Travel business has stars in its eyes

Everyone, it seems, is getting into the business of rating hotels


November 30, 2003|By Susan Stellin | Susan Stellin,New York Times News Service

If you pick up a copy of Mobil's 2004 guide to the best hotels and restaurants in America, you'll find just three five-star hotels listed in New York City.

Mobil's main competitor in the expanding world of hospitality ratings, the Automobile Association of America, is almost as discriminating: AAA gave its highest award -- five diamonds -- to just five New York City hotels when the company announced its 2004 winners last week.

Tough critics, those old-timers, who have been rating American hotels for decades (Mobil since 1958, AAA since 1977). Because as more and more companies get into the business of rating room service, bath towels and bed linens, the stars -- and diamonds and even smiley faces -- have been proliferating like crazy.

Most of the leading travel Web sites now offer their own ratings for hotels, adding a whole new set of rankings to the cacophony of opinions offered by guidebook publishers, industry associations and travel magazines. And just as the number of rating systems has multiplied, so too have the awards at the upper end of the spectrum, suggesting that a creeping wave of grade inflation may be washing away the boundaries of exclusivity.

In a recent search for hotels at Expedia, for instance, the online travel service displayed a whopping 16 five-star properties in New York City. Orbitz listed 13 five-star hotels in Manhattan.

So how can travelers be sure what's described by some sources as a five-star hotel will really deliver a five-star experience -- and what exactly do these distinctions mean?

"The bottom line is one person's five-star hotel is another person's four-star hotel," said Vivian Deuschl, vice president for public relations at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., whose Central Park South hotel got a high five from both Mobil and AAA this year. With so many rankings out there, Deuschl said:

"It's not easy for the guest to understand what each of them means. But I think within the hotel industry, probably the gold standard in terms of what we aspire to are the Mobil and the AAA highest ratings."

Shane O'Flaherty, who oversees Mobil's ratings program, said the company has a two-step process to determine a hotel's rank: First, one of Mobil's 50 inspectors evaluates the establishment on various criteria, like whether room service is available around the clock or if the hotel has a pool.

"Then we move to the incognito service evaluation," he said, which apparently does not mean demanding extraordinary treatment.

"We're not really out to trick anyone," O'Flaherty said. "We're just doing the standard things guests do; like asking, 'Can you tell me a nice Italian restaurant in the city?' "

In this example, he said, three-star service is being given a couple of names, while four-star service includes directions and an offer to make a reservation. The five-star treatment? Reservations, written confirmation and calling a car service to take you there.

Other factors inspectors look at include things like how they're treated when making the reservation, how long check-in takes and how quickly their luggage is delivered to the room.

AAA follows a similar process: an unannounced inspection followed by a service evaluation for the candidates for the four- and five-diamond tiers. AAA and Mobil do more rigorous evaluations of properties at the upper end of the spectrum; accommodations at the lower end are rated more on cleanliness and amenities.

According to Michael Petrone, AAA's director of tourism information development, the company has 65 full-time tourism editors who each evaluate at least 650 hotels a year. "We see more properties than anyone else," Petrone said.

As for the proliferation of other arbiters of hospitality, he did not seem to have a high opinion of the competition.

"If you're asking, do I think any of the others are reliable, the answer is no," he said. "It goes back to who you trust."

At least one online travel agency has decided its customers trust outside reviews more than its own: Travelocity began publishing AAA's diamond ratings with its hotel listings last spring (though for hotels AAA hasn't rated, Travelocity uses its own stars, which are clearly distinguished from AAA's diamond ratings).

"Whether it's a well-founded assumption or not, we definitely found a certain level of skepticism with customers as to where the reviews were coming from," said Josh Feuerstein, vice president of hotels for Travelocity. "We wanted to address that by having an independent source."

Travelocity also lets customers post their own hotel reviews and ratings, on a scale of 1 to 5 smiley faces. (Tripadvisor. com is another source for customer reviews of hotels.)

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