Make an informed choice on accommodation

Date Posted: 29/07/2011

We’ve all stayed in a hotel before and wondered how it achieved so many or so few stars. Therefore in light of the government’s recent plans to change the current hotel rating system, Group Leisure has investigated how organisers can make an informed accommodation choice for their group.

When organising accommodation on your last short break, did you check whether or not the hotel supplied writing paper in the bedrooms? I didn’t think so; however such standards must be achieved by hotels in order to reach a certain star rating. According to the Government Tourism Policy, released by John Penrose MP in the spring, several problems with the star rating system have led to government withdrawing its support of the scheme.

One of the main issues was the number of different rating systems, run by a variety of public, private and third party sectors, including VisitEngland, the AA, tour operators, holiday suppliers, and even self-rating. This made comparisons difficult, with none of the systems universal. Another concern was that some businesses felt coerced into joining a scheme, whether it was beneficial for them or not.

As a result, “the government will stop trying to corral tourism firms in England into joining an official rating scheme. We will leave decisions on whether and how to modernise, shrink, or close the existing state-sponsored scheme to the industry itself, through the newly refocused VisitEngland.”

Therefore, we asked Jeremy Brinkworth, head of business development at VisitEngland, to shed some light on the situation.

Earlier in the year, the Government Tourism Policy announced that it would no longer be supporting the star rating system. Do you think it is easy or confusing for group organisers to make an informed choice?

I’m directly involved in it, as I’m responsible for the current VisitEngland star rating, so my view is that it’s basically sound, but there is always ways in which it can be improved and modernised, which is what we are working on currently. The official star rating for accommodation is common standard between the national tourist boards of England, Scotland and Wales. Therefore if we swapped our inspection teams around, we would in theory be giving the same rating no matter who was inspecting what.

The government has left the responsibility with VisitEngland to take a look at the scheme again. What do you have in mind, and where will the funding come from?

We’ll be working with the industry on this. We have over 24,000 businesses that are assessed by ourselves across the accommodation sectors, and the fact that so many choose to be assessed would indicate that generally there is approval for it. My CEO said that we need to make sure that the scheme pays for itself, which it’s very close to doing in reality anyway, and that the views of industry are taken into account. VisitEngland gets an overall grant from the department of culture, media and sport, and that grant is to fund all our activities, most of which goes on marketing. The actual amount which goes on the schemes in my area is relatively small, and operationally the scheme already pays for itself as the businesses pay to get accredited, and what they pay, broadly speaking, covers the cost of the operation. There’s a little way to go in terms of covering other overheads, but we’re largely there anyway.

We’re working with the other partners, Scotland and Wales, on the modernisation of the serviced accommodation standard, particularly for hotels, and contrary to perception, there is a strong quality element in there, it’s not just a tick box for facilities. We’re increasing the emphasis on hospitality and quality of businesses. Most of the European schemes are facility-led, and in most cases, they don’t even do a mystery shop in terms of an overnight visit, which we do to experience all the services, rather than going on a day visit and going on a show round.

The scheme is arguably already more robust than its European counterparts, but what we want to make it is more appreciative of quality and hospitality, and less prescriptive about things that are outdated now. There are elements in the original manuals about having writing paper in the room, and things have moved on. We want to strip out those sorts of things, as we want to realise the different business models that hotels have now. There are all sorts of variants of hotel – the new advances which we need to take account of.

What is the timescale of this process?

We hope to be introducing them within the next couple of months actually, so when we start going out to visit, we can give people the new standards which makes it easier for them to get a star rating, which maybe they couldn’t before. It works both ways of course, we can’t just have everyone going up, there may be some which can’t meet the changes, but we want to reward the intrinsically high quality businesses. We visit each hotel every year so regrading will be a natural process. If there is some work or improvement that they have to make, whether it is a hotel or guest house, we don’t just say do it now, we allow time so it can be introduced for the next time we visit.

How will this new system affect the group travel industry?

Well the public is key to this really. We want to also make the schemes more understandable to the public. The Minister talked about user-generated content and consumer ratings, and we know that the customer will look at a star rating, but will also go on to a website to see what others are saying about the hotel, so the two things work in tandem, they’re not competing. The important thing is that the ratings given through the official scheme are, broadly speaking, in line with consumer expectations. We base out decisions on consumer decisions and also what the industry think is right.

Finally, do you think that these consumer websites will take on a more prominent role, or will there still be a place for star ratings?

It’s both really. We want to move towards the best of both worlds, where the industry and consumers will have confidence in star ratings, as they’re understandable, but also incorporate consumer ratings as part of the process too. We soon need to make sure that everybody is aware of the scheme changes so that they’re not surprised on their next visit.

Progress report

Since this conversation, VisitEngland has already made some strides to achieving a new system. It has been confirmed that the organisation will implement a reviewed approach to quality assessment programmes in England, achieved through the modernisation of current standards (VisitEngland is already working with the AA, VisitScotland and Visit Wales on this), and it is agreeing a new delivery model.

Hotel standards

In 2006, the AA and VisitEngland joined forces to share a common standard in rating hotels, as run by Quality in Tourism, and all assessed hotels must reach a specific level of cleanliness, maintenance and hospitality. Though the additional common standards may change as VisitEngland looks set to work on a new model, the current areas of importance for group organisers are as follows:

One Star

  • All bedrooms must be en-suite or have private facilities.
  • There must be a licensed bar.
  • The dining room must serve a cooked breakfast seven days a week – unless the hotel is designated a town house hotel.
  • The dining room must serve evening meals at least five days a week – unless the hotel is designated a metro hotel or a town house hotel.

Two Stars (in addition to the above)

  • A dining room must serve evening meals at least seven days a week.

Three Stars (in addition to the above)

  • Room service of hot and cold drinks and light snacks during the daytime and evening must be available.
  • One room service meal, either continental breakfast or dinner, should be clearly advertised in bedrooms.
  • All bedrooms must have an en-suite bathroom.

Four Stars (in addition to the above)

  • Enhanced services must be offered, e.g. 24-hour room service including cooked breakfast, luggage assistance, meals at lunchtime, or table service on request at breakfast.
  • There should be least one restaurant, open to resident guests and non-residents, for breakfast and dinner seven days a week.
  • All bedrooms should feature an en-suite bathroom with WC and thermostatically-controlled shower. Additionally, at least half of these bedrooms should have a bath.
  • There must be at least one suite available.

 

Five Stars (in addition to the above)

  • Further enhanced services must be offered, e.g. valet parking, escort to bedrooms, proactive table service in bars, lounges and at breakfast, concierge service, 24-hour reception, 24-hour room service and full afternoon tea.
  • There needs to be at least one restaurant, open to resident guests and non-residents, for all meals seven days a week.
  • All bedrooms must have en-suite bathroom with WC, bath and thermostatically controlled shower.
  • There should be a choice of environments in public areas, of sufficient size to provide generous personal space.
  • Additional facilities should be available, e.g. secondary dining, leisure, business centre or spa.
  • A number of permanent luxury suites must be available.

To conclude, it seems that the government and VisitEngland actually agree that user-generated content is holding increasingly more weight with consumers. If VisitEngland can find a way to incorporate this element into its own star rating system, perhaps this will be the way forward for the industry. 

If any group travel organisers or members of the travel trade would like to share their opinions and experiences of the hotel rating system, please contact us

Image credit - Britainonview / Joanna Henderson

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