/ Travel & Leisure

It could be the end for hotel star ratings

Hotel sign with stars above it

Change is afoot when it comes to the star ratings system for hotels, and they could disappear altogether. Should we be worried – or have they already lost their place to the world of online consumer reviews?

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has announced that it will shortly be publishing its tourism strategy, with the star ratings system for hotels one of issues being looked at.

Official changes won’t be announced until the next month or so, but it’s expected that the government will stop encouraging tourism firms to join an official rating scheme. Instead, decisions on how to change or close the existing scheme will be left to the industry itself, through VisitEngland.

Fallen star system?

Industry opinion points towards the likelihood of a closure to the scheme, with public and professional views seemingly split on the potential move.

I can personally see a place for both official ratings and review sites in the world of travel and regularly use the two in tandem. Neither system is perfect and modifications would have to be made to both to improve their usefulness.

Take the hotel rating scheme. Boutique hotel fans may well have been surprised at the apparently low star ratings attributed to their luxurious and well-appointed abode. Often, the reason for this is simply because it fails to meet the criteria of an arguably dated tick box system when it comes to hotel facilities. Choosing to be classed as a guesthouse is seemingly the only way around this if you want to retain stars.

Likewise, I’m sure many of us can recall staying in a highly-rated hotel and wondering if the owners added a star or two to the sign outside.

On paper, the system seems pretty rigid and could struggle to meet the varying demands of individual travellers. The sheer amount of accommodation under the current scheme (around 24,000) means hotel inspections take place on an annual basis – but is this enough?

The pros and cons of hotel review sites

I trust the VisitBritain assessor to give a rigorous, honest review of a property, (within the confines of the process). But I like to balance this with the views of fellow travellers – looking at real-life photos and filtering the results to read reports from similar travellers.

Online reviews often give additional information above and beyond the key stats of a hotel – a review with personality that you simply don’t get from a star rating.

But review sites have come in for a lot of criticism recently. Duncan Bannatyne, hotel proprietor and TV personality, is the latest hotelier to blast TripAdvisor for refuted, defamatory hotel reviews. So can these reviews be trusted on their own – would you be happy booking a hotel solely on the opinions of a stranger?

I do find these sites helpful – but as guidance. You have to take them for what they are and use commonsense to riddle out the reviews from weasels. But I do worry about the use of review sites as the only source of hotel information.

Changes would surely need to be made if all accommodation is to be assessed on a level playing field. What about small B&B’s and guesthouses with zero or very few reviews? How will they compete with accommodation that has 100-plus reviews? Travellers will be asked to take what may feel like a risk to try out these unreviewed properties – a risk too far for many perhaps.

Once details of the full strategy are published in the next month or so we should get a clearer idea of where things stand. If the scheme is kept and updated, strong marketing activity will be needed to ensure the general public is fully aware of what the star rating scheme means.

How do you feel about star ratings potentially disappearing? Do you still use them or could you easily live without them?

Sophie Gilbert says:
1 February 2011

Like Kate I find both the star rating system and review sites useful, however imperfect they are. I would be sorry to see either go and the disappearance of either would ultimately be detrimental to the consumer, and to the trade as well.

I would argue first that, on principle, regardless of what the subject is, to have more that one source of information (I would count several review sites as only one source) is always more useful than just the one.

Secondly, hotel, B&B and guest house owners (I’ll call them all hoteliers for simplicity’s sake) should be allowed to continue to strive to achieve as many stars as they can, or at least maintain what they have been awarded, but in a new improved scheme, where the number of stars isn’t merely related to the number of facilities, but also includes the general feel of the place for example, a scheme employing (as) professional and objective people (as possible) to do the reviews.

Finally, hoteliers’ customers should be allowed to continue (and they will) to share their experience with other customers, make their views known good or bad. If unfairly reviewed, hoteliers have every right to reply in those very same sites and explain exactly why they think the reviews are unfair. If the criticism is fair, hoteliers are then in fact given a chance to see that they did something wrong in the first place (not always obvious, I imagine), put things right, and once they’ve done that they can say so in the website and therefore advertise the fact that they listen to customer complaints and act on them. And if the criticism is favourable, what can I say, this is free advertising for the hoteliers.

No-one need be a loser in all this.

I presume that Kate meant “review sites” rather than ‘sights’. (Third paragraph under “Pros & Cons”)
Likewise, 5th paragraph – ‘unreviewed’ instead of ‘unrevised’?
As a “Senior Travel Researcher” I would expect her to proof-read her article before publishing it.

However, I do agree, in the main, with her points, and those of Sophie, although on the Travel Sites there is too much freedom for anonymous malicious reports by someone with a vested interest (a rival, perhaps?) or an unjustified glowing report by an unscrupulous owner.

Anyone who trusts review sites implicitly is obviously a fool.
People’s opinions vary. One hotel I recently stayed at I would give a two star rating to because I cannot stand the ‘holiday camp’ type set-up and if I’d been aware it was like that I would have chosen somewhere else. Lots of people – with young families – had reviewed the hotel and given it, in the main, good reports. Overall I read them at face value. My fault, my problem. When I got back I posted what I hope was a fair report, but I emphasised that it was a ‘holiday camp’ type establishment, with frequent, noisy, games round the pools and on the beach. Hopefully that will help someone else.

Hi jayprime, thanks for pointing out those inaccuracies – unfortunately they can slip in from time to time, but we’ve amended them now.

I’m also in agreement that having as many sources of (trustworthy) accommodation reviews as possible is the best solution. Even though Visit England inspections are infrequent, it’s reassuring to know that the inspector has not only the trained knowledge to judge what makes a good hotel or B&B but will have seen a good range of properties in one area, so can judge whether it’s above average for that area. And it’s worth saying that the official assessment already does take on board levels of comfort and customer care as well as facilities.

What I’d like to see most of all would be a statutory scheme across the UK to assess minimum standards for all guest accommodation, including staffing assessments, and health, hygiene and safety checks. This would get rid of the very worst places – but I suppose with no chance of government funding to set this up, this is unlikely to become a reality for many years!

I agree with the others about the “tick-box” system of rating used not only for hotels but for other holiday accommodation., I am not interested in trouser presses, gyms etc but in the quality of the accommodation and just as important the service and ambience.
Often the only way to find these hotels is to start with the 3* ones which are expensive for their rating.

Trip Adviser is useful but needs care in using, people tend to post if they have had a bad experience rather than a reasonable/good one ( as with many surveys/reviews) and there is often a lack of “it was fine but nothing exceptional” type of report. I take more notice of the reviewers who have posted a large number of times.

One trouble with Customers reviews is that if someone has what they perceive to be a bad experience, in a lot of cases reason tends to fly out of the window and be replaced by very biased, even vituperative, comments. In these cases the critique can become unnecessarily personal, aimed at particular, sometimes even named, members of staff, blaming them for things which may, actually, have been completely out of their control.
Any critique needs to combine facts and balance, trying to look at the situation fairly from both sides and dispassionately suggesting ways in which the situation could be improved. This is probably a bit much to expect from either a Customer or Management. This is where a profesional inspector could offer an advantage.
A rating system of some sort, with trained assessors, is very important, but so are client comments, probably once the “extremely bad” and “extremely good” are discounted for balance.

Hi jayprime, just to say we liked this comment so much we’ve featured it on our ‘Comment of the week’ slot on the homepage 🙂

There is a lot wrong with the star rating schemes currently in use for hotels. Although the AA, RAC and English Tourism Council have adopted a common set of standards against which to measure the hotels that subscribe to their schemes [in England only – Scotland and Wales are outside this system and have their own grading scheme] there does not seem to be much consistency in practice, or may be the star bandings are so wide that consistency is impossible even within one operator’s scheme. We generally look for a four-star standard of hotel to give us the service, comfort and facilities we require for a completely relaxing leisure break. Ignoring room rates – which are not a reliable guide – we find the quality varies widely and there is no finessing of the star category to help make a selection if visiting a place for the first time. Assuming a grading scheme has a maximum of five stars – which presumably applies to The Savoy, Dorchester, Claridges and similar – how can so many city hotels without their special qualities justify five stars? And more to the point, if five stars indicates high-end super de luxe, four stars should at least denote reasonable luxury with ample-sized rooms, sensible size and shape of bathroom with essential provisions [forget the silly toilet products – most people prefer their own], everything working, everything clean, good heating & ventilation, and helpful and cheerful service. Unfortunately four stars often mean poky rooms, knackered beds, busted lamps, too hot or cold, and only one [uncomfortable] armchair. Numerous hotels do not subscribe to one of the “official” recognition schemes and award their own stars [not illegal so long as they do not mimic the “official” signage] or are in a local scheme which over-rates all the establishments in one city. As for the customer review sites, we have found them very useful for giving a bit more of a personal feel for the place than the objective tick-sheet assessments of the inspectors, especially for pointing out more recent deficiencies or improvements that have occurred since the latest inspection and for giving little tips on how to get the best out of a place from day one [eg ten minutes earlier down for breakfast can save you forty minutes]. I have only recently become aware that there have been some dishonest misuses of the customer review sites which is a great shame. Sadly, many hotels in England have a “We are dreadful but we don’t care” sort of attitude as demand now frequently exceeds supply in city centres and popular leisure break locations. We have posted [honest] feedback on customer review websites; sometimes the proprietor or manager has responded in an appreciative and helpful manner, sometimes in a defensive and unhelpful manner, but usually has not responded at all and they probably never read their reviews in case they have to make some improvements. On balance I would like to keep the star rating system but expand it to ten stars to allow for better differentiation between clear levels of quality and also find a way of putting some finesse into the assessment to reflect the ambience, convenience, conscientiousness and enjoyabilityy of each establishment. I doubt if there is any practical way of cleaning up the customer review sites so they need to come with a truth warning as, properly conducted, they are a very useful way of improving one’s selection process.

Mike Williams says:
17 February 2011

Having spent many years in a professional capacity trying to ensure the highest standards for guests throughout visitor destinations i think that its essential that we keep the national inspection schemes and indeed make it cumpulsory for all visitor accommodation! There will be many visitors coming to London in 2012 who will have the shock of their lives when they stay in fleapit un-inspected accommodation and never come back to these shores because of it. I agree with many of the comments given here though, that the schemes need to adapt and progress, and reflect the different “styles” of establishments, and that review sites have a useful purpose, provided theyre backed up by a professional national inspection scheme.

I see that in the October 2011 Which? Travel issue, a new rating category has been used for overseas chain hotels, with the labels “Upscale, Luxury, Economy, MIdscale, and Budget”. There is no explanation of what these categories mean, and even the order is uncertain – is “Economy” better or worse than “Budget”, for example? Does this scale have any official status, or is it just a Which? invention? It doesn’t seem to be any improvement on a rating of one to five stars.

Thanks for your comment. The labels used in the overseas chain hotels report in our October issue are those that tend to be used by the hotels themselves when they categorise their brands. We also got the help of a consultant to sense check that the hotels from our survey were in the right categories. An economy hotel does tend to offer more facilities than a budget hotel. The order would be Luxury, Upscale, Midscale, Economy and Budget.