Are reviews more important than star ratings?
With a world of information at our fingertips, or more accurately, on our smartphones, people are researching every facet of a product or service before committing to parting with their cash. It’s not just fashion and home décor we’re checking out the reviews of either — according to the Path to Purchase report by TripAdvisor, 74 per cent of hotel purchasers check TripAdvisor and 33 per cent of people around the world visit travel sites as part of their booking process.
And there’s plenty to find out there too. We have review platforms, bloggers’ reviews, YouTube reviews, star systems, tour operator’s review systems…but which one do we trust the most? Do star ratings have as much impact now as they did in the past, or do we put more value in real guest experiences?
Why we have a star-rating system in hospitality
The star-rating system was once the only way guests could get a feel for a room before booking. 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. Essentially, a hotel in Berlin might not give you same level of service as a Brighton hotel even if both hotels have the same number of stars. This is down to the fact that there is no global star rating system.
The UK’s star-rating system was introduced back in 1912 by the AA in order to make hotel standards clear. 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’.
UK hotel star rating from the AA
There is a basic level of requirements needed for a hotel to be accepted into the AA’s rating system. These include:
- Public liability insurance
- Fire risk assessment
- Licensing compliance
- 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
- Data Protection Act/GDPR compliance
- The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 compliance
- Food safety/hygiene compliance
- Health and safety compliance
- Planning compliance
- Equality Act 2010 compliance
Plus, there’s a minimum requirement of maintenance expected from a hotel entering the AA star system. 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.
The different levels
Once the basics are covered, the leaps between star levels is much more obvious. 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.
That’s not all. 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 issue with the star system
The major problem is there’s no global star-rating system. 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.
The issue is present even within a single region. 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.
With the star-rating system failing on a few fronts, more and more people are looking for guest reviews in their stead. Plus, it seems there is an increasing level of trust in those online review and ratings.
This hasn’t always been 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).
Ten years later and we’re far more trusting of words we see online. 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 problem of reviews
Of course, that trust isn’t always well-placed. 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.
What should we put more value in?
If you can clearly find the AA star-rating for a hotel, this is a great way to see the minimum requirement the establishment will offer. 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.
With this, you have a basic foundation of expectation from 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.
At the end of the day, it’s all about balancing the ratings and reviews you find in your research. Approached the right way, they can provide a keen insight into your potential booking. Just remember to check which stars are being shown!
Carmen Cox, Stephen Burgess, Carmine Sellitto & Jeremy Buultjens (2009) The Role of User-Generated Content in Tourists’ Travel Planning Behavior, Journey of Hospitality Marketing & Management, 18:8, 743-764