|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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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.