Star power

How hotels get graded

Your hotel has a 5-star rating, but you would be hard pressed to give it 3. The pool was closed evenings, the check-in clerk was surly and the last guest’s dirty socks were still in the dresser drawer.

Who assigned those stars, you wonder. The question is straightforward enough – the answer is a little murkier. If Michelin ranks a hotel a “4”, you can reasonably expect a certain level of service, but the reality is, no one body oversees all hotel ratings. In fact, it isn’t unusual for the same hotel to get 2 stars from one organization and 4 from another. Travel corporations, hotel associations, tourist boards and local governments all hand out stars. Some hotels even rate themselves – all in the name of selling rooms and scoring tourist dollars.

What’s more, each grading system looks for different things. Some are based on simple checklists of available amenities. Others involve anonymous inspectors who evaluate service. Still others, such as Canada’s package tour operators assign their own ratings to Southern sun destinations. The reason that 5 star hotel in Cuba didn’t measure up to its cousin in the Bahamas? According to Sue Cavallucci of Air Canada Vacations, it’s because ratings are based on the best-available­ facilities in each specific region.

Confused? You aren’t alone.

Until recently, aside from lodging a complaint with a manager, there was virtually nothing hotel guests could do about bad experiences. The Internet has changed all that. Now, thanks to travel blogs and consumer-driven websites like TripAdvisor, disgruntled travellers can speak up. The good news is hotel rating agencies are paying attention.

Susan Weinstock, editor of New Jersey-based Northstar Travel Media, says that guests beefing about bad service on the Internet can lead to hotels being re-evaluated. (Northstar began dishing out stars in 1939 and licenses the data for use by the travel industry. Their rating service covers over 51,000 properties worldwide.) If Northstar receives a complaint, company representatives investigate and offending hotels are demoted..

Brian Simpson, general manager of agrees. He says that online retailers such as Travelocity often adjust North Star ratings up or down based on guest feedback. In his company’s case, hotels are assigned a score of 1 – 5 happy faces, in addition to stars, to rate customer satisfaction.

Travelocity’s rival, consults with a variety of existing travel sources to compile its own 1-to-5 star ratings. According to Chris Day, Expedia’s director of marketing, these ratings are based on a property’s average score – which, you guessed it, is often based on customer feedback.

The people behind Mobile Travel Guide have been in the ratings game for 51 years. “We will react to guest feedback”, says Shane O’Flaherty, president. If a hotel slips up, it is dropped entirely, not simply demoted, he says. Florida-based AAA, which also gives 1-to-5-diamond ratings to Canadian hotels for the CAA, investigates complaints, but pays more attention to those from its 51 million auto club members than ones on the Internet, says Michel Mousseau, one of their regional inspection managers.

Yes, it’s all a little confusing. The moral of the story however, is that in today’s Internet age, if your hotel doesn’t live up to its rating, tell the world. Your gripes can eclipse its stars.

Photo Credits: Fotogma, Robyn Mackenzie

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.