What do hotel ratings really mean? And who decides them?
Let’s start with John Murray’s “Handbooks for Travellers” which were, in 1836, the first publications to use a star rating for hotels. Murray used one star for recommended, and none for the others – a much clearer system than those of the more than 20 organisations that today attempt to classify properties worldwide. In North America there is the AAA Diamond rating, in the United Kingdom travellers have the Automobile Association or the national tourist boards. Most of continental Europe adopts the scheme by HOTREC (the Association of Hotels, Restaurants, and Cafés), though France, with Gallic desire for differentiation, favours the Hôtels de Tourisme award.
At the start of the 20th century, the Michelin Guide introduced star ratings to restaurants. By 1931 it increased the number awarded to a maximum of three per venue. This opened up a Pandora’s box, and star rankings turned into constellations. Over the decades, three-star ratings began to be used for pretty much everything; military ranks, films, books, theatre, even financial products.
In France, at the start of the 21st century, a hotel ranking system going up to five stars was introduced. In 2010 a sixth rating was created, the “Distinction Palace”, of which there are currently only 24 recipients. With just over half of them in Paris, the rest are mostly in the Alps or the Cote d’Azur and only one offshore – the Cheval
Blanc in St Barts. This ranking is given for those properties that display extensive facilities in spa and fitness, as well as visible steps in managing the environment.
AN EMPTY GESTURE?
How can the traveller understand these rankings when the rules that the grading organisations apply vary so dramatically? And how relevant are they anyway? From my analysis, it seems that most organisations bestow stars based on the range of the facilities, with little recognition for service. In this way, a hotel without a lift will rate lower than one with, despite the fact that the hotel may only be two storeys high. There is no regard for the service in the hotel without the lift, which may well make it more attractive than its competitor.
In Europe a growing number of branded hotels do not even mention star level in their publicity. Is the Hilton Vienna the same grade as that in Paris? Hilton hopes you think so; both hotels are Hilton standard, international and apparently carefree of organised evaluation. Hilton’s only reference to ranking uses price and Tripadvisor’s “suns”; it believes those most qualified to grade hotels are customers.
Moving eastward I enquired how Jumeirah’s Burj Al Arab hotel had achieved its sevenstar rating. I was told by its marketing department that it “seemed a good idea to add to their publicity when suggested by a journalist”. Not especially helpful if it was just made up. The only books that give a proportionate amount of recognition to service as well as facilities are Forbes Travel Guides. The inspectors visit more than 50 countries, and are quite sniffy about which hotels they include. They have more than 900 criteria to evaluate, with an emphasis on service.
A new theme among the systems appears to be environmental impact, and there are several organisations promoting efforts to reduce this. The Green Building Initiative, a US non-profit organisation, awards Green Globes based on sustainability, while the Green Key organisation champions an eco-classification.
More systems are on the way. From the Middle East is the Salam Standard. This evaluates how Islamic a property purports to be. Presumably there is little chance of a minibar, but you won’t get lost, as rooms will give an indication to the direction of Mecca.
Who is allowed to give inspections and award stars? As a rule, anyone, for while a small number of countries have a legal framework for this, most don’t. In Great Britain properties that do not wish to be inspected and ranked have no obligation to do so. Even where they have agreed to inspections, there is no requirement to display the ranking.
If you want to be graded, you will likely be charged. The AA only rates hotels that pay to be members and can offer consultancy to help those hotels achieve higher standards.
So there you have it. The only promotion to seven stars I know of has been either for a North Korean general or a hotel in Dubai and I’ve never seen a one-star property advertising itself as such.
I lie. My Murray’s handbooks reveal The Cecil Hotel in Pall Mall, with the thencoveted one star. Good bachelor and family accommodation, fine cuisine and bed for my valet. Sadly, when I try to find it, I discover it was demolished by a bomb in World War II.
A hotel without a lift will rate lower than one with, despite the fact the hotel may only be two storeys high