“A 5-star experience for me means you feel like you’re a cherished guest, as opposed to a person with a cherished credit card,” writes Tara Baxendale of Toronto, in response to a survey from this writer asking what a 5-star experience means.
Baxendale, whose travels have taken her across North and Central America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, also notes that she appreciates multiple dining options, lush toiletries, luxurious linens, windows that open, and air conditioning that can be turned off.
She enjoys experiencing local culture when she travels and looks for farm/ocean-to-table dining experiences, locally produced food and beverages such as chocolate, bread, wine, or cider, and an outdoor space for relaxing and soaking up the vibe.
Cleanliness and service above all
We received 62 responses to our survey from Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Ireland; the two most frequently recurring themes were cleanliness and service.
A few felt that, “cleanliness and service went without saying and should be a given in a 5-star hotel.” However, in the wake of the pandemic, that may not always be the case, and many hotels, including 5-star ones, are proudly advertising their cleaning protocols to reassure visitors. (See Celebrating Canada’s Holiday Island, in this issue, about the Safe Haven program the Tourism Industry Association of Prince Edward Island is encouraging its operators to follow, which allows them to advertise that their protocols are independently audited.)
“A room that is immaculate, along with excellent service, are the most important things for me,” writes Emilie Bunkall from the UK, who is planning trips to Washington, DC, and Toronto this fall. “It doesn’t matter how much you pay, or the qualities of the facilities—if the service is poor or the staff is rude, it cancels everything else out.”
Over and above that, she says she enjoys “unique touches, relevant to the location or the story behind the hotel.”
What service means
Service for our travellers means many things: attention to detail, such as providing two luggage racks in each room; key cards that work consistently and don’t have to be replaced during the stay; and a well-staffed front desk that handles check-ins and check-outs efficiently, avoiding that heart-stopping moment when a traveller waits, wondering if the hotel is over-booked or their reservation is lost in the system, or, perhaps, if they’ll get through this check-out in time to catch their plane.
It also means the little unexpected things. Duncan Matheson of Fredericton, New Brunswick recalls how the Inns on Great George in Charlottetown “always had fresh coffee and baked goods in the lobby for guests at no charge,” and how a hotel in Tampa provided a complimentary bottle of wine. “We didn’t expect that as it wasn’t advertised, so it left a positive impression.”
Our Irish respondent made a similar comment about delightful little welcoming gestures.
Location was also important to the people we surveyed. Guests staying at city hotels want to be able to walk to attractions, restaurants, and places of entertainment, while those visiting seaside or lakeside resorts expect to be on the waterfront and not separated from it by a busy highway.
Nancy Bauer of Fredericton, New Brunswick describes in detail what a 5-star experience means for her. “I love a great breakfast in my room with a pretty table arrangement,” she says. “Flowers. Served early. Wonderful coffee in a big carafe, homemade hot biscuits, eggs benedict with real hollandaise sauce, fresh fruit. A morning newspaper. A fluffy white terrycloth bathrobe. Maybe expecting real hollandaise sauce, and not the packaged kind, is a bit over the top, but you get the idea.”
Yes, Nancy, we do. We think you should get the real thing and so does the industry, which is constantly seeking to upgrade its services to embrace what our discerning travellers want.
The catalogue of what they want sheds some light on what tickles human fancy—or is totally essential—in 2023: from workout rooms, spas, heated pools, work desks with Wi-Fi, and accommodation for those with mobility issues to pet-friendly accommodation, rainfall showers, original art, dining options for vegetarians or those with food intolerances, assurances that the company is following environmentally sustainable practices, knowledgeable and helpful concierge service, room service, and last but not least, “good pillows and an extra towel for my long hair.”
The evolution of hotel ratings
While French tire manufacturer Michelin and Magnolia Oil (now ExxonMobil) are credited with developing travellers’ guides and rating systems for restaurants and hotels in the mid-20th century as a way of encouraging the use of their products (rubber tires and gasoline), the credit for being first belongs to English travel writer, Mariana Starke (1762-1838).
Earlier travel guides had focused on architectural and scenic descriptions of places visited by wealthy young Englishmen embarking on the European Grand Tour. Starke’s regularly updated guides, by contrast, included practical advice for English family groups travelling to France and Italy, which she did with her own family.
She enlightened readers on how to obtain a passport and manage luggage, and noted the precise costs of food and accommodation in each city she visited. She also devised a rating system using exclamation marks (!!!) which appears to have been the forerunner of modern star-rating systems.
But the stars didn’t appear in North America until 1958, when Magnolia Oil agreed to fund the first pocket-sized 1958-59 Mobil Travel Guide, published by Simon & Schuster, who apparently admired France’s Guide Michelin. The project covered Magnolia’s territory, which was then Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico, and was led by travel writers Marion and Alden Stevens.
The operation grew more comprehensive and sophisticated and in 2009, the original Mobil Travel Guide was relaunched as the Forbes Travel Guide, and after 2011, moved exclusively online. Today, the Forbes team of incognito travel guides continues to visit nearly 1,000 hotels, restaurants, and spas around the world, using up to 900 standards to determine ratings in three categories.
Five-star ratings indicate outstanding, often iconic properties, with virtually flawless service and amazing facilities; four-star properties are exceptional and offer high levels of service and quality of facility to match; while the third rated category, “Recommended,” indicates excellent properties with consistently good service and facilities.
Forbes, however, is far from being the only rating organization. There’s Conde Nast, Frommer’s Guides, Lonely Planet, and a host of others, including automobile associations such as AAA and CAA, which may use different systems with different criteria.
A small point – the price point
All of this can be confusing for travellers trying to choose which hotel best suits their needs, wants, and budgets. No one aspires to stay at a 2-star hotel, of course, although in reality many people do, and except for the super-rich, few of us can afford to pay for truly luxurious hotels, such as the self-styled 7-star hotels of Dubai, without running up terrifying debts.
As a result, the combination of what customers want and what they’re willing to pay has put pressure on the hotel industry to up their game while keeping prices competitive. In addition, some hotels are losing business to other forms of accommodation which, while not necessarily less expensive, may offer different experiences.
Two of our respondents, for example, indicated they are choosing alternatives to hotels, such as high-end Airbnb and VRBO accommodations or glamping—luxurious camping options, often in geodesic domes, where guests are surrounded by nature and gaze at star-filled skies.
Tell it all online
Customer reviews through the top online hotel review websites—Google, TripAdvisor, Booking.com, Expedia, and Hotels.com—have had an enormous impact on the hotel industry and its marketing strategies in recent years, as both our limited survey and extensive ones like those conducted by MARA indicate (as described by Tobias Roelen-Blasberg in Online Review Statistics Every Hotel Needs to Know in 2023, at www.mara-solutions.com).
According to Roelen-Blasberg, whose blog recaps numerous surveys conducted in the past five years, online reviews do indeed affect people’s hospitality choices to a greater extent than official “star” rating systems or attractive but possibly misleading advertisements placed by hotel companies. While personal recommendations still rank number one when booking a hotel, in their absence, 70.9 percent of travellers say that an online reputation influences their choice of accommodation, while 81 percent say they always read reviews before booking and pay particular attention to how the hotel company responds to a negative review. Does the business ignore the complaint, apologize, explain, or, better still, indicate how the issue is being addressed and rectified?
Good reviews, based on the survey statistics, are a higher motivational factor than discounted prices, “with 86 percent of people saying they would pass off a ‘good deal’ from a company with numerous unattended negative reviews,” while 56 percent of customers responded that they would “change their opinion about a business upon checking the responses given to the online reviews” by the hotel management.
In the early years of online reviews, there was a certain level of scepticism. Were the hotel companies’ staff members writing their glowing reviews? Were other hotels sabotaging their competitors’ businesses?
Roelen-Blasberg writes that while “fake reviews will never be 100 percent identified and deleted, publishing fake reviews on a large scale has become extremely difficult.” This is a result of sophisticated online review websites now able to track and authenticate the IP address of suspicious reviews and if necessary, delete them, with Amazon leading the way in 2020 with a $700 million investment to do just that.
Encouraging guests to leave reviews, hopefully positive ones, is yet one more thing hotel management is now tasked with. While they’re hopeful that satisfied guests will leave positive reviews, only “40 percent of travellers say they leave reviews when they experience exceptional service at a hotel but need to be prompted, whereas 48 percent tend to leave reviews if they have had a bad hotel experience.”
As noted, negative reviews put the onus on management to respond, with some companies turning to AI to generate responses, which may appear to work in the short term for PR purposes but be detrimental in the long term.
If online reviews are indeed as critical as surveys suggest, hotel management needs to ensure services and facilities offered are exactly as advertised and that they assist and support their staff, maintain morale, and provide appropriate training, which improves service and in turn leads to positive reviews from happy customers. And when customers are not happy, complaints should be met with authentic, personalized responses. In 2023, many hotels are doing exactly that!