Star Ratings Vs Online Reviews
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Britain has the advantage of a unified system for the quality assessment of accommodation providers. This allows customers to make informed choices when booking their holidays. However, online review websites relying on the opinions of the visitors themselves are on the rise. This articles looks at both systems and tries to indentify ways for businesses to make the most of both worlds.
Gold, Black, Red and Blue Stars, Diamonds, Qs, Rosettes, Merit Scores… Over the years the way in which hotels and guest accommodations have been rated and graded in the UK has changed several times and been much criticised. Not least by international visitors, who have historically struggled to understand a non-uniform accreditation system between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland tourist authorities, the AA, and back in time, the RAC.
A uniform approach was long overdue when VisitBritain, VisitScotland and Visit Wales came together with the AA to create harmonised quality standards for serviced accommodation in Britain, whichever the organisation carrying out the inspection.
This has been generally embraced by the hospitality industry, but is it still regarded suspiciously by consumers when they make that tough decision as to where to spend their increasingly scarce cash when staying away from home. And if so, will star ratings hold its status as a hallmark of the UK’s quality of accommodation in years to come?
At the moment, it seems the talk of the hospitality industry is whether Popularity Indices, Traveller Ratings, Guest Profiles and Customer Reviews will replace the current Star system. Online review sites, such as Trip Advisor, Active Hotels or Last Minute, have come to the fore with many sites boasting millions of visitors, and rejoicing in the fact that in excess of 80% of travellers will consult an online review site before booking their overnight stay.
It does beg the question of the difference between an online review site championing the voice of the consumer, and an Internet booking agency. The line seems to become more and more blurred. At the same time, why should review sites not make the booking process that much more accessible. Indeed the Web surfer can access this type of option directly from the VisitBritain or AA websites.
Before discussing whether hotels are rated for quality by stars given by inspectors or reviews given by alleged guests perhaps it is important to first discuss the real meaning of the word “quality”.
Probably the most widely accepted definition is that offered by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) ie “The degree to which customer expectations are met”. The ISO goes on to say that “Organisations should understand current and future customer needs, meet customer requirements and strive to exceed customer expectations. By applying this principle, action should be taken to measure customer satisfaction and act on the results.” . Customers, or as they are known in the hospitality industry “guests”,define quality.
Can therefore the AA or VisitBritain claim to be the voice of the guest more so than the guests themselves writing on online review sites? It seems to be that they must definitely strive to understand, represent and stay close to the public idea of quality. Some are not so sure that they do.
The Chief Executive of City Inns for example, David Orr says “The star grading system was very useful when it first originated as it helped hoteliers strive for certain standards. But times have changed and now what the AA considers to be the criteria for a four star hotel, for example, does not necessarily represent the wants and desires of the modern consumer, it feels disconnected in some way from their real wishes. What can you take of real value from knowing a hotel meets a star rating?” 
Gone are the days, when quality standards used to insist on such items as non-hooked “captive” coat hangers in bedroom wardrobes. This is a clear example of a standard which serves the hotelier (by deterring theft), rather than the guest. Such standards did once exist but it is fair to say that the list is much more guest-focused nowadays.
However it can be argued that gaps still exist between the standards set by VisitBritain and The AA and the expectations of the guest. In fact some would say in some instances not just the expectations of the guest but indeed their needs.
Take technology for example: broadband access, an essential requirement these days for most business travellers, is only a requirement at the five star level. Orr goes on to say  “We have free broadband in all rooms, satellite television and free wireless access in public areas, but this is not criteria for assessment. This is no longer luxury, but something all hotels should be looking to incorporate in response to consumer demand.”
In fairness to VisitBritain and the AA, it is no easy task to keep up with ever-changing guest expectations, but it is something they must undoubtedly do to maintain, or some may say retain, their position as the definitive quality standard.
After all many hoteliers recognise that yesterday’s luxuries are today’s expectations, and are adapting quickly to a rapidly changing market. In today’s climate they simply have to adapt in order to survive. As a result another challenge is laden upon VisitBritain and the AA - that of the hospitality product turning into a complex range of products, and thus the need to categorise the changes.
The emergence of the Country House Hotel some decades ago presented similar challenges when, as Mike Bevans, owner of Linthwaite House Hotel in Windermere writes in the Caterer and Hotelkeeper : “Often these were in the middle of nowhere, staff needed days off, they probably had one chef, but they were allowed to have a star rating even though they weren’t open every day.”
Today’s standards now recognise Country House Hotels as well as “Hotels”. Add to that Guest Accommodation (Bed and Breakfasts), Small Hotels, Town House Hotels, Metro Hotels and Budget Hotels. But where do more recent developments such as Boutique Hotels, Vendotels, Pod Hotels and Serviced Apartments all fit?
Decades ago, a five-star hotel afforded more luxury than a one-star hotel and commanded a higher price too. These days the range of product styles can blur this rule somewhat. Bevans goes on to say  “Indeed, some offered, and still do offer five-star service levels, food and style – albeit in a restricted physical environment which precludes them from having a higher rating.” Although he is talking about Country House Hotels, the same could be said for a Town House Hotel or today’s fashionable Boutique Hotel.
There is no doubt that the aims and intentions of both VisitBritain and the AA are admirable and clearly set out.
VisitBritain states in its Quality Assurance Standards: “Our vision is ‘world class tourism in England’ which means a product of at least comparative quality with other world leading tourism destinations. To achieve a quality product all elements of the tourism experience must meet or exceed consumer expectations.”
The AA have committed to playing their part in upholding such a vision by joining forces with the three national tourist boards and through their inspections. it states that its “quality standards have evolved over the years to reflect consumer expectations within the industry.”
Both organisations along with Visit Wales and VisitScotland do recognise the need to stay closely in touch with the consumer and his or her expectations.
The standards these organisations have produced are indeed very thorough and prescriptive, and the inspection process rigorous, much more so than any online reviewer would ever attempt, but does the inspector really see what the real guests see all year round?
Most general managers will claim they either know or have a strong suspicion of when an inspector is booked in. Although the inspection visits are supposed to be anonymous and unannounced, practicality and reality may often preclude this. An hotelier, who wished to remain anonymous, says “We always know when an inspector is coming. We’re off the beaten track. All our guests are either couples or families. It’s extremely rare that a single middle-aged person would stay with us, so when they do they’re immediately VIPed. And sure enough if we haven’t already matched the car registration in the car park, when they order room service as well as dinner, it’s as good as confirmed. We do our best to act surprised when they announce themselves in the morning!”
The five areas the inspector will assess are as follows:
- food quality
All accredited establishments receive an annual inspection (or more if complaints are received). There is a good chance that if a bedroom and a bathroom have been recently refurbished to a high standard they will remain in that state for the entire year until the next visit. Also, the inspector has the advantage over an online reviewer, that he or she can view as many rooms as he or she likes, in fact all bedrooms in many instances.
But what about the other three areas – cleanliness, service, food quality? There is little guarantee that these will remain at the same standard especially if the inspector receives the VIP treatment. It is at this point the online review sites trumpet their advantages, because their online community as they are often referred to, will keep the inspections going all year round.
Of course hoteliers are business people and not many are so stupid as to roll out the red carpet for the inspector, and return to Fawlty Towers the next day. Most hoteliers realise that star ratings (as well as price and word of mouth) are still, for today any way, a key element in setting expectations prior to a guest’s stay. If expectations are not met any chance of referred or repeat business is lost. Although in such circumstances the AA and VisitBritain would probably get to hear of the complaints and would revisit, presumably taking more care to conceal their identity.
Good hoteliers share the aims and objectives of the AA and VisitBritain, therefore recognising that these organisations' accreditation systems are an important aid to their business and that it is not in their interests to “play the system”. In fact many hotels employ the services of mystery guest programme suppliers between annual inspections, not only to maintain and develop their standards and star rating, but also to gain a greater understanding of guests’ in-depth needs and to reward good practice amongst their staff.
eMarketer says  89% of online buyers in the United States read customer reviews before they buy – 43% most of the time, 22% always. The consensus is that consumer buying habits in the UK are closely related to those in the US, if a few years behind. This tends to indicate that the popularity of review sites is only going to grow.
So what threat, if any, are the online review communities to those established, well respected and obviously thorough and rigorous programmes of accreditation. They would say they are the champion of the real guest, the voice of the consumer with no holds barred.
It would be fair to say there is currently a love-hate relationship between hoteliers and the review sites. TripAdvisor  is widely recognised as the market leader. It describes itself as the “largest travel community in the world”, with more than 32 million monthly visitors, over 9 million registered members and more than 20 million published reviews and opinions. Established in 2000 and currently employing 470 people, it is careful to claim independence, stating in the small print at the foot of its homepage that it “is not a booking agent and does not charge any service fees to users.”
In recent times rarely a week has gone by without there being correspondence relating to a dispute between a hotel and a review site in the letters pages of the Caterer and Hotelkeeper.
The sites say they take every step possible to ensure only accurate and fair reviews from real guests are posted, but one gets the feeling that there is an underlying lack of trust amongst hoteliers in those sites. An investigation by the Sunday Times in November 2006  made the following conclusions:
1) “Guests” who have never even stayed at a hotel can boost or depress its rating by posting fake reviews.
2) Poorly-rated establishments can lift their reputations from one to four stars in a matter of hours by posting fictional positive reviews.
3) Some establishments attempt to damage the reputations of rivals. So tough is the competition that even top hotels and restaurants would consider placing fake reviews to maintain their status.
One online review appeared to be a glowing endorsement of a fine hotel by the shores of Loch Ness. “My parents stayed many years ago and said what a lovely spot this place has. They were so right!” said the review of the Drumnadrochit hotel posted on TripAdvisor, one of the most popular websites for travel information.
“Well done to the staff, who were really charming... Have no hesitation in booking... the food is outstanding... Believe me you’ll love it.”
The gushing praise, however, was not the independent judgment of an ordinary guest: in fact, it had been written and posted by David Bremner, the hotel’s owner.
Last week he admitted the ploy but was unrepentant. “Maybe I shouldn’t have done it,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s that big a deal.”
Sir Tim Berners-Lee who is the British inventor of the World Wide Web said of his creation “There is a great danger that it becomes a place where untruths start to spread more than truths.” It is for this reason that many hoteliers have a distrust of the online review sites. However, the British public know not to believe everything that’s written on these sites and most would have the sense to read between the lines.
Sites such as Activehotels , which boasts 5.9 million bookings since 1999, should be applauded for its rule that a user can’t review a hotel unless they have booked through the site, ensuring, as much as is possible, that real guests are making the reviews.
Many hotels have embraced the review sites trend and recognise they are here to stay. It is surprising though that more hotels on TripAdvisor don’t make more use of it as a public relations tool. Most hotels will receive a poor review from time to time, and are offered the opportunity to enter a “management response” but very often don’t take up the offer. Or if they do, it is often on a defensive mode, which is not always the best public relations response, as this turns the argument into “one person’s word versus another’s”. More often than not where opinion is not factually reinforced, consumers will side with the customer against the business.
As with a face-to-face complaint, the phrase “The customer is always right” is well known. In reality it should be “The customer should always think they’re right”. It is often much better to apologise, state that their experience was not to the normally high standards, and that the reviewer is welcome to come back to see that the business can get it right. As long as there are not lots of negative reviews, such a management response would go a long way to enhancing a reputation.
Like it or not, review sites are here for the long term and the best way is to work with them. HOTREC* which represents the hotel, restaurant and café industry at the European level states its position as follows:
*HOTREC counts 1.4million businesses, with 92% of them being micro enterprises employing less than 10 people. Themicro and small enterprises (having less than 50 employees) in the hospitality industry representing 99% of businesses make up some 64% of value added. The industry provides some 8 million jobsin the EU alone. HOTREC brings together 40 National Associations representing the interest of the industry in 25 different European countries.
The hotel industry in Europe welcomes the Internet trend towards more interaction and
more direct involvement of customers in relation to its offer of services. In particular, hotel review sites provide hotel guests with the possibility, not previously available, of reading about the experiences of a large number of other travellers before making their own reservations. These sites add new dimensions to the transparency of the offer and allow for a more comprehensive hotel search, according to individual needs.
For the hotel industry also, the advantages of such sites outweigh the risks involved. Such
sites allow hotels:
• to present their offer in a consumer-friendly environment
• to better occupy market niches
• to carry out, on the basis of these “online guest comment books”, analysis of their
• to use these evaluations for benchmarking guests’ satisfaction.
Hotel associations in Europe are fully convinced that the well-established “stars” will
succeed in remaining the driving systems even in this new competitive environment and
will not vanish over the Internet. On the contrary, within the ocean of subjective opinions,
the official hotel classification schemes – because of their structures, their transparency and the regular adaptation of their criteria to the guests’ expectations – will remain the systems of reference.
And of course if all those resources are not enough for the consumer, the established Hotel Guides remain a relevant source of advice. However, although the paid-for-entry ones such as Johansens and Alastair Sawday’s are well-researched guides, there is always the risk that the potential guest is missing on an equally good establishment that hasn’t paid to be featured in the guide.
The reality is that most consumers don’t limit themselves to just one source of information when choosing a place to stay. Rather they will look to rating schemes to provide them with an understanding of the services and facilities that they can expect from the accommodation provider. They will then augment this base information with the opinions of follow travelers, through either a consumer review site and/or a guidebook before making a decision. The sources of informations used in the decision-making process can be summarised and ordered as follows:
- star ratings and reviews from VisitBritain, VisitScotland, Visit Wales or the AA
- online review site
- the hotel’s own web site and if applicable a favoured guide book.
If one agrees that this is the process by which consumers make their decision on accommodation, a useful exercise which can be done by any hotelier is to take this process and apply it to either the way bookings are generated for their business or to 3-5 comparable hotels in which they have been a guest recently. This will provide a rough weighting of the importance to be attached to each stage of the process. A reasonable ratio of importance to give to those three steps is probably in the region of 40:40:20
This weighting can then be used to determine whether your marketing effort is matched to the relative importance of each step of the process. Therefore about 20% of a hotel’s marketing material should be focused either on its own website, brochures or in paid-for-entry guides. Consumers will naturally be a little skeptical of such information, because there is only one viewpoint and it will always be positive. Though if in a respected guide book, there is an added quality check.
Then 40% of the marketing effort should focus on addressing issues that appear on online review sites. This however is on the condition that the sites continue to develop their vigilance in spotting bogus reviews whether positive or negative. This is always going to be very difficult to police, but most consumers will realise there is always the risk of bogus reviews and that they shouldn’t rely solely on such reviews to make a buying decision.
Finally, the remaining 40% of the effort should focus on complying with the official rating schemes run by VisitBritain, VisitScotland, Visit Wales and the AA. There will always be a place for a thorough and rigorous grading scheme as long as these organisations keep in close touch with the dynamics of the market place in terms of:
- understanding guests’ changing needs and expectations
- dealing flexibly with the increasing diversity of the accommodation product
We are at last blessed with a unified approach to rating and grading in the UK. Hoteliers too should realise that VisitBritain, VisitScotland, Visit Wales and the AA are allies in a globally competitive market. They set targets to strive for, and steps should be taken between annual visits to regularly measure and develop their products and services.
What gets measured, gets done.
Richard Morrey FIH is Managing Director of customer service measurement and development specialists Service Science Limited who have a significant client base in the hospitality, tourism and leisure sectors. www.servsci.co.uk