Derek Pi­cot; John Strick­land

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.


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 seven-star 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 then-cov­eted 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

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