Travel / Choosing a hotel

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WHEN it comes to hotels, we're a nation of bathroom-lovers. So concludes a recent Wales Tourist Board survey into what consumers consider important when choosing accommodation. En suite bathroom facilities were thought to be more critical than value for money, location or food - and, strange but true, nearly twice as important as a comfortable bedroom.

The point of the survey was to identify exactly this type of idiosyncrasy, to help find better ways of classifying and grading hotels. A worthy exercise, you may think - and indeed it might have been, had the English and Scottish tourist boards made common cause with the Welsh. Instead the three countries remain divided by a common symbol - the crown.

The Crown Classification scheme was launched in 1987 to make it easier for tourists, from this country and abroad, to find hotels that suited their needs. Up to five crowns would be awarded to reflect the facilities available, and each of the three tourist boards - English, Scottish and Welsh - was to administer the scheme locally. Each has now headed off in a different direction, amending and adapting the system to its own tastes. This has made life ridiculously confusing for the traveller looking for a decent room for the night.

Take the question of quality grading, pioneered in Scotland: it tries to inform people not just about the facilities at the hotel - a television in every room, for instance - but whether or not it is a good place to stay. This is done with four levels of grading in addition to the crown rating: approved, commended,

highly commended and de luxe.

In my experience the result is very reliable. In fact, although there may be fewer facilities, you can be pretty sure that a night in a two-crown 'highly commended' hotel will be a lot better than in a four-crown 'approved' one. And it's unique - no country outside Britain has developed such a useful indicator.

To its credit, the Scottish Tourist Board realised the importance of this and made quality grading compulsory for all the hotels it inspects. In England and Wales, however, the grading has been introduced but remains voluntary. So if two three-crown hotels are listed side by side in a tourist information office, and one has a 'commended' sign while the other hasn't been graded at all, it is impossible to know which is better. Nor is there any point in asking someone behind the desk - they're not allowed to make recommendations anyway.

Ironically, one thing all three countries do have in common is a failure to address successfully another key problem: competition from the AA and RAC schemes. Both have been rating hotels with stars for decades. To succeed, crowns would have to supplant stars in the public imagination. They haven't. Instead they've added to the confusion, because the tourist boards tend to be more generous with their crowns than the motoring organisations are with their stars. There are dozens of hotels and bed & breakfasts with two or three tourist board crowns posted outside the front door, and an AA or RAC sign with just one star. My favourite example is a hotel in Yorkshire. For the AA it's a three-star hotel; the RAC gives it four, but the English Tourist Board has rated it a five-crown, de luxe establishment.

One way to ensure the supremacy of the crown would be for all the tourist boards to get together under a unified scheme requiring all hotels to be rated for facilities and for quality - the legal powers have long been available to do this. Yet it looks as though the crown schemes are at risk of fragmenting even more. The Wales Tourist Board will decide on the future of its version after consultation with the trade this summer; the English board has commissioned its own review (a report is due any day now), while the Scots have no plans to make any big changes.

In the meantime, if you're looking for a good hotel for the night, try to find one which is graded 'highly commended'. And keep your fingers crossed that you haven't missed a better one down the road which has got fed up with its tourist board - and opted out. Nick Trend