Page last updated at 11:45 GMT, Monday, 5 April 2010 12:45 UK

Hotel star ratings: To infinity and beyond

Infinity pool

By Rajan Datar and Affan Chowdhry
BBC News

Time was when a four-star rating for a hotel was the marker of sheer, unbridled luxury. Then it was five stars, then six and seven. But is anyone keeping a cap on star ratings?

The great hotels that graced European capitals when they first opened were never given star ratings, but everyone knew what they stood for - luxury, opulence and privilege.

When London's landmark Savoy Hotel, overlooking the Thames river, opened its doors in 1889, it boasted such remarkable features as electric lifts, "speaking tubes" to link each floor, and 67 fully plumbed bathrooms - which prompted the builder to ask: "Do you expect your guests to be amphibians?"

In today's terms the equivalent features would be the infinity pool, a helicopter landing pad on the hotel roof, and a butler and Bentley at your disposal.

Galleria Milan
This one goes up to seven - Milan's Galleria, home to Europe's first 7-star hotel

The high-end luxury hotels, and their eye-candy images in magazines and on travel websites, are easy enough to spot.

But often when it comes to booking a hotel, navigating the global hotel star rating system can be the most complicated part of a trip.

That is because no such system exists.

Star rating systems can vary from global region to global region, country to country, and in many cases even within countries.

And there's further disarray about which star rating denotes the best of the best.

The four-star ceiling of old has given way in some places to a five-star rating - the promise of ultimate luxury. But recently this has been usurped by six- and seven-star ratings for hotels in Europe and the United Arab Emirates.

There are even rumours of a 10-star hotel planned for somewhere in the Middle East.

But some in the industry believe this star-rating inflation is more for the benefit of the hotels than their guests.

"This is only done for prestige," says Dr Ghassan Aidi, president of the International Hotels and Restaurants Association. "They want to be apart from the four or five stars existing. They call themselves six stars, seven stars, 10 stars. No such thing exists. Five stars is already too much."

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Rajan Datar's report for BBC World News fast:track on hotel star ratings

It's an opinion backed by Margaret Bowler, who works closely with businesses and books millions of rooms around the world on their behalf.

"It's totally confusing because it's very fragmented," says Ms Bowler, director of Global Hotel Relations. "It depends on which part of the world you are actually in to what the rating is, or if in fact they actually have one."

Part of the problem is that no one can agree what exactly the stars represent, says Ms Bowler.

In Europe stars are assigned if hotel properties have lifts and leisure facilities and not necessarily on when the property was last refurbished and its current state, she says.

"You may be staying in a top-end hotel, but that may not be the experience that you actually get."

Some may choose to blame the whole idea that a hotel's quality - or lack of - could be summed up in something as crude as a star rating. If that's the case, the British may have to take the rap for being one of the originators.

In the UK the star rating system dates back to 1912, when the Automobile Association's secretary, Stenson Cooke, hit on the idea.

He had once worked as a wine and spirit salesman and, says Simon Numphud, AA hotel services manager, "felt that the star rating of brandy would be a familiar yardstick to apply to hotels".

A three-star classification system was born.

British standards

Today, the AA in Britain works on a five-star system. After years of confusing tourists and Britons alike, a standardised system was launched in 2007.

Luxury hotel
Do the star ratings benefit the hotels more than the guests?

A joint venture between the Visit Britain tourist board, and those in Scotland and Wales, and the AA, it is based on hotels volunteering to sign up to a standardised five-star system.

Higher standards of cleanliness, ambience, hospitality, service and food earn more stars - with gold and silver awards for "exceptional quality" in service.

France has also tried to harmonise its star rating systems. Earlier this year it introduced a new system that updated the previous standard created in 1986. A hotel could have held on to its star ratings without undertaking any renovations. Now, stars are assigned for a period of five years.

But anyone booking a room in Turkey, for example, will come up against two completely different rating systems - one run by the central government and the other by local municipalities.

And in the United States there are several competing systems - the American Automobile Association assigns diamonds whereas Forbes Travel assigns stars.

Not surprisingly, Forbes talks up the virtues of its system and as long as travellers stick to its guides, they will get a consistent experience, says Shane O'Flaherty, chief executive of Forbes Travel.

One star system

"We inspect each and every hotel that's rated around the country in the exact same way. So ultimately it's perfect competition for the hotels and then ultimately it's perfect information for the consumers."

Soweto hotel
Four-star standard - a new hotel in Soweto, South Africa

However, Forbes also assesses rooms outside the US and its guidelines are not the same all over the world. It's something the company is trying to change.

"Our ultimate goal is to create one unified star rating system out there in the world for hotels that the consumer can trust," says Mr O'Flaherty.

So could this be a blueprint for a single, global hotel star standard?

It's a tall order which, in some ways, gets to the heart of the issue - different cultures around the world value different things.

Some countries put air-conditioning at a premium, others an ice machine on every floor. A cooked breakfast is vital for some nationalities. In France, the minimum size for a three star room is two thirds the size of one in Spain.

But a compromise is perhaps emerging.

Earlier this year, Mr Aidi says, seven European countries met and agreed on a standard of rating hotels.

"This has more chance to succeed. We do approve, and we do agree, and we do sponsor some kind of local standard, regional standard - but not worldwide."

A version of this story first appeared on fast:track on BBC World News channel.


Below is a selection of your comments.

The hotel rating system is one of the most infuriating things when traveling, especially in Europe. Certain things - namely, the state of the hotel, cleanliness and room size - should have a universal standard. Whereas three star hotels in China pamper you and three-stars in the US give you a big, comfortable room, my experiences with so-called three star hotels in Europe (Italy being the worst) have involved cramped quarters, ancient amenities, lousy beds (two twins pushed together do not make a queen) and linens that I can hardly bring myself to touch. Interestingly, the American chains in Europe tend to adhere to the rating standards of hotels in the US. They certainly lack the old-world charm of their "authentic" counterparts, but for the same cost one can enjoy a spacious room, luxurious bed and clean linens. Truly a three (or four if we keep inflating) star experience.
Ty Placha, Washington, DC

Surely Spinal Tap was right 11 is the new 10.
Michael Docherty, Glasgow ,Scotland

I've stayed in a 4 star hotel in Casablanca that would barely get 2 stars in the UK. Afterwards I found out that in Morocco you have "4 stars" and "4 stars superior" and it is only the latter that implies a good degree of comfort.
Mark, Madrid, Spain

Most of what were once considered luxuries have become standard in most new hotels around the world, at least in America. You mention air conditioning but what if you have to walk up or down a flight of stairs or take an elevator to get to an ice machine, does that really indicate a poorer hotel? For business travellers, any of the large chains offer comparable experiences such as free internet service, continental breakfasts, on-premises restaurants. In resort areas they also offer special features such as concierge service.
Mark, New Jersey, USA

In many respects, the star system can be never more than a rough guide. Old ideas about ratings, whether there is a telephone in the bedrooms tell you nothing about the quality from the customers perspective. I have stayed in 5 star hotels which have been terrible and 2 star hotels that have been great. These days I tend to take more note of customer reviews than stars.
Philip G Bell, Redbourn, UK

Ok - so different countries value different things in their hotels. But I don't change my preferences according to which country I'm in, so the local star rating is useless to me. I'd like to see the AA system (which I understand), applied around the world. And no doubt Americans would like to see the Forbes system or the AAA system applied globally. It's largely a cultural thing, so you'll never get a universal ratring system.
John, Nottingham

It is just the self interest human nature that results in star creep. No different than academic marks, etc. Find some kind of measure and the system evolves to favour the markers that are used in the assessment. To the point that in this case the star system falls into disrepute and loses credibility.
Alberto, Calgary, Canada

Currently sorting out accommodation for a conference in Ghana - the difference in star ratings out there is eye popping.
Simon Brown, London, UK

Its no surprise that blog sites such as tripadvisor carry increased prominence - now that's a whole new minefield because personal opinions are just that - personal. However, for now the star (facility) rating and some websites give a good guide. The shame is that whilst it can take all the risk out of the trip, it can destroy the sheer pleasure out of those surprise hotel gems that are out there to be discovered.
Tim Moran, Brighouse, West Yorks

I have spent the last 25 years travelling on behalf of the hospitality sector. As you say, star grading varies hugely from country to country, but it is import to note that values like aesthetics also vary hugely from country to country. For example, the flower arrangements in Asia in the various hotels of all star gradings were amazing, because that is so important to Asians. Yet in Ireland, if you can't fit part of a lounge suite into a bedroom it can determine whether you rate as a 4 star or become a 5 star, even though everything else you offer is 5* plus. We seem to have placed so much emphasis on physical attributes and compromise on service and food quality all of the time. I don't believe that having a shop on the ground floor should influence a star grading, it should be just listed as a feature if there is one. Also, insisting on having two restaurants staying open should not affect the grading, once food can be provided on room service and once a guest is aware of all of these things before checking in.
Geraldine Daly



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