Guide to the guides Honest? Independent? Reliable?

Some of the leading guides charge hotels to be listed. Mark Rowe asks whether their integrity is compromised
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The Independent Travel

Charges for Mr and Mrs Smith start at £1,000, while Johansens charges from £1,000 to £3,000. Inclusion in Sawday's British Hotels, Inns and Other Places ranges from £480 for five rooms or fewer, to £700 for 16 or more rooms. The AA's guidebooks also require a joining fee and then an annual subscription in subsequent years that is related to star rating. These charges add up to £707 for a one-star hotel, rising to £1,572 for a five star property. This secures the property a place both in the AA's b&b or hotel guidebooks and the web-based equivalents.

At the same time, the number of guides that do not charge are dwindling. Earlier this year, Which? dropped its Hotel Guide after almost 30 years (though it still publishes The Good Bed and Breakfast Guide). The general justification for the charges is that the publisher has to make a profit, and that income can come only from sales, advertising or charging the properties involved. It is also easy to appreciate the intense pressure on hotels. The "Lonely Planet phenomenon", whereby a mention in a guide transforms a sleepy hidden location into a mainstream destination, is well recognised.

How confident can readers be that guides that charge are balanced and objective? Adam Raphael, editor of The Good Hotel Guide, which accepts no money from hotels, is adamant that payment must dilute the guides' objectivity. "There's a place in the market for that sort of guide but what we object to is when they pass themselves off as independent when they take money, take adverts and accept hospitality," he said. "Then they allow the hotels to approve the reviews.

"Most of these guides cover their backs by mentioning in the small print that they charge but most people are just not going to notice the difference.

"They can't give a fair and independent view. Have these guides ever included someone good who wasn't prepared to pay? Of course not. They risk missing out on the really good hotels who don't need to pay to advertise and are confident that they are good enough."

Unsurprisingly, those guides that do charge insist they are not compromised and that they do highlight weaknesses in hotels, such as a location close to a busy road. Mr and Mrs Smith, which has published guides to the UK and Ireland and to European cities, approaches the hotel. A reviewer then visits the hotel anonymously. The hotel is allowed to see the review prior to publication but only, the publisher said, to correct basic facts. "You can't pay to get into our books," said Tamara Heber-Percy, spokeswoman for Mr and Mrs Smith. "We make it clear that the hotel has paid. If a hotel isn't good enough we don't use it. For the UK and Ireland book we'd planned to feature 52 hotels but there just weren't enough that were good enough, so we only covered 42. We feel our charges are very competitive. Two hotels have said we account for 40 per cent of their business."

Sawday selects properties on the basis of recommendations from readers and its own investigations. Properties are then inspected, though usually this is not done anonymously. Sawday rejects about 25 per cent of the places that apply, either before or after inspection. "We are not in the pay of anybody and no one is twisting our arms, so we are 100 per cent independent," said Alastair Sawday, the company's founder. "The argument that we are compromised by charging is nonsense. If there's something we don't like about a property we can hint at it. If the owners aren't the best thing about the hotel then we emphasise the property. Our readers are used to reading between the lines and they like that.

"I have absolutely no problem with charging. The owners provide half our income and if we cut that out we would go bankrupt in six months. Of course I regret that there are hotels who will not pay and so cannot be included but they are a small number. But there is also a number of very good hotels that we don't include because they are too pompous or ludicrously overpriced."

Andrew Warren, of Condé Nast Johansens, said its inspectors carry out assessments in co-operation with the owners for practical reasons. "It's difficult to inspect a hotel without the hotelier suspecting that someone is giving it the once over," he said. "The hotel pays for the entry so it does see a proof of the copy but only to correct factual errors. We make it clear to readers on the back cover of the books that the hotels pay for inclusion."

Hoteliers appear to take the requests for payment with a degree of sangfroid. Nigel Anderson, who runs the Escondrijo boutique hotel in Vejer de la Frontera in Cadiz, featured in the Mr and Mrs Smith guide, believes most hotels recognise the benefits of inclusion. "For a new and small business such as ours it represents a terrific opportunity to increase our exposure to our natural demographic, and if we have to pay to contribute to the production and marketing costs it is a price we are willing to pay," he said.

Harry Hodgson, who has run Currarevagh, a manor house hotel in Connemara in Ireland, since 1970, pays to be in Sawday but draws the line at other guides. "I'm against the ones that charge," said Mr Hodgson. "We've been asked to pay to appear in a lot of guides. With Sawday I take the longer view that they charge a fairly minimal amount and that we get business from them and their website. But we are in quite a few guides that don't charge and they bring in a lot of business. The problem is that most of the public isn't aware that many guides charge. They tend to look in a few guidebooks and if you are in three out of five they reckon you are OK. If you're not in a guidebook they may think it's because you're no good when in fact it's just because you don't want to pay to be in it. I can understand why other hoteliers make the decision to pay."

Ultimately, Mr Raphael recognises that all guides are subjective, but he feels that frank and good writing is the key to providing readers with a realistic impression. "Our readers are quick to tell us if they don't think an entry faithfully reflects a hotel," he said. "Even the best hotel may have a really bad night or an unattractive aspect. We have to be free to say it is close to a sewage farm and gets the odd whiff when the wind blows. That's just pure bad luck but it can still be an excellent hotel."

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