Alisha Haridasani explains the traveller’s conundrum created by the world’s plethora of hotel rating systems
Something very un-French – so to speak – is taking place in France this month. Surprisingly, for a country reputed to prefer doing things its own way, its hospitality industry is in the process of ditching its 26-year-old rating system for a new one that resembles the “five stars” grading system used throughout much of the world.
So far, more then 4,000 hotels across France have been classified according to the new criteria, of which 576 are in Paris. The rest of the hotels have until July 22 to apply for a new ranking, and those that fail to comply will be forced to remove their older rankings, leaving them with no ranking at all. The new system, says Francois Delahaye, general manager of the Hotel Plaza Athénée, which was recently awarded the five-star ranking and a “Living Heritage” accolade, “is an assurance of quality, a determining choice factor in the increasingly global market”.
Before France introduced this measure it was close to impossible to compare French hotels to other hotels around the world because of the completely different categorisation – ranging from 0-star up to 4 luxe – and consequentially different quality standards as it relied on an outdated notion of service.
But France is just one example of the difficulty we all face in choosing which hotel fits our needs in a new destination. Any traveller knows that there are bound to be some surprises when staying at a hotel; sometimes they positively exceed expectations and other times they fall far short. That can’t be put down to a single country or just one hotel – it’s the consequence of a global cocktail of different hotel star ratings systems that not only leave the discerning globetrotter confused but, more importantly, also make space for inconsistencies in quality.
A complex constellation
“Most systems are managed at the national level, either by the government or some sort of hoteliers association,” explains Frederic Pierret, executive director at the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).
In some cases there are provincial systems, such as the Quebec rating system in Canada, or regional and sub-regional systems that encompass different countries, such as the European Hotels, Restaurants and Café Association (HOTREC) that currently applies to 10 countries; the common system for East African countries; and another system for West African countries. “Right now, there is a project for the Asean countries too, but it’s still only an ongoing project,” says Pierret. To add to the mix, there are the informal private systems that offer their own ratings, such as the Michelin Red guide, the Forbes Travel Guide… the list goes on.
Of course the raison d’être of these systems, both public and private, is to help travellers make informed decisions and allow travel agents to compile attractive packages. But some official systems operating at national or intranational levels play a more institutional role, aiding the implementation of public policies such as taxation or subsidies. For example, during the 1980s in France, one- to three-star hotels had reduced VAT rates while four- and five-star hotels were subjected to the standard VAT rates. That prompted some properties to downgrade themselves so that the high tax would not drive business away. In 1994, the policy changed to have all hotels pay a reduced VAT rate of 5.5 per cent across the board, instead of the standard 19.6 per cent, allowing the hospitality industry to stay competitive.
Different aims and systems engender different implementation methods. While some have obligatory criteria for each star category, others offer optional categories – the more things a hotel can check off, the higher its score – or even a mixture of obligatory and optional criteria. Once the rating is given, its shelf life varies too from anything between three years to infinity.
Official national systems may be effective at eliminating “black sheep”, as Pierret puts it, because they “have the advantage of involving the state as a guarantor of the quality”. But of course, as with any other national operation (think national carriers), those systems are clunky and lack the agility to respond to the industry zeitgeist because they become political matters. Without evolving industry know-how, these systems end up resembling formulaic checklists, ticking off the quantitative and measurable elements of a hotel, such as the size of the room, the number of restaurants and the bathroom amenities, and therefore overlooking the soft side. With such a system, the ratings “don’t necessarily give you an idea of the quality or experience that you as a guest are going to receive,” argues Philippe Garnier, vice president for sales and marketing, Asia-Pacific, Hilton Worldwide.
On the other hand, unofficial, private systems may have a finger on the pulse and the ability to adapt, but they risk becoming biased. The “irregularities” of such a system, “are, alas, too numerous and too frequent for us to be able to advocate this type of system without reservation,” says Pierret.
Perhaps a singular, harmonised global rating system would be a better replacement for all the various existing ones? Impossible, claims Pierret. A few years ago the UNWTO did in fact attempt this ambitious project, only for it to fall flat because drafting a global system “must take into account a wide range of global cultures, habits of the clients, and so on,” says Pierret. There’s just no way the same criteria would be relevant around the world. For example, according to the website of the National Tourism Administration of China, a hotel with three or more stars on the mainland is likely to consist of a karaoke hall or a ping-pong room. These two typically Chinese characteristics are obviously harder to come by in the West.
Not only is such a feat unfeasible, it might eventually be redundant. Confronted with an existential crisis, the official rating systems – such as France’s – are now starting to evolve to incorporate new industry trends, such as technology offerings and even sustainable practices. In doing so, they begin to standardise the industry organically (see box).
For starters, a new emphasis on service and guest experience is starting to emerge among the rigid official systems around the world. “The more recent systems insist on the non-physical criteria that are related to service. More and more criteria are now dedicated to intangible aspects, such as quality of room service or the availability of different languages at reception,” says Pierret.
Even in a place like Dubai, a fantasyland synonymous with luxury, the national tourism body thought it necessary to adopt a new rating system that officially recognises and keeps up with the grandiose nature of the service found there. Majid Al Marri, director of classification at Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, said the new classifications – introduced in 2010 – enhance the service standards at hotels and help guests differentiate between the five-star hotels that offer the minimum requirements and those that truly spoil their guests. Under the new ratings, five-star hotels will be split further into Platinum, Gold and Silver, meaning luxury hotels no longer have to resort to hyperbolic marketing gimmicks of categorising themselves as anything between seven to 10 stars. For a hotel to achieve Platinum status, complimentary drinks by the pool, in-room check-in, butler services and gifts with turndown service are just some of the requirements.
Secondly, given the competitive nature of hotel chains operating in globalised free markets, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” – the 18th century economist’s term for the self-regulating nature of a marketplace – should do what national bodies can’t quite achieve. “You could argue that once the brand has managed to articulate what the brand experience is going to be, then it’s less important to have a star rating,” states Garnier. Instead, the marketplace regulates standards and ensures promises are met.
This approach also explains why subtle differences might still exist even between properties of the same hotel brand. “All brands and all hotels are confronted with the same issue: how to consistently roll out the brand promise while being relevant to the specific market,” says Garnier. In theory, the budget hotels will offer the most standardised, consistent services in order for the formula to work. The higher up the luxury ladder you go, the more space there is to offer something unique yet relevant to the target demographic, from butler services to new technologies.
Garnier gives the example of the first Hampton by Hilton in Vadodara, India, that has more food and beverage options than other Hamptons in the US. “So, the market conditions dictate that your hotels will differ slightly from one market to another in order to succeed in the local market,” adds Garnier.
Similarly, the funky, hip W Hotels found that their usual practice of addressing guests by their first name didn’t wash well with Asian guests, who expect a certain level of respect. The brand therefore altered its interaction styles at its Asian properties. No matter how many stars a hotel receives or what its brand promise, it will always be slave to the market.
Toppling the system
Another reason stars are becoming less salient is the rise of social media; if it can dismantle tyrannical regimes, it can most definitely challenge official rating systems. On websites like Expedia or TripAdvisor, word of mouth seems to be the determining factor for users booking stays online, where a series of good reviews will always hold more sway than an official star rating. Hotels are left open and vulnerable to scrutiny in a way that was not possible before, with bad service, bad facilities and bad quality standing out like sore thumbs regardless of how many official stars a property receives. “In this new world, you kind of wonder what the point is of having an official rating system,” says Garnier.
But social media can be as dangerous as it is pragmatic. For every genuine user review, there may be any number of fake or exaggerated reviews by users who are cloaked in anonymity and left with a free reign. Unfortunately, the absence of an arbitrator or moderator means both types of feedback – real and fake – are given equal exposure, and hotels have to trust the user’s ability to spot the frauds, taking power completely out of their hands and placing it firmly in the hands of the public.
Following this line of logic, perhaps official hotel star ratings may become a thing of the past – a distant memory – driven out by an era of a highly competitive, harmonised and increasingly transparent industry. Though that notion may sound ideal to some, it is quite unrealistic; a total eclipse of the official star ratings is impossible because travel agents, business travellers and tourists alike will always need an indicator of service and facilities that is untarnished by commercial interest. Armed with social media and a wealth of alternatives, hotel guests will now take those ratings with a pinch
of salt, but at the very least they will remain as a go-to reference point.
Comparing five-star criteria across systems
FRANCE – National system consisting of a combination of obligatory and optional criteria.
- The reception area must include a restaurant or café on the same level
- Internet access must be available in communal areas and all rooms
- The availability of a bathrobe is mandatory
- Staff must answer the phone within five rings
- Reception must be open 24 hours a day if the hotel has more than 30 rooms or 12 hours a day if less than 30 rooms
Side note: Surprisingly, neither a gym nor a spa or swimming pool is mandatory for five-star hotels; however, since these are optional requirements, the hotel will get extra points if it boasts these amenities and the higher score a hotel gets, the higher rating it is likely to get.
DUBAI – National system that consists of a combination of obligatory and optional criteria. These criteria are the minimum requirements for a five-star hotel (there is a separate list for Gold and Platinum accolades).
- The hotel must have at least two restaurants
- Reception staff must answer the phone within five rings
- Guests must receive a welcome amenity that promotes the local culture, such as dates
- The hotel must feature a gym
- Internet must be provided in guestrooms and public areas
Side note: Due to the culture in Dubai, hotels must also have prayer areas.
UK – The private Automobile Association (AA) Hotel Services supplies ratings for the British Hospitality Association. Ratings are voluntary and criteria
- Wifi or wired internet connection in public areas and guestrooms
- Staff must have excellent social skills and anticipation of individual guests’ needs evident in dealings
- Reception must be open 24 hours a day with sufficient highly skilled staff
- There must be at least one permanent luxury suite with separate bedroom, lounge and bathroom
- All bedrooms must have en suite facilities with WC, bath and shower
Side note: Hotels have to fulfil a minimum of 85 per cent of the criteria to obtain the five-star rating.
THAILAND – The Thai Hotels Association, a non-profit organisation of private and public tourism-related organisations, is in charge of hotel ratings. Ratings are voluntary and criteria are optional.
- The lobby must consist of a waiting area and miscellaneous services with at least four seats in good condition
- A universal plug adapter for electrical equipment must be available upon request or in the room
- Wifi or wired internet must be available in guestrooms
- At least five rooms at hotels with more than 100 rooms must be suites
- The fitness centre must be no less than 50 sqm, with at least eight types of exercise machine
Side note: Hotels need to fulfil 95 per cent of the criteria to achieve a five-star rating.
CHINA – The ratings system, run by the China National Tourism Authority, consists of mandatory criteria.
- Reception must be open 24 hours a day, providing inquiry and payment-settling services.
- There must be at least two types of electric sockets in the guestrooms
- Bed sheets, pillow interior, pillow covers, quilts, quilt covers and bed covers must be made of cotton; bathrobes and towels must be made of knit fabric.
- Staff must speak Mandarin and English while service in other languages should be provided when necessary.
- All restaurants must be luxuriously decorated
Side note: These star ratings are only valid for five years and every hotel has to be reevaluated when their ratings expire.
Newly rated hotels in Paris
Best Western Hotel Faubourg Saint Martin
Hotel Arc de Triomphe Etoile
Hotel Pullman Paris Bercy
InterContinental Paris Le Grand
Hotel Royal Saint-Honoré
Mandarin Oriental Paris
Shangri-La Hotel, Paris
Hôtel Plaza Athénée