Luxury hotel room

Written by: Saxon Moseley

Saxon Moseley

Senior Manager

The end of star ratings?

  • February 2019
  • 4 minutes

If the bleak winter weather and long nights have got you feeling down, there’s a good chance you’ve been lifting your spirits recently by booking a getaway. When researching where to stay on your holiday you may have consulted Trip Advisor, checked out the hotel on Instagram, or searched AirBnB for a bargain. One thing you may not have taken much note of was the hotel’s star rating. 

Star ratings have historically been synonymous with the hotel industry; a trusted grading that allows travellers to choose their accommodation with confidence. They began more than 100 years ago when motoring associations such as the AA reviewed and rated hotels to assist travelers find suitable lodgings (in much the same way Michelin began rating restaurants), but today are mostly overseen and regulated by national tourist authorities. 

They are so pervasive that the prestige of a five-star hotel is considered to be an internationally recognised symbol of luxury. But in an era of customer reviews, social media and alternative accommodation, their importance has dwindled as consumers seek out new ways in which to assess the quality of their prospective holiday lodgings.

Take online ratings. Most booking websites now show these with greater prominence than the hotel’s official star rating. Unlike the number of stars, customer ratings can provide more precise feedback with separate scores for features such as location, cleanliness and service. 

Most booking sites now show online ratings with greater prominence than the hotel's star rating.

Consumers instinctively trust the feedback of thousands of prior customers – star ratings feel cold and impersonal in comparison. This is exacerbated by the confusion surrounding star ratings – what really separates a three star from a four star hotel?  The variety of scores and ratings competing for customer attention highlights the confusion; the current top rated three-star hotel in London has a customer rating of 9.3, the lowest five-star hotel is rated by customers at 7.6.

Then there’s the rise of alternative accommodation, popularised by Airbnb but now available through a number of accommodation booking sites. These are not star rated by the same authorities that grade hotels, and as a result appear as unrated on booking.com; a quick search for New York accommodation found more places listed as unrated than any other star rating, underlining the growing proportion of lodgings that fall outside the remit of traditional star ratings.

In an era of alternative accommodation and more granular reviews, what hope is there for the star rating? The issue of trust is perhaps its saving grace. Despite issues with their reach and simplicity, the alternatives have been shown to be open to manipulation and deceit. It is estimated that a third of Trip Advisor reviews are fake and there is a cottage industry for purchasing positive ratings from online bots. Social media influencers are paid to promote products and experiences irrespective of their actual quality, and photos are often painstakingly edited or enhanced to show off a location at its best. 

The general consumer trend towards greater authenticity, and a better public understanding of the way in which reviews and photos can be manipulated, means that the star rating has a great opportunity to reassert its authority as the trusted, impartial source of quality in the hotel industry. However, this does mean that a complete reinvention of the system is needed to acknowledge and meet the requirements of the more sophisticated, digital consumer. 

The general consumer trend towards authenticity means that the star rating has an opportunity to reassert its authority.

Hotel star ratings should not only focus on the property’s amenities and quality, they should also consider other key factors such as the environmental impact of the hotel, the quality of its location, and the interaction it has with the local community; all important issues for modern travelers. Tourist boards should also consider how to rate and promote alternative accommodation, and better publicise how its ratings are determined. 

While it may not be perfect, spare a thought for the humble hotel star rating when you’re planning your summer holiday. It might not stand out, but it’s the most trustworthy measure of hotel quality around, and as indispensable as it was 100 years ago.

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