Hotel star ratings standards long overdue

Analysis In hotel reviews and industry pamphlets, Dubai's Burj al Arab is lauded with "seven star" descriptions.

Random overview shots of Dubai, UAE. Burj Al Arab and Jumeirah Beach Hotel. 2009. *** Local Caption ***  marin_dubai_09.jpg
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In hotel reviews and industry pamphlets, Dubai's Burj al Arab is lauded with "seven star" descriptions. The reality is, of course, that no hotel has such a rating. Even the Burj al Arab's management company describes the hotel as simply a "five-star deluxe" property. "There's not a lot we can do to stop it," says a spokeswoman from the Jumeirah Group. "We're not encouraging the use of the term. We've never used it in our advertising." According to the group, the seven-star rating emerged when a British journalist who visited the hotel on a pre-opening press trip described the Burj al Arab in her article as above and beyond anything she had ever seen and called it a seven-star hotel. Hotel rating systems across the world seem to be the cause of much bemusement and debate. How can a five-star hotel in one city be so different in its services, quality and facilities from a hotel in another part of the world? "One of the most important elements of the guest hotel experience is service standards, which do not generally form part of a hotel rating system," says Max Cooper, the executive vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels. "Most rating classifications consider the quality of the infrastructure, which is more easily quantifiable, but overlook the quality of service that is more subjective to measure but critical to the quality of hotels." There is no universal classification system so the criteria that need to be met to achieve certain star ratings can vary greatly from one destination to another. Until recently, France's hotel classification system went up to "four-star luxury", dating from the 1960s. Herve Novelli, the French secretary of state for tourism, last month introduced the fifth star. In 2005, Britain introduced an updated system which uses the five-star system for a hotel's facilities, room size, cleanliness and so on, but also has gold and silver awards that are allocated to hotels of exceptional quality. "The system has always been open to interpretation by different groups, different countries, and as such has always been a little haphazard," says James Young, the general manager of the Crowne Plaza hotel in Abu Dhabi. Often, it seems that hotels awarding themselves an excessive numbers of stars is simply a marketing gimmick. One such property was the Hydropolis, the underwater hotel in Dubai that has yet to materialise. "I'm always interested as to how they arrive at those star ratings because I don't know what constitutes a 10-star hotel," Mr Young says. The Hydropolis, according to plans, was to have 220 suites 60 feet (18.2 metres) under water, complete with its own cosmetic surgery clinic, so perhaps the conventional rating system does somehow fall short of evaluating such a property. The ratings that hotels carry can become highly questionable if the system is not regularly updated, or if governments or watchdogs do not keep track of the ratings that hotels are advertising. Abu Dhabi is in the process of launching a new system to standardise classification of the capital's hotels and force them to upgrade their offerings. Dubai has also said it is about to launch new classifications to replace its system, which is more than 10 years old. The Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) has spent nearly two years developing the emirate's first government-regulated system, which is particularly strict. Hotels in the capital will soon have to display a plaque showing its official rating, determined by a long list of stringent criteria such as whether the rooms have plasma TVs, and how well the flooring matches the rest of the room's decor. Service standards also play an important role. According to the ADTA, some hotels fell short and lost their five-star ratings, but some managed to redeem their status in a six-month grace period, during which they had the opportunity to make changes and improvements. "Some hotels have been downgraded," said Nasser al Reyami, the director of tourism standards at the ADTA. "We are aiming to have the highest standards in the world." Many hoteliers in the capital seem to welcome the move. "One of the key things for any destination is to have a set of regulatory standards so people know what they are getting and that's why I think classification here is very important," Mr Young says. As part of InterContinental Hotels, he says the Crowne Plaza's five-star rating was based on the company's own classification system, but adds the hotel is undergoing renovations and upgrades to meet its and the ADTA's standards. "I think the new Abu Dhabi system is very strict and I think that's a good thing," Mr Young says. "They are setting up a standard for everyone to follow and it certainly has raised the game for both owners and operators in Abu Dhabi." The ADTA plans to inspect hotels three times a year to make sure standards are maintained, and the system will provide even stricter guidelines for new hotels. "We strongly believe that this will provide much-needed consistency to tour operators selling the destination and successfully manage the expectations of our visitors, and ultimately ensure a level of quality performance," says Selim el Zyr, the president and chief executive of Rotana Hotels, based in Abu Dhabi. Given that the capital plans to double its supply of hotel rooms over the next three years, the need for regulation has become even more pressing, Mr el Zyr says. Abu Dhabi's revenue per available room, the hotel industry's best measure of health, is among the highest in the world because of the small number of rooms in the emirate. The Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) has been saying since last year the introduction of a new system is imminent. "Certainly in the Middle East there has to be a drastic transformation of the star system," says Michael Scully, the managing director of the independent holding company Seven Tides' hospitality division. "By nature of the products that Dubai is offering, too many hotels are classified as five-star. This stems from the days of very strong demand and not enough supply, where four-star products could get away with branding themselves as five-star products and getting the price as well." Mr Scully says Dubai also needs more four-star hotels to cater for people from different economic backgrounds. Mr Cooper says: "In our view there would ideally be a standard hotel rating system of classification throughout the UAE."