|By Sara K. Clarke, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 01, 2011--If friends or relatives tell you they have snagged a five-star Orlando hotel for their visit to Central Florida, a little skepticism is in order.
Orlando doesn't have any five-star or five-diamond hotels -- at least not according to Forbes Travel Guide or the AAA auto club, the two veteran arbiters of hotel quality in the United States. But in today's world of Internet-based travel services and instant consumer feedback online, determining exactly what is or isn't a five-star hotel has gotten more complicated.
"When you say you're a five-star hotel, the next question should be, 'According to who?' " said Scott Smith, a lodging instructor at the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management. "There are many organizations that do star ratings."
Forbes (formerly Mobil Travel Guide) has been handing out stars since 1958, while AAA has been handing out one to five diamonds since the 1960s. But now websites such as TripAdvisor.com and Priceline.com have star ratings of their own -- as well as customer-driven popularity polls.
And that's just in the U.S. In other countries, star ratings can vary greatly; some hotels, such as the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, have been dubbed by some as six- or seven-star hotels -- designations that don't really exist.
Confusing? Yes. Yet people flock to the Internet when planning a vacation or other trip to read the reviews and compare the ratings; for example, about six of every 10 travelers report using TripAdvisor on a regular basis to gather information, according to research by Ypartnership, the Orlando-based travel-marketing agency, and the Harrison Group, a Connecticut-based marketing-and-research consultancy.
So what makes a five-star hotel worth five stars? According to Forbes Travel Guide, which took over the Mobil guide last year, a hotel's rating is now more about the guest experience than about the property's physical attributes.
Forbes grades a hotel on more than 525 service standards during an incognito, two-night stay. The criteria are very specific: Are arriving guests greeted and assisted curbside within 60 seconds of arriving by car or taxi? Exactly how long does it take? When asked about restaurant recommendations, does the staff mention at least three appropriate options and describe the cuisine, atmosphere, transportation and dress code for each? Are guests offered and provided an escort to their rooms unless they specifically decline?
"At the end of the day, it's not how beautiful the chandelier is, it's how well do I feel I'm being treated by the property?" said Shane O'Flaherty, president and chief executive officer of Forbes Travel Guide.
The company this year awarded only 54 five-star ratings to hotels in all of North America and Asia, its two primary markets. Only three of those five-star properties are in Florida: the Ritz-Carlton in Palm Beach, the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, and the Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach. In Orlando, the guide's highest-ranked hotels are the Peabody Orlando and the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes, both with four stars.
AAA, which awards diamonds instead of stars, measures about 200 service standards, with in-person evaluations taking in everything from the architectural design of the ceiling to the thread count of the sheets. It is more liberal than Forbes in handing out top-tier designations: 124 hotels in North America and the Caribbean received five diamonds this year, including 12 in Florida. In Metro Orlando, AAA's 29 four-diamond properties include the Gaylord Palms, the Waldorf Astoria, the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress and seven Walt Disney World hotels.
TripAdvisor.com, meanwhile, boasts 30 Orlando-area hotels with four-star ratings -- plus a quartet of five-star properties: the Waldorf, the Ritz-Carlton, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, and Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Lodge. TripAdvisor's hotel-class ratings are provided by Expedia and Giata, a German company, and Expedia, which offers its ratings in whole and half stars, doesn't make on-site inspections.
TripAdvisor does offer separate popularity ratings based on average travelers' online reviews. For instance, the Homewood Suites near the University of Central Florida, which gets a three-star rating from the service, also gets a 96 percent approval rating and five of five bullets from travelers, making it the No. 1 hotel in the Orlando area and one of the top 25 hotels in the country.
O'Flaherty, the Forbes Travel Guide CEO, admits the market has gotten crowded and confusing.
"I think it's a challenging place for the consumer to navigate, based on the amount of information out there," he said.
Yet later this year, Forbes plans to start offering consumer reviews with its expert ratings on a new website, though it intends to vet the consumer contributions to ensure the people weighing in have, in fact, stayed at the hotels being rated. AAA has also added traveler reviews, in the form of one-to-five smiley faces.
For Orlando hotels, it can be hard to justify the expense involved in pursuing five stars from Forbes or AAA, given Central Florida's overriding reputation as a family-oriented, leisure destination.
Yet star ratings are important for hotels when it comes to booking conventions and other group business, said Alan Villaverde, managing director of the Peabody. "Some groups only have their meetings at four-star and four-diamond hotels," he noted.
The general public, on the other hand, seems less interested in the formal ratings, he said, and more interested in the customer-generated reviews found on TripAdvisor and similar websites.
Some hotels may make a conscious decision not to pursue a five-star rating after weighing the costs versus the extra business it might generate, especially in a destination such as Orlando, said Smith, the UCF lodging instructor.
"You're not going for the poshness or the stuffiness. You're going for the vacation experience," he said. "When you have kids, you know you're terrified that little Susie is going to knock over the flower vase or scream and yell in the lobby."
Pat Booth, administrator of tour sales for Go Travel in Longwood, thinks the importance of ratings, formal or otherwise, depends on the traveler and that person's goals. Hotel ratings are particularly useful when comparing unfamiliar brands, she said.
"The more stars, that means the more amenities that the hotel offers," she said. The ratings, she said, "enable us to match the client's expectation to what they get."
Sara K. Clarke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5664.
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