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Why QIT has overhauled its ‘stars and standards’

You may have read the recent article in Hotel Owner, talking about the place for Star Gradings in a world saturated by online reviews, and whether the heyday of the Stars is over, when they have such little meaning for guests.

The article, which was written by The AA who are responsible for Star Gradings, ultimately concludes that it’s advisable to look at both Stars, which guarantee minimum standard levels and expectations, and online reviews which give you a first-hand insight into what you’re likely to experience. We however feel that the article misses a key point; the question shouldn’t be whether there is a need for Star Gradings, but whether the criteria used for Star Gradings are fit-for-purpose anymore?

At Quality in Tourism, we’ve been assessing hospitality businesses for 20 years, including running schemes in South Africa, The Channel Islands, England, and for our DMO partners including Cornwall, Kent, Isle of Wight and Yorkshire. In that time, we have seen the industry change from one where accountability came solely from annual assessments and repeat custom, to one where poor-quality operators are squeezed out by scathing public reviews. Neither is better or worse, but they are different, and it is right to consider the place and relevance of standards in this modern, ‘always on’ world.

The original star gradings had been around in one guise or another since 1912, before in 2006, a group of UK Tourist Boards, led by Visit England, came together to develop the ‘Common Quality Standards’; a set of criteria which outline exactly what is expected of an operator at every level. From listing the furniture in every bedroom, to the welcome at the front desk, for many years the Star Gradings were one of the only sources of independent information about operators, and were used by many guests to select their next place to stay.

At the time these standards were developed, we were delivering the quality assessments on behalf of Visit England, using these common standards to clearly define the level each operator was attaining. The problem was, as the industry grew and diversified, so too did the common standards and suddenly there were separate schemes for everything from B&B and Hotels to Glamping Pods, Self-Catering Cottages and home-stay properties. Each scheme came with its own criteria, but it didn’t come with its own grade and soon we had ‘three star’ hotels operating alongside ‘three star’ campsites.

Even worse, some places can score higher on ‘stars’ in their own category than hotels, so it can look like a glamping site is five star (pennant) but would actually come out at two or three star in a direct comparison with a hotel or guesthouse. How then, when you are reading the same terminology, are you supposed to understand the significant variance in facilities between these different schemes? The answer is that you aren’t, and the Star Ratings lost their penetration in the industry as a result.

So is there still a place for stars?

Yes, but it’s a new one. What’s become clear is that guests have access to reliable, informative information which does not come from quality assessments. What’s more, the common standards, and the criteria they impose upon hospitality operators don’t really account for the breadth and diversity of the industry in which we operate anymore. Nor are the stars filling a void for the operators either, providing advice or feedback that they can’t attain through other means. It is for exactly this reason that once Quality in Tourism was released from the Visit England contract, we set about overhauling the standards and our standards-setting system to give them relevance and purpose once more.

So what have we done?

Shifted from decision-maker to decision-validator: First and foremost what we have done is to get rid of ‘stars’ as a decision-maker for your potential guests. We know from endless stats that your guests are comfortable to make purchasing decisions based almost entirely on the reviews of previous guests, which means that the traditional star model has limited relevance. We have therefore taken the criteria back to their most basic form and created two new assessments types, with the sole purpose of validating guests’ decisions and acting as an independent assessment of guest safety. Our basic, entry-level grading – Safe, Clean & Legal – simply assures guests that all the necessary safety measures are in place to keep them safe during their stay (something which isn’t available through third-party reviews); meanwhile our full-blown annual assessment combines this with expert advice and guidance for your business from assessors with years of experience. Both provide a voluntary regulatory function for the industry while it remains unregulated, but which also form a process that has the potential in the long-term to become mandatory, if UK Government has their way.

Redesigned the criteria based on standards and not on operator: It is incredibly confusing that all the different types of operator are assessed using different criteria, but are awarded the same ‘star grading’ at the end. How are the general public supposed to understand the difference between these accolades? With great difficulty of course! What we asked ourselves is ‘what do guests actually care about?’ and the answer is quality, safety and ease of living. As a result, we have shifted our assessments away from the ‘facilities’ e.g. the number or type of pieces of furniture, and towards the things that actually matter, so now ALL our operators are assessed using the same criteria, making it simpler and easier for potential guests to understand. Yes, that does mean hotels, cottages, home stays and even campsites share the same assessment criteria.

Applied some common sense: The Common Standards are prescriptive because once upon a time they needed to be. They used to be the only way guests could be sure what facilities and furnishings to expect when they arrive. Unfortunately however, by their very nature, these common standards have applied unnecessary limiters on the diversity and uniqueness of the industry. We have countless examples of ridiculous assessments, where commercial decisions made by the hotel lead to them being downgraded, when not even their guests seem bothered by the choice. So, we’ve applied some common sense and created new standards which incorporate the things that matter to the guests, but allow flexibility for the hotel management to put their own stamp on things.

Emphasised communication and transparency: one of the core historic values of the gradings was to clearly communicate expectations with the guest, and act as a marketing tool for the operator.

On the plus side, it created transparency, but on the downside it also created assessments which graded for the exception and not the rule. For example, hotels which are created within the confines of Listed Buildings, could not always obtain a high grading, simply because the proportions of a few of their rooms were limited by the history of the property. In fact, in these cases, the operator would have achieved a better grading level, if they’d chosen not to convert these rooms for listing. Madness that these operators would have to weigh up commercial decisions with grading decisions. Instead, we’ve shifted the emphasis from consistency to transparency.

Using the same listed building example, we now expect operators to clearly and openly share information with their guests, but not limit their grading because of it. In our opinion, a five star grading does not solely consist of the size of the room, but also the experience of the guest when they arrive. As long as they know that a particular bedroom is smaller, or has less head room, or has period features and odd proportions, then why should this impact the grading for the overall property? Particularly in this experiential market period, when guests are seeking anything but the norm?

So, the upshot is that we now have a rigorous benchmarking process which provides assurance where it needs to, without limits that it doesn’t. This means operators are free to make commercial decisions without penalty, and we have many who have changed level under the new scheme and seen benefit for it. We have of course been asked how an inspector can possibly compare a yurt to an established large-scale hotel, but this question comes from the legacy of old criteria.

There’s no way you can compare a hotel with a yurt when your expectations are for two bedside tables and a bible; but when you’re assuring guests of objective factors such as safety and compliance, and objective factors such as hospitality and welcome, the physical space becomes less of a consideration and it becomes much easier to assess and evaluate.

The biggest hurdle we face is not how to inspect, but in the education of industry and consumer to understand the shift, and to stop evaluating experience on a linear scale (3 star, 4 star, 5 star), but on an overall assessment of quality. This education will happen naturally over time, and we are accelerating understanding through relevant partnerships and promotions.

Quality in Tourism offer an independent assessment scheme which focuses on true quality and guest experience and puts the needs of the operator on par with the needs of the consumer. They also have a Primary Authority Partnership with Cornwall Council, helping to provide operators across the country with practical advice and guidance on environmental health, trading standards and fire safety.

To enquire about being assessed by Quality in Tourism, visit www.qualityintourism.com

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