The quality of the guest experience offered by a hotel, reflected today in its online reputation, is a decisive factor for travellers when it comes to choosing where to book.
Traditionally, the best indicator of a hotel’s quality and offerings is its star category. And though perhaps this system of hotel classification has lost some of its influence in modern times (many travellers now rely heavily on online reviews by past guests), it remains a crucial point of consideration for travellers searching for their ideal hotel. For hoteliers, it’s also a way to target potential guests by advertising an established level of quality.
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But what do these stars mean? Who determines how many stars a hotel merits? And are these classifications the same from one country to the next?
In fact, cultural, economic, and regulatory differences between countries have so far made a global system of hotel classification impossible. Here’s a look at hotel star categorisation in some of the top markets:
Hotel classification is not mandatory in all countries
You may be surprised to learn that classification is only obligatory in two of the top five major tourist destinations in the world. In France, the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom, hotel classification is completely voluntary.
In Italy and Spain, on the other hand, the regulation of hotel classification is the responsibility of regional governments, who assign a classification based on a series of minimum requirements.
In France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the criteria for classification are all handled at the national level. In France, this is handled by private consultancies authorised by the French Accreditation Committee Cofrac; in the UK, it’s done by the Quality Tourism, which falls under the control of the “Visit England” tourism organisation (this system also applies to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). In Germany and several other European countries, this is done by HotelStars Union under the umbrella of HOTREC (trade association for hotels, restaurants and cafés in Europe). And in the United States, hotel classification is determined by independent groups such as American Automobile Association (AAA) or travel websites.
In Greece star categorisation is also based on a government-regulated system, and a ministerial decision in 2015 introduced a new mandatory star rating system for hotels in the country.
|France||Private consultancies authorised by Cofrac||Voluntary||1-5 stars|
|Germany||HotelStars Union||Voluntary||1-5 stars “Superior” distinction available in each category|
|Italy||Regional governments considering national minimum standards (except Trento and Bolzano)||Mandatory||1-5 stars; some regions offer “5-Star Luxury” distinction|
|Spain||Regional governments||Mandatory||1-5 stars; some regions offer “Gran Lujo” (“Luxury”) distinction|
|UK||Quality Tourism||Voluntary||1–5 stars|
|USA||Independent groups & travel sites||Voluntary||1-5 stars|
Main aspects to bear in mind when looking at hotel classifications
Fortunately for travellers and hoteliers alike, regulation affecting hotel star classification has evolved in many areas, as it made little sense to stick to rigid and antiquated rules based largely on architectural factors.
Current criteria are standardised in many cases, but there are still notable differences across regions and countries. All regulations have four main areas of consideration: rooms, bathrooms, basic hotel services (for example, reception), and catering services.
If we compare the main differences between countries, three major types of regulation emerge:
- Regulation based on mandatory minimum requirements by category: Spain and Italy are the most restrictive countries; most of their regions have legislation that very precisely describes the exact characteristics and minimum requirements that establishments in each category must have. However, some regions have now introduced less restrictive regulations. Accommodation is visited by public inspectors who make sure that rules are complied with.
- Regulation that combines minimum requirements by category with optional facilities and services that give points in order to obtain a higher category: France and Germany both favor this system. This approach makes it possible to guarantee minimum standards at establishments and also recognise differences in the added value offered by different accommodations through their facilities and services, which needn’t be the same in all cases. Accommodations are categorised by inspectors or auditors.
- Regulation that combines minimum requirements by category with minimum quality requirements: The UK and US are examples of markets that use this model. Although it’s necessary to ensure a minimum level of facilities and services in accordance with the category granted, the overall number of these services isn’t as important as their quality. Establishments are visited by consultants who not only rate various aspects of the hotel, but also give advice to management on how to improve facilities and services and obtain a higher rating.
Will there ever be a unified international system of regulation?
In my opinion, this goal will be very difficult to achieve, given that the realities of tourism are very different for different countries in terms of consumer expectations, infrastructure, cross-cutting regulations, etc. However, I do believe that we are beginning to see several modifications to the regulations, brought about by the demands that are being made by society in general, and particularly by travellers.
I find myself asking: Is it really important for a receptionist in a 5-star hotel to speak at least three foreign languages? Because the current regulations in some Italian regions suggest that it is. Personally, I’m more interested in the hotel having a website containing up-to-date information, realistic photo, an exact location for the hotel (as required by German regulations), or guaranteed Wi-Fi service.
A key issue is the range of measures that encourage more accessible and sustainable tourism. These are reflected in many regulations that aim to guarantee minimum standards — and are particularly noticeable in Anglo-Saxon countries, where a wealth of advice is offered to travellers on how to make their stay more pleasant — and to create a type of tourism that is more socially, economically, and environmentally acceptable.
As hoteliers and professionals working in the sector, what do you think would improve the current regulations that affect you?