Consuming Issues: Ratings should show the good places to stay

Should we be lamenting the potential disappearance of hotel star ratings? The UK's star grading been put under notice by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which funds the system. John Penrose, the Tourism minister, said: "The official ratings systems are too often unreliable and unfair not only for the industry but for the consumer."

The problem with the existing ratings is that we don't really understand them. Research from Travelsupermarket.com shows that half of us have been disappointed by a hotel we have stayed at, expecting more given its star rating. However three-fifths of travellers have been pleasantly surprised at how good a hotel was compared to its rating.

The problem stems from the fact that we want to know whether our stay at a hotel will be enjoyable. But star ratings are mainly aimed at reporting facilities. So that lovely little homely place in the country may only qualify for two stars because of its small size and lack of conference or banqueting rooms. Meanwhile that soul-destroying international city centre chain may get five stars even though it offers something far from from what most of us consider to be a five-star experience.

What can elevate a stay at a hotel is decent service, but that's not really represented in the government-backed UK grading system. Hotels are given their one to five stars by the official tourist boards of England, Wales and Scotland, and have to pay for a grading. Hotels are obviously not going to pay for a rating they don't agree with, so the tourist board rankings have to be able to stand up to industry scrutiny by having an agreed set of criteria.

Having looked at the Quality Assessment Scheme at the VisitBritain website I see that the star ratings reward "the general quality of the furnishings, decor and ambience" of accommodation. But that can often make them useless to travellers and holidaymakers who just want to know if they are going to be comfortable and well looked after rather than whether the furniture is stylish or modern.

On top of that the ratings are set by a mystery guest after spending a night in a hotel. That can only be a subjective review and, frankly, what impresses an inspector, may not impress you. The timing of the visit can also affect the rating and with a relatively high turnover of staff, service can obviously change for the better or worse almost on a week by week basis at larger hotels.

The fact that there are other ratings out there – from the likes of the AA among others – just makes things even more confusing for the traveller looking for a decent place to stay. For all these sorts of reasons the Government is considering a move to online customer reviews. But that may not be much of an improvement.

Online reviews are often hugely entertaining but can be totally misleading. The "squashy fruit" principle comes into play where hard-to-please guests mark accommodation down just because an orange may be less than fresh. On the other hand some reviews are just so gushing that they surely must have been written by the hotel owner, or a member of the family.

Ignoring most of the one-star and five-star reviews can help avoid the excessive. But even the others can yield a bewildering array of contrary opinions. And can you trust any? One of the flaws with TripAdvisor is that anyone can post a review, which can open it to abuse. Other sites, such as LateRooms.com or Hotels.com, only allow reviews from people who have booked through them, which should at least mean they have some experience of the place they've stayed at.

"I welcome the proposal to review star ratings in the UK as a shake-up to the industry," says Bob Atkinson of Travelsupermarket.com. "But whatever replaces it has to be able to be trusted by customers and hoteliers alike." That's the key: who can we trust? When it comes to star ratings or reviews, neither does the job adequately. Word of mouth from friends or family is the only credible solution I can think of.

Harnessing that is impossible but with the current system failing consumers, what can replace it? The Tourism minister has the problem of finding something that is useful to consumers and acceptable to the hotel industry. The financial support for the UK's tourist industry comes out of the taxpayer's pocket, so we have a stake in how the cash is used.

There are lessons to be learnt from overseas. France, for instance, updated its official gradings last year, introducing ratings from accredited auditors instead of a government agency. Some new hotels in China have even taken to awarding themselves unprecedented six or seven star status to denote their luxury status. We don't want that further confusion. But we do deserve a hotel star ratings system we can rely on.

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