How to check out before you check in

Hotels are no longer just places to hang your hat while you go out and explore ? they're now marketed as experiences in themselves. But can you trust the hype? Darius Sanai finds out

It's been months since the summer break, the dark evenings are closing in, and you decide it's a perfect time to nip away for a pampering weekend. The buzz is that you don't need to bother too much about location, because hotels are becoming destinations in themselves: whether it's an ayurvedic spa or a hip cocktail bar serving Stolipolitans that you're after, there's a hotel somewhere that offers it. In choosing a destination hotel it's easy to be overwhelmed by guides, directories and marketing groups. Membership of hotel marketing consortia has doubled in the past five years, resulting in a plethora of different hotel directories on travel agents' shelves. Similarly, bookshops are full of hotel guide books.

It's been months since the summer break, the dark evenings are closing in, and you decide it's a perfect time to nip away for a pampering weekend. The buzz is that you don't need to bother too much about location, because hotels are becoming destinations in themselves: whether it's an ayurvedic spa or a hip cocktail bar serving Stolipolitans that you're after, there's a hotel somewhere that offers it. In choosing a destination hotel it's easy to be overwhelmed by guides, directories and marketing groups. Membership of hotel marketing consortia has doubled in the past five years, resulting in a plethora of different hotel directories on travel agents' shelves. Similarly, bookshops are full of hotel guide books.

"There are just so many of these marketing groups and hotel guides out there, I can't keep up with them and can't imagine how our customers would," the general manager of one famous modern London hotel told me recently. His hotel is a member of several marketing groups, paying to be under their publicity and marketing umbrella, but he admits he sometimes forgets just which ones he is in.

"Many of the guide books on the shelves take payment for inclusion by their member hotels," says Adam Raphael, editor of the Good Hotel Guide, a mainstay of the shelves. His Guide includes hotels only on the basis of its readers' recommendations. He points out that the glossy Johansens, which sits next to his book on most shelves, only includes the hotels it recommends if they pay for their entries. Moreover, Johansens guides sell for £20 each. Johansens does include some excellent hotels – the London award winner this year is the exquisite Milestone in Kensington – but there are a lot of corporate-style country houses in its pages too.

The toughest test a hotel can face is that set by Leading Hotels of the World (LHW). It charges members listed in its directory tens of thousands of pounds a year for membership but it doesn't pretend to be an impartial guide; every member is subject to an annual 2,000-point "quality assurance" test, conducted by an incognito examiner, covering everything from service and food to the quality of the linen. Members face being ejected from the group if they fail to meet standards. The directory is highly respected in the travel industry, and available free of charge to consumers.

"A brand is only as good as its weakest product," says Trent Walsh, head of the group's test programme. He says LHW rejects 50 per cent of the hotels that apply to become part of the group, mostly on the basis of the test. "Opulence", he says, is a keyword if a hotel wants to join LHW.

But because some hotels decide they don't need to market themselves in this way, the LHW book is not exhaustive. Amsterdam's finest hotel, the Amstel, the Hotel Arts in Barcelona and London's Claridge's do not appear in the LHW directory, and a couple of the European member hotels I have stayed at enjoy a glory that is more faded than real, with lip-service being paid to the required standards. Moreover, LHW has no problem with members of a chain, such as Sheraton or InterContinental, becoming members as long as they meet its standards.

Another marketing consortium, the British-based Small Luxury Hotels of the World, is perhaps more in tune with leisure travellers' desires; it refuses to accept any hotels that are part of a chain and most of its hotels have fewer than 50 bedrooms. Two-thirds of the SLH members are in rural locations, and most of its guests are holidaymakers. "There is a trend to find an intimate personal experience," says a spokesman. "Our guests are looking for luxury that's closely tied in to the local culture." Members are quality tested, and have to pay between £10,000 and £20,000 a year to be included.

With so many guides available, the current situation is, says Trent Walsh, "desperately confusing for the consumer". My experience with SLH members is that the hotels tend to be cosy and family-owned, though far from cheap. I planned my own honeymoon around SLH member hotels, from the genteel Franklin in London to the wild and beautiful Twin Dolphin in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and I wasn't disappointed – though some other member hotels have seemed to me absurdly expensive and more like glorified B&Bs.

Perhaps the most famous marketing consortium of all is Relais et Châteaux, a French-based group which has expanded its reach across the world during the past decade. Members have just 30 rooms on average, its motto is "courtesy, charm, character, calm and cuisine", and many British travellers swear by R&C members. Hotels must pay to be listed, though unlike some of its rivals R&C is a non-profit organisation, and the group's tests are also famously rigorous.

"The key to the Relais philosophy is that we are hosts in small houses, so for our guests it's like being at home without the hassle," says Thierry Naidu, the organisation's director for southern France. "It's more about character and personal service than luxury."

The group does include some gems, including Naidu's own hotel, the Château de la Chèvre d'Or, which overlooks Monte Carlo, and must be one of the world's most spectacular hilltop hotels. But few have ever left a R&C member with a heavy wallet, and even some of the cheaper members (there are three levels of membership), can display a stuffy attitude.

R&C imitators abound, some of them crammed with interesting and unusual properties. Châteaux et Hotels de France is a sort of junior R&C, and Preferred Hotels is a slightly less rich man's LHW. Both give out their directories free of charge.

A newer group, Design Hotels (established in 1993), collates information about design-led properties around the world. If you want to stay in a place that looks like a page from Wallpaper* magazine, the Urban and Leisure Design Hotel catalogues are perfect, and they feature a great eccentricity of content, from Sir Terence Conran's stunning five-star Great Eastern Hotel in London to a German eco-lodge where rooms cost £30 a night. "Our target audience is very different from that of other groups," says managing director, Guy Dittrich. "We're serving the demands of the modern traveller who is looking for something different to the typical hotel."

There is nothing to stop hotels belonging to more than one marketing consortium – it's not uncommon to find the same place listed in LHW, Design Hotels and Johansens – although some are listed in none: neither Ian Schrager's eight boutique hotels, nor any of the hip W Hotels in America belong to any consortium.

And what of the guide books which are just that, and not marketing tools? The RAC and AA guides charge a fee – up to £500 – for a hotel inspection, while others such as the Which? Hotel guide and Good Hotel Guide are completely independent. But not infallible. Quite the worst hotel I have stayed in in Britain – a country house in Wales which was fusty with clanking-cutlery dinners and flatulent plumbing – was recommended in the incorruptible Good Hotel Guide. My favourite hotel in the world is listed by nobody at all except the American Fodor's travel guide. It's a secret, of course – and I expect your own favourite is exactly that too.

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