Hotel Online  Special Report

  British Hoteliers Voice Concerns Over
the New Hotel Rating System
Diamonds Aren’t Forever!
By Barry Napier, May 2006

The English Riviera can get quite hot in summer. In 2006 it got even hotter – under the collar.

Torbay is a genteel place, with a high concentration of places to stay: hotels, guesthouses, B&B’s. Owners usually try to better their best in an effort to woo customers, taking real pride in giving quality for money. They now fear the latest changes in the hotel rating system will lose trade and even drive some owners into liquidation. Mostly it all comes down to a definition of the word ‘hotel’.

According to irate Torbay hoteliers, a relatively short while ago the British Tourist Board (‘Visit Britain’) made changes to the system, and said there would be no more. Now, they have altered the system again, and this has infuriated the trade.

The new system is now “done and dusted” says Simon Lever, a Torquay guesthouse owner, “but the problems rumble on.” Those I interviewed certainly appear to be affected by what they call a ‘blunder’ by the Visit Britain ‘focus’ group responsible for the changes.

Simon & Dianne Lever

Simon Lever, an active member of the Torbay Hospitality Association, is not impressed by the changes. With a fervour prompted by frustration, he says “Most people in the UK know the star and diamond system. The real potential for confusion will be on the internet, where the meaning of ‘guest accommodation’ may not be that obvious. It will be up to the former diamond-rated business such as ours to ensure there is no confusion.”  However, he says he is in no doubt that Visit Britain has introduced unnecessary complications.

He and his wife, Dianne, own and run the Daylesford Hotel in Torquay. Currently it has four diamonds with a silver award, so it is a guest-house. When the new system was brought in, he was denied continued use of the word ‘hotel’ but has since won a battle to keep the word in the title and description. Now he has to make very sure he describes his hotel as ‘guest accommodation’ in his advertising and website. But, he claims many who now use the word ‘hotel’ are very worried, because it is vital in internet searches. “The removal of the word ‘hotel’ on a website would all but kill-off internet presence for smaller businesses.”

Simon, who is also a consultant, said he is not personally worried because he will cope – but he cannot say the same for others in the trade. “Many think they will ‘go under’, unable to deal with constant demands and changes.” He says he has no option but to use the new system: “If our name doesn’t appear in the literature put out by Visit Britain, I won’t be able to compete for business.” Meanwhile everyone is waiting for the changes to take full effect from next year, with varying degrees of trepidation.

Under the new system there will be no diamonds; all premises will have star ratings and the number of stars will appear on external signage. Under the stars will be an indication of whether the premises is a hotel, or guest-house/B&B, etc. If not an hotel (as defined by the system), the words ‘guest accommodation’ will be found. 

“This,” says Simon, “will likely cause confusion, because there is no quick visual discriminator. If a potential customer is driving down the road and sees a two-star and a four-star premises, he will ignore the two star, even though one might be an hotel and the other a guesthouse.” The customer will not take time to read what is underneath the stars, “so he might end up in a four-star guest-house and not a four-star hotel.”

Despite his anger at the way he thinks the system has been ‘foisted’ on the trade, he says owners must now stoically get on with it – but “it will take time to sort it all out in customers’ minds.” Others I interviewed have the same opinion, and say the ‘powers that be’ have not consulted the trade properly or given themselves enough lead-in time to educate the public, either in the UK or abroad. Simon insists: “On the internet, this could have disastrous consequences for many small businesses.”

When asked what will happen when making internet bookings, he says customers must get used to looking at the ‘small print’ on websites, to make sure they get what they are looking for – an hotel, or a guest house/B&B, etc. “Customers associate stars with big hotels; so owners must be sure their descriptions are very clear. Otherwise it is possible for a customer to book into what they perceive to be a large ‘hotel’, only to be very angry on arrival to find they are in a small guest-house.”

Overall, despite his distrust of the process of change used by Visit Britain, Simon and his wife are upbeat and look forward to the challenge. During my viewing of the Daylesford, I could see why it has four diamonds and a silver award, right down to ultra-clean skirting boards and tiny details. Years of proud ownership are very apparent and I had the impression they would go further than required to provide customers with a memorable experience, even if they had no stars at all.

Simon & Dianne Lever

Bernard & Rosemary Sellick

Bernard & Rosemary Sellick
Like others I spoke to, Bernard and Rosemary are a hard-working team, passionate about their two-star, gold-award hotel, which they have owned for the past 19 years.  They actually demolished bedrooms so customers could enjoy more leisure space!
His desire for excellence makes Bernard very animated. He talked to me with a degree of urgency. After all these years, he said, he was anxious about the future.
“We have always been interested in building quality; our ideas are the same as Visit Britain’s. We changed from diamonds to stars four years ago. We are one of only six two-star hotels in the South West with a Visit Britain Gold Award, and the only two-star Gold Award hotel in Torquay and South Devon.”  
Bernard and Rosemary are very proud of their hotel and anyone who sees the place must admit the gold award is well-earned.  Visitors would be forgiven for thinking the luxury décor and environment are more suited to a four-star premises than a two-star!
 With a concerned expression, Bernard says “Now everything has changed. The new system will give rise to a misconception, as potential customers think from the signage alone that a four-star guesthouse is better than a two-star hotel, though the criteria for assessing them are different!”
He believes his objections are well-founded. “We feel two-star hotels have been totally squeezed in the revamp.” Bernard is also concerned that small or new hotels and guesthouses will have to bear extra costs, such as for new stationery, advertising, website changes, etc. He said Visit Britain was not concerned by this.
“One owner,” he says, “has the word ‘hotel’ prominently fixed to the front of the building…is he now expected to pay a large amount to deface his building, just to get rid of the word ‘hotel’?”
With a two-star sign but a four-star look, the Berburry Hotel would not disappoint anyone who stays there. But, as Bernard says, with only nine rooms it is not practical or cost-justifiable to attempt to meet the additional criteria to increase his stars. “I thought about going back to being a guesthouse, but why should I, after spending years building up a two-star hotel? For me, it would be a retrograde step!”
When asked if he had taken the quality aspect of his premises well beyond what is expected of a two-star hotel, he thinks he has – but that it was a “matter of personal satisfaction” to give the very best to his customers. “The confusion about the rating system is heightened in resort towns, where hundreds of premises are often crammed very close together, making a visual comparison very difficult for customers. Under the new system this will be even worse.”
Bernard echoes Simon Lever and says successful internet placing is vital: “The word ‘hotel’ is the key, because it is the biggest trigger for search engines. If the word does not appear in the search, customers will never get to hear about you. We will see a watering-down of descriptions by owners, and this will lead to confusion. Hotels must be judged alongside other hotels, not mixed with guesthouses and B&B’s.”
He adds that he has been spending constantly on increasing quality, but has now gone as far as he can…you can only do so much in a limited space. “It’s a nice building and a lovely home, in a prime position, so we’d like to continue as we are.”
There is a distinct impression of owners being jittery about the changes and this came through strongly during interviews. There is a fear that the business an owner has built up for years will somehow be threatened by a scheme designed to be of benefit. Those I talked with are enthusiastic about a standardisation of quality indicators – but only if the changes are made logically and with consultation. Their anxiety is rooted not in the need for change, but in what they see as a ‘done deal’ without any real consultation or listening to legitimate fears.
As one owner said, “It was a bureaucratic decision made by those who don’t understand the real needs of the industry.” The comment was not aimed at Visit Britain ‘front-staff’ but at the ‘faceless few’ who made the decisions.

Teresa and Giovanni Butto
Owners of the five-diamond Kingston House Hotel in Torquay, Teresa and Giovanni, hope to retire soon, so they are not novices to the hospitality game. Giovanni is a top-flight chef and his evening meals are mouth-watering even when read off a menu! Their previous venture in the Midlands saw them serving master-chef food to people like Sir Cliff Richard, Dudley Moore, June Whitfield, and the comedian/presenter Don Maclean, who is still a very close friend. As Teresa said, “They wouldn’t come back time and again if the quality wasn’t there.”
The same devotion to quality is evident in the hotel, where you get what you expect in a five-diamond premises with evening meal, serving the only genuine Italian cuisine in Torquay.
Teresa is annoyed because “England is making these changes to be in line with Wales and Scotland. Why can’t they keep in line with us? It’s disgraceful – there’s been no consultation. First we heard about the new system was after it had been introduced!”
Repeating what other owners told me, she mused, “How are foreign speakers going to know the difference between a five-star hotel and a five-star guesthouse?” 

With fervour, Teresa angrily says “Visit Britain should have held an intensive campaign, with TV, radio and other media, to educate people when they changed to diamonds. But they didn’t! They produced leaflets – but I only got them by pestering. I am still sending them out to all prospective clients, because Visit Britain have not yet made me aware they have produced marketing material for the new system. Why didn’t Visit Britain send supplies of the leaflets to all hotels and guesthouses previously? Let’s hope they won’t introduce the new star system with no marketing in place!”

Like the other owners I spoke to, Teresa is proud to say “I’m very fond of doing it right and giving my best to people, and our menu is better than you can get in some larger hotels with four or more stars.”
Customers who go to the Kingston want to avoid large hotels, which they believe are less interested in them as people. “You can get just as high a service with diamonds as you can get with stars.”  Like another owner I met, Teresa is convinced that “The ‘big boys’ (a reference to large hotel chains and big five star hotels) led the changes so that they came out in their favour. None of us are happy, because there was no genuine consultation. Even the local tourism group changed the famed Torbay palm-tree emblem without consultation. It is still a palm-tree, but not the same one. Why can’t anyone listen to us – we are in the business, after all.”
Owners see the changes as good in theory but not in how they have been brought about. One even said the changes were “A country destroying its own tourist infrastructure.”  They all agreed that certain individual officers of the tourism bodies listened to complaints, the most prominent of which is that the system was designed and put into place without taking heed of what people in the trade had to say. 

Teresa Butto

Carol Smith

Carol Smith
The epitome of a sharp-minded career woman, in a smart black business suit and alert, sparkling eyes, Carol Smith was both fluent and very open in her complaints about the new star system.
Managing Director of the imposing three-star Belgrave Hotel, easily visible on Torquay seafront in its own grounds, with an extremely spacious car-parking area, Carol was the most vocal of those I met.
She began by saying “Visit Britain restandardised about seven years ago and said ‘That’s it’…now they have done it all over again!”  With an acute and astute business sense, Carol goes much farther in her ideas on standardisation than does Visit Britain. “Why fool about with just a UK system, when we ought to be standardising globally? Now that I could understand!”
With clarity, she spoke of the pressures already put on the trade by new legislation, such as Health and Safety, and Employment, which have the effect of reducing the owner to a pawn in the distasteful world of growing litigation. “And to top it all, we now have this ludicrous new system.”
“Any new system should take into account the international scene, with its ever-growing, changing, demography.” Carol spoke of the “expectations of UK travellers, who visit abroad and see high levels of luxury. They come home and expect the same standards in their own country. Therefore, standardisation should not just be UK-wide, it should be at least Europe-wide, if not worldwide.”
Which is why she thinks the current changes are a waste of time; “Visit Britain will probably not only change its own name again, but will likely change the system… yet again. We must take the bull by the horns!” She meant that if changes must be made, at least let them be made with foreign competition in mind.
“I’ve been in this business for 20 years and more and more demands are made on us. I don’t mind a new rating system so long as it makes sense and keeps up with international expectations.  Those who go abroad have come to expect that ‘wow’ factor – that’s why I have installed flat-screen TV’s, for example, in most of our rooms. People’s expectations are increasing exponentially!”
“As it is now, we are falling behind our foreign competition, and harassed by our own government, who burden us rather than help. Insurances have gone up 500% since 9/11, and litigation, thanks to foolish government inactivity, is becoming pandemic. And record-keeping is now phenomenal. This all removes resources from hotels. Those who do not cooperate with government bodies are being treated like criminals.”
Carol believes that after creating such a fuss, the new system will be handed over to the AA, and questions how this is possible…”Will the Monopoly Commission step in?” she quipped with a wry smile. “The rising costs of simply being in the hotel business will cause many smaller hotels to fail. And the new rating system won’t help.”
She believes that when the English Tourist Board changed its name to Visit Britain, it effectively changed its brand image. “Now, what solid business deliberately changes its well-known, successful, brand image to take on another image no-one is aware of? It is now trying to change the ‘brand image’ of hotels by using a new system. It is suicidal!”
Leaning forward to emphasise the importance of her statement, she adds: “Visit Britain can afford to make errors, because they are not accountable. If I make an error in my business I will go down – but government bodies don’t care. They can make bad decisions and no-one will make them pay for it. All of this affects customers’ perceptions. In my opinion, Visit Britain is wasting public money in this exercise, and it makes me very angry indeed!”
Torquay was memorable for the passion shown by hoteliers and guesthouse owners. Their anxiety and anger were palpable. In many ways the interviews were exhausting, as is any situation where emotions are made plain. Can so many owners be wrong in their assessment?
The star system is already being used in Wales, so transition will be comparatively easy in the Principality, where introduction of the new system will be staggered; the AA started using it in January 2006, whereas the Welsh Tourist body will begin in October 2007. Apparently, the WTB have been advising businesses in writing of the coming changes since January 2006. The WTB said “Their quality level and also any criteria issues would need to be resolved, to retain their existing WTB rating.” That is, they will have to spend to reach the new standards.
Derrick Ellershaw, of the huge Blackpool group of hoteliers, agrees that small-premises’ owners have experienced a “lot of unease and disappointment”. He adds: “There are conflicting reports about criteria changes in the ‘small hotel’ category” but believes the tourist authorities are going to try to resolve the problems. Though his hotel association is the biggest in Europe, he says that even he “hears about (changes) through the grapevine.”
He thinks “As a consequence…most operators will do nothing for a good while, and wait and see what happens, which is a real shame, especially here in Blackpool, where many operators have already addressed the quality issues.”

Generally, Derek is as upbeat as his Torbay colleagues, but he cannot ignore the fact that many owners are very anxious about the future. There appears to be a consensus that all owners in the hospitality field welcome standardisation. Those premises I have visited display an extraordinary desire to offer customers even higher quality than Visit Britain demands, so why the widespread anxiety and anger?

Other areas of the new system have created doubts. For example, why motels can now be listed as ‘budget hotels’, when they usually have no night desk coverage, no meals and lack many criteria that now define ‘hotel’.  Added to this is a proposed new stealth tax that will have an impact on the ability of owners to compete, a 10% ‘bed tax’ on top of the existing 17.5% VAT, making the UK the most taxed holiday destination in Europe!

Visit Britain was asked if they would care to answer some of the issues raised, as was the Minister for Tourism, but there has been no comment.
There is an axiom in all areas of activity - keep lines of communication open! Overwhelmingly, owners are telling me this has not happened, and that Visit Britain’s ‘focus group’ acted unilaterally, without proper consultation. Thus, they say they have been sidelined. And Carol Smith predicts yet another change, “when Britain realises it is part of Europe, and alters the system once more.” 

Honest communication is always a sound, fundamental policy in business. And true communication is always two-way. That’s the message coming from the trade, and they want to know “Will government bodies listen?” Any new governmentally-inspired system will work ‘after a fashion’, but why not get it to work seamlessly and without anxiety? 

The fears expressed by so many prompt onlookers to ask if small businesses will struggle or go under whilst the system is being inaugurated (as happened with many small nursing homes when new systems were put in place). And, even when up and running, will the system run smoothly and be an asset? If not, say some hoteliers, it could help to destroy the infrastructure of British tourism.

The New UK Star System for
Accommodation Explained
Compiled by Barry Napier, May 2006 

This information applies to England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and Guernsey. Both the AA and the RAC now acknowledge the same system, but also award Diamonds. They recognise establishments under three main categories: Hotel, Guest Accommodation, and Budget Hotel.

One Star: (Fair to Good). A clean, basic, practical place to stay. Breakfast and dinner are offered as a minimum. At least 75% of rooms must be en-suite, but you won’t get room or laundry service. Drinks are only available at the bar.
Two Star: (Good). Bedrooms are better equipped. All of them must be en-suite with colour TV. There may, or may not, be a lift; breakfast and dinner are offered.
Three Star: (Very good). As for two star, but with higher calibre facilities, in larger rooms and public areas. (The overall size of hotel may not always be larger). There will be room service (e.g. continental breakfast), laundry, and receptionist, and snacks and drinks in a bar area.
Four Star: (Excellent). Rooms are of superior standard and very comfortable, with quality fittings and furniture. There will be a fitted standing-shower (not just a shower-head in the bath), en-suite bath and toilet. Public areas will be large and well furnished. Food and drink will feature strongly, and drinks, snacks and refreshments will be on offer 24 hours, along with room service and meals. Dry cleaning is available and customers are treated with immense care and professionalism.
Five Star: (Exceptional). Expect sheer luxury! Facilities, services, food and drink, will all be of ‘striking’ international standard. There should be a long list of additional facilities, and staff will be fully trained and geared to give you whatever you wish for. The ambience will be one of sophistication. 

The AA/RAC Diamond System: Guesthouses and B & B’s

One Diamond: Rooms are clean and of minimum standard. There will be a cooked or continental breakfast. If other meals are offered they will be freshly cooked. Bed will be clean, with fresh linen, and there will be fresh soap and towels. Heating and hot water will be available at reasonable times. Overall service will be acceptable. 
Two Diamonds: As for One Diamond but with greater quality of care and quality.
Three Diamonds: As for Two Diamonds, with a higher standard of furnishings, décor and service. There will be a choice at breakfast; other meals will use good quality ingredients and be freshly cooked. Comfort and service will be good.
Four Diamonds: As for the previous category but at much higher levels.
Five Diamonds: Bed will be top quality; there will be more space and some luxury. Furniture and interiors will be superb.  The menu for all meals will be full of variety, with seasonal products, freshly cooked to a high standard. Care offered will not just be basic but your needs will be anticipated.


Barry Napier

Daylesford Hotel: +44 (0) 1803 294435
Berburry Hotel:  +44 (0) 01803 297494
Kingston House Hotel:   +44 (0) 1803 212760
Belgrave Hotel:  +44 (0) 01803 296666
Visit England (British Tourism site):  +44 (0) 20 8846 9000
Also See: The New UK Hotel Grading System Explained / Barry Napier / May 2006

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