoteliers need to grasp these new realities, and soon.