Under the Stars
Symbols like the stars, suns or diamonds used for rating hotels shine brightly, but they don’t shed much light. How can you compare accommodations in Dubai with a suite in São Paulo? And just how many stars can the new breed of super-luxury hotel attain?
TEXT: Rodrigo Barría Reyes | ILLUSTRATIONS: Tomás Ives
Let’s be clear: there is no unified, international standard for rating hotels. Why? Two main complications have yet to be solved: the wide diversity and growing number of lodging options, and the abundant variety of relevant criteria, which depends on the economic and cultural realities of each destination.
In other words, how do you compare a hotel in Bhutan with one in Toronto? Should they be subject to a common standard that helps define why, for instance, a five-star establishment in Yangon is equivalent to a top-flight option in Lima? Which is more important: a fabulous view or a great swimming pool?
That’s why, until now, it has been impossible to establish a universal rating system for lodging. In fact, many are skeptical of the need for (and ability to create) a reliable system of comparison, even though others believe it’s an important goal and continue to pursue it. They think such a system would be the best way to inform travelers who can’t personally verify the relative quality of their intended lodging.
Rating hotels presents significant challenges, and one of the most complex factors is the increasingly diverse range of travelers who very well might opt for a five-star hotel or could just as easily choose a bed and breakfast, a “boutique” establishment or a rustic lodge. So how can all these places compete, being compared in a way that’s ultimately fair?
Currently, one way of dealing with this conundrum is on a regional level, with each part of the world establishing it’s own criteria for lodging. This solution is applied throughout part of Europe by HOTREC, in Great Britain with the AA, in the United States with AAA, in Southeast Asia with ASIAN and in Africa with ECOWAS.
Established in 1902 by nine motor clubs with just 1,500 members in total, the American Automobile Association (AAA or “Triple A”) is today an enormous organization with nearly 55 million members throughout the United States and Canada. To give a sense of its scale, AAA has 1,100 offices and about 40,000 employees. In 1917, it released the country’s first hotel directory to provide AAA members with useful information as they began to travel the incipient network of highways.
AAA then began to establish itself more widely. In 1937, the organization started making onsite inspections of both hotels and restaurants, and in 1967, AAA published the first ranked list of lodging establishments, with four ratings: “Good,” “Very Good,” Excellent” and “Outstanding.”
Nearly ten years later, on the occasion of its 75th anniversary, AAA introduced a symbol for their rankings. To denote the quality of hotels, they went with diamonds not stars. In 1987, the first AAA Diamond Rating Guidelines for Lodging booklet was published, with evaluations of more than 33,000 establishments throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Today, the publication, which gives ratings from one to five diamonds, is the most prestigious and widely consulted in this part of the world.
Even after decades, the tourism industry hasn’t been able
to establish unified criteria for ranking hotels.
A Star Is Born
The Automobile Association – the UK equivalent of AAA – has endeavored to rate hotels in Great Britain since 1908. The AA began with a group of motorcyclists who had a hard time finding good places to stay and eat during their travels, which inspired them to create a hotel registry. In order to be included in the first list, published in 1909, establishments had to meet two criteria: in addition to lodging, they had to offer lunch.
In 1912, the AA’s first secretary, Stenson Cooke, introduced the idea of “stars” to more precisely rate the service offered by hotels. He also established that a three-star rating meant standard quality. By 1927, the AA had evaluated more than 2,300 establishments throughout the island nation.
A larger, but much more recent effort can be found in HOTREC, the umbrella association of Hotels, Restaurants and Cafés in Europe. Since 2004, HOTREC has sought to establish common criteria in this part of the world. The endeavor was rewarded in 2009, when seven countries in the European Union agreed to join the unified rating system. Today, there are 15 affiliated countries – including Austria, Hungary, Switzerland and Denmark – in the Hotelstars Union.
Despite these efforts, there’s still a wide disparity in criteria for rating hotels in the Old World. For example, cleanliness is one of the most relevant issues for Italians: for a hotel to be considered top notch, the rooms must be cleaned at least twice a day.
Spain welcomed 60 million tourists in 2013 but doesn’t have a standardized system shared by the country’s various regions. Each autonomous community has established its own criteria, so a three-star hotel in Madrid will be different from a three-star hotel in Catalonia. For the Spanish, the size of the bedroom and bathroom are highly relevant to a four or five-star rating.
The idea of standardizing hotel rankings in Europe is so recent and the suggested approaches are so varied that getting an idea of the overall situation requires taking a look at what went on in France until recently. That country had 83 million visitors in 2013 but didn’t have five-star ratings for its hotels until 2009. The maximum attainable level was “four-star luxury.” To award the new five-star category, the French pay special attention to room size, quality of service and the number of languages spoken by the staff.
And what about Latin America? In Chile, hotels and other tourism-related services aspire to the so-called “Sello Q” (Q Stamp), a quality certification obtained through the voluntary participation of hotels which is awarded by one of eight authorized organizations in the field. They take 49 criteria into consideration, and the benefits of being approved are quite significant. Hotels with a “Sello Q” are showcased in the advertising and promotional campaigns of Sernatur, the National Tourism Service. In addition, any misuse of the certification can be penalized under Chile’s Consumer Law.
Brazil has a similar system in place. Hotel evaluation depends upon voluntary participation, but it also offers clear benefits, including recommendations from the Ministry of Tourism.
But how do we create a unified system with international standards? Some projects are already underway. For example, although it’s still in an experimental phase, the World Hotel Rating Initiative (WHR) is attempting to develop a universal language for classifying hotels by employing a method that combines objective parameters with qualitative reviews of the establishments. The WHR first defined its terms in November 2011, but the initiative is still far from being a working global standard.
The World Tourism Organization is exploring something similar. In recent decades, the explosive growth in travel has made hotel classification a priority, although concrete results are still pending.
The current trend is to top five stars, and the Burj Al Arab in Dubai
was one of the first to hit this super-luxury mark.
The Seven-star Fantasy
The search for reliable information is even more complicated in places like China, India and the Middle East. For instance, India is modifying its regulations for five-star hotels. The new norms require a series of improvements in room standards, including LED clocks of a certain size and bathroom telephones.
In China, on the other hand, some of the best hotels in the country are taking a step that seems crazy: they are dropping their facilities ratings from five to four stars on their own initiative. The reason? The Chinese government prohibits their state officials from staying at luxury establishments. It’s better to lose a star than clientele.
And now, in addition to these factors, a new complication has arisen with the emergence of hotels offering luxury and comforts beyond any that have existed before. These super-luxury hotels include the Burj Al Arab in the United Arab Emirates, which has thrown previous standards of quality into flux, leading to the creation of a new (and confusing) classification: seven stars. But when you consider that these hotels can cost US$18,000 a night and offer services like having employees break in new shoes for guests, the extra stars make sense.
In practice, though, the “seven-star” category doesn’t actually exist. It came from the pen of a British journalist after a visit to the Burj Al Arab left him astonished by the hotel’s facilities and service. Hyperbole aside, a new category of super-luxury hotels is offering previously unimagined levels of luxury and service, like the Pangu in China and the iSquare Mall + Hotel, set to open in Florida.
It makes you wonder what the first eight-star hotel will offer… in