Playing Catch-up - The Hotel Star System
Bookassist’s Paul Dooley discusses hotel rating systems fit for the internet age
Irish hospitality operators, due in no small part to the celtic tiger decade, now preside over hotel stock that is of an exceptionally high standard and is rated as such. However service, delivery and the intangibles in many cases either exceed or fall below the hotels’ designated star-rating. Far from being alone, worldwide the anomalies are even more stark. However Europe is playing a lead role in changing the status quo and seeking alternatives to the traditional approach to start rating.
The System Is Broken
The question of Hotel Star Ratings has always been a contentious subject among hoteliers and consumers alike. Too often the criticism from both parties relates to the fact that current star-ratings place undue emphasis on the physical product (buildings/facilities) and too little on subjective criteria related to ambience, charm and the service element.
Hotel star ratings are general quality indicators and should be regarded as just that - broad guidelines in measuring a hotel’s general quality, amenities, and customer satisfaction. Ratings are not meant to be perfectly precise critiques. All of the amenities and services that a property offers may not necessarily be reflected. Due to differing parameters and criteria from hotel to hotel, along with the incredibly wide range of customer preferences and individual expectations no system can guarantee exact accuracy in every element of all ratings.
A failure over time to fully appreciate the fact that consumer expectations have undergone a fundamental shift has led to the undermining of the current star rating system. A number of factors have contributed to this disconnect.
Consumers don’t understand how they are determined
The process behind hotels getting evaluated is not very clear and in most cases known only to hoteliers.
Many Ratings systems just tick boxes
Old habits die hard and hotel rating systems even now continue to put great emphasis on ticking off big checklists resulting in a star rating. What matters to today’s consumer is very different than what general factors ratings organizations assume will matter. The meaning of “standard” has changed. Arguably, free Wi-Fi has more appeal now than whether a property has two restaurants or a lift.
Ratings Systems are fragmented
Accreditation systems can come from a wide variety of sources, including the government, tourism bodies, commercial industry organizations and sometimes even the operators themselves. How and by whom the rating standard is applied varies widely as there is no global standard despite an attempt through the World Hotel Rating (WHR) project, which notably aims to set international classification standards and rating criteria along the lines of a world star-rating system.
For example, here is the state of play in some of the main world regions:
• Asia - No Common Rating system.
• Latin America - Government ratings in many cases are for life or hotels are self rating.
• USA - No national rating standard
• Europe - HOTREC as an umbrella organization in Europe has attempted to bring order in hotel rating to the continent through it’s European Hospitality Quality Scheme (EHQ) and has accredited the existing national inspection bodies for hotel rating. Under the patronage of HOTREC the hotels associations of several european countries have created the Hotelstars Union whose classification system has now been adopted by 10 European countries. The harmonized criteria set by the Hotelstars Union is based on customer research and combines traditional offline and modern online criteria. See http://www.hotelstars.eu
Disparate Specifics are used
While adherence by accreditation bodies to the general principle of written standards or established criteria regarding the property’s facilities and services is the norm, the specifics vary greatly.
Star ratings have been devalued
There is a recent worrying trend of hotel marketing departments trumpeting the fact that they are 6,7 star (or even one 10 star hotel in the Middle East) even before opening their doors. As no organization or formal body awards or recognizes any rating over five star deluxe such claims are meaningless and predominantly used for advertising purposes.
Service is not properly assessed
A lack of clarity in measuring the “service” provision by hotels has always been the failing of ratings systems. They usually assess service in a formal and out-of-date way. Fussy overly-attentive service standards have been exchanged in all types of hotels for informal, friendly, non-intrusive service. In most cases this change is being driven by a customer-centric focus from the hotel.
Guest reviews or a single inspection?
If hundreds of recent guest reviews tell you how a hotel is performing, isn’t that more convincing than the fact that an inspector ticks a checklist annually at best?
Social Media - The real game changer
Since the advent of social media, the way consumers make decisions has changed dramatically. Increasingly consumers are not accepting hotel marketers spin or officialdom (in the guise of hotel star ratings) at face value. Instead, they are turning to peers - other travelers and third party-retailers - for information and advice, particularly in relation to the “service” aspect of their hotel experience.
The void left by the undermining of hotel rating systems is increasingly being filled by the consumer. Hotels must now revisit how they are perceived and proactively manage their reputation through social media channels and review sites.
It’s not enough anymore to simply “Join the Conversation”. Hotels should be tracking feedback, RoI and conversions with insight tools such as Facebook Insights, TripAdvisor’s Owners Center and Google Analytics among others. The next level up is a social media monitoring tool which collates and analyzes reviews across the web. TrustYou is one such analysis tool which Bookassist has integrated into its Reputation Alert suite of services. Used properly, a social media monitoring tool will help you turn guest feedback into a competitive advantage to be used to improve daily operations, organizational culture and best practice.
Where hotel star ratings certainly have value is in validating if a property maintains its quality standards or not over time. Whether this is aligned or otherwise with the new direct sources and weight of independent evaluation of services, facilities and most importantly user experience is the key.
The ultimate measure of a hotel’s quality may perhaps be assessed by posing the question “would you be willing to recommend it?”. Are the current star rating systems best positioned to answer this or do guest review sites by their nature deliver a more compelling reply?
Star ratings may be outdated but that doesn’t mean that a better system could not be designed which incorporates the best of both worlds, merging objective criteria with user generated reviews. The industry body in Switzerland, Hotellerie Suisse, is already following this dual path. A radical overhaul announced only last month of the star classification system by the Organization of German Hotels & restaurants (DEHOGA) will now also include a mixture of expert opinion and customer reviews.
Earlier this year the UK’s Tourism’s minister stated that the UK Government is considering phasing out government-sanctioned star ratings of various lodging accommodation in favour of traveler-written reviews. The idea may be a little before its time but it’s a clear sign of the change that’s afoot.
In today’s ever-changing competitive world, hotels need above all else to rapidly elevate the visibility (offline or online) of whatever credible ratings and reviews that do exist for their businesses, along with the established star-rating they have earned. The customer is no longer just assessing your rating, the customer is actively determining it.
Paul Dooley is Director of Client Services for Bookassist in Ireland