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Searching the stars: Are hotel star ratings outdated?

By LLM Reporters on 20th February 2019

It’s pretty common nowadays for people to scour the internet before committing to a purchase of any kind. Whether it’s a new car, somewhere to eat, or a hotel booking, people want to know that they are buying smart. This is particularly prevalent in the hospitality industry.

Customers are certainly placing a lot of faith into online reviews too. According to TripAdvisor’s Path to Purchase report, 33 per cent of people globally visit travel sites before booking and 74 per cent of hotel purchasers check TripAdvisor before booking.

The internet is saturated in blogger reviews, YouTube video reviews, website reviews, first-hand accounts, and more. The question has to be asked then — do star-ratings have a place in the modern hospitality industry?

Where the star-rating came from

It used to be that a star-rating was the only real information a guest could get, bar word of mouth from friends and family who may have been before them. The star system used to be quite simple and, without the digital word of mouth, really the only information guests had to go on. Now, the star system is as varied and unsettled as they come, with hotels claiming everything from five to ten stars instead of the traditional rating. This is down to the fact that there is no global star rating system. Essentially, a hotel in Berlin might not give you the same level of service as a hotel in Jesmond even if both hotels have the same number of stars.

The AA’s star-rating system was introduced to the UK in 1912 as a way to make hotel standards clear and understandable for guests. Back then, the maximum number of stars was three. It wasn’t until 2006 that the AA developed the Common Quality Standards with the help of a number of UK tourist boards, which increased the maximum rating to five stars. Plus, in 1956, the AA introduced an additional Rosette Award scheme to ‘assess the quality of food served in restaurants and hotels’.

The AA’s star-rating system was introduced to the UK in 1912 as a way to make hotel standards clear and understandable for guests

What the star-rating covers

The minimum

To be accepted into the AA star-rating system, there’s a minimum level required of hotels. These include:

  • Safety and security minimum requirements.
  • This includes staff to be on site and on call 24-hours a day, printed instructions for emergencies in the night and for evacuation procedures in every bedroom.
  • Symbols, diagrams, and multilingual emergency notices in every bedroom.
  • Registered guests should have access to the hotel at all times, with the hotel entrance illuminated in the dark and identifiable. Lighting in all public areas, stairways, and landings.
  • Telephone access 24-hours a day.
  • A key or card for guests to lock bedroom doors inside and out, and security fittings on windows.
  • Hotel Proprietors Act compliance.
  • Public liability insurance.
  • Fire risk assessment.
  • Licensing compliance.
  • Data Protection Act/GDPR compliance.
  • The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 compliance.
  • Planning compliance.
  • Equality Act 2010 compliance.
  • Food safety/hygiene compliance.
  • Health and safety compliance.

The star-rating system also requires a minimum level of maintenance. This covers fixtures, electrics, and gas equipment in the building being clean and fit for purpose. There’s also a minimum requirement for cleanliness, with the AA stating that there must be ‘a high standard of cleanliness maintained throughout the property’ regardless of star level — cleanliness is not expected to vary between star level.

With so many different ratings to look at, guests are turning to first-hand accounts more frequently

The difference between levels

After the basics are achieved, the difference between one star level to another is much more apparent. For example, where a one-star hotel is required to offer an iron and ironing board, a five-star hotel is expected to offer 24-hour return laundry service. A one-star hotel can verbally explain the breakfast menu, where a two-star hotel must have a clean, well-presented menu provided for breakfast items. But then for dinner provisions, both one and two-star hotels (as well as three and four) all need to serve dinner at a specific time advertised, communicate if no dinner is provided, and can provide a self-service buffet. The only difference in dinner requirements is for five-star hotels, which need to provide all courses, served to guests at their table.

It doesn’t end there. There’s a huge level of detail for the requirements of each level outlined in the full document, which can be accessed here. But just how relevant is it in this digital age?

The problem with star-rating

The crux of the matter is that the star-rating system is not global. Other countries run their own systems, with some having multiple different boards with their own star systems. Some hotels might even give themselves their own ‘unofficial’ star rating. Then, there’s the matter of tour operators running their own star rating system, which can make four-star hotels look like five-star hotels to unsuspecting bookers.

In fact, the problem can manifest even within one country’s ratings. Even within the UK, a hotel may have an AA two-star rating, but a tour operator may advertise it as three-stars based on their own rating system.

The Grosvenor hotel in Mayfair is one of the capital#s very best hotels. Image credit: chrisimages/

The value of reviews

With so many different ratings to look at, guests are turning to first-hand accounts more frequently. Plus, it seems there is an increasing level of trust in those online review and ratings.

Not that this was always the case. Back in 2009, C. Cox et al noted that while 95 per cent of internet users at the time relied on online research as part of their travel information search process, few were actively trusting them as a primary means of gauging a hotel’s quality. This was deemed to be because ‘[it] is not always easy to identify and access the profile of people who post information on blogs and other social networking sites, [so] the reader cannot easily gauge the credibility of the information provided’ (pg. 749).

Nowadays, we’re trusting these online reviews a lot more. Reports show 84% of people place online reviews on the same level of trust as a recommendation from a friend. As mentioned at the start of this article, one of the main ways potential guests scout out hotels is to look on TripAdvisor, meaning they are placing a lot of value in the ratings there compared to the star-rating of a hotel.

The issue with online reviews

Not every reviewer is trustworthy though. It is as relevant now as it was in 2009; we simply do not know much about the person who rates or reviews a hotel on TripAdvisor and the like. In fact, there’s even a ‘fake review’ market present in the digital world that is said to be able to get around the detection processes in place. So much so that one man managed to get a restaurant that doesn’t exist rated as the top restaurant in London.

The luxurious Bovey Castle in Devon is widely regarded as one of the finest hotels in the UK

Who should we trust?

If you can find the official AA star-rating for an establishment, this is a good way to grasp the minimum offering. By checking the minimum requirements set out by the AA, you can see the standards the hotel had to achieve to be granted not only entry to the star system at all, but the star level they have achieved. For example, the AA has rated The Majestic Hotel as a four-star hotel. You can take this and check their Common Quality Standard to find out that this means the hotel must provide such things as televisions with a screen larger than 24 inches, and a high degree of spaciousness within the rooms.

From this, you have a general idea of the minimum offered by the hotel. From there, a look at guest reviews can help to cement an idea of the experience, but with caution for the above-mentioned flaws for the online review process.

Really, it’s all about knowing what to look for and taking all reviews with a pinch of salt. Approached the right way, they can provide a keen insight into your potential booking. Just remember to check which stars are being shown!

Image at the very top of the article credit: chrisimages/