Seeing stars and all confused
Do you differentiate between stars and dots when you're on the internet looking for a hotel?
Does it bother you if a hotel is "self-rated" rather than having an official star rating? Or perhaps you hadn't realised there is a difference?
Star ratings have long been a contentious issue, with many major hotel groups operating outside the official system, and it seems to be getting worse.
I called up a list of more than 400 Sydney hotels on leading booking website Wotif.com, and only 52 per cent were officially rated, with the remainder using their own.
There is no agreed process for hotels applying their own ratings, but they have become widely accepted by the industry - and presumably consumers - in the online world at least.
But with travel reviews and other information readily available to those who want to do a bit of research, the official star ratings just don't carry the weight they used to.
The executive general manager of Wotif.com, Joachim Holte, says the company does not promote one system over another.
"We'd rather give customers all the relevant information, especially customer reviews, and let them make the decision," Holte says.
Hotels.com takes another approach by applying its own star ratings to hotels.
The marketing director for Hotels.com in Australia and New Zealand, Katherine Birch, says the company uses strict criteria that are applied across all of its sites worldwide, allowing consumers to make meaningful comparisons.
"It's important that travellers are aware there is no universal star rating system," Birch says. "Each country has its own, and in some cases more than one, so there could be a disparity of standards and facilities when booking rooms with the same star ratings in different countries."
Some might argue that in the era of TripAdvisor and other consumer review websites we no longer need star ratings.
The problem is that we need something tangible against which to measure those subjective reviews - what's impressive in a three-star hotel may not be good enough in a five-star establishment.
The national manager of Star Ratings Australia for AAA Tourism, George Campbell, believes travel reviews and other sources of information complement rather than replace official accreditation, by providing information about intangibles such as staff politeness.
Campbell rejects any suggestion the official star ratings are declining in importance.
He says there are almost 7000 officially rated properties in Australia, which represents nearly 70 per cent of the accommodation listed with the Australian Tourism Data Warehouse, the national platform for online tourism.
Star ratings are still "very much in demand", Campbell adds, with research commissioned on behalf of AAA Tourism and carried out by Sweeney Research in 2011 showing 75 per cent of travellers believe star ratings are very useful in choosing accommodation.
Star ratings ranked as the third-most-influential information source for consumers, after pictures of the hotel and recommendations from family and friends.
As for the accommodation guides that have long been used by travellers to choose accommodation in Australia, Campbell says AAA Tourism still publishes a range of national and state-specific accommodation and touring guides, with 965,000 printed last year.
The managing director of Tourism Accommodation Australia, Rodger Powell, believes we need official star ratings to give us something on which to anchor other information. A robust star ratings system is a vital part of setting the bar for hotel standards and raising quality, he says.
Powell, who has worked as a consultant to AAA Tourism, says consumers should consider the expert technical opinion of a hotel's standards as well as the subjective views of other travellers.
He likens it to restaurant reviews, saying you would not give the same weighting to consumer reviews as you would to Michelin ratings.
Powell says it is important to understand that only a small percentage of travellers contribute to review sites, and only some of them will be similar to you.
He recently read about 40 reviews of a hotel he was considering booking and not one resonated with him. "For me, the online reviews are only part of the story," he says.
"I'm not sure you always find what you're looking for."
Just make it clean, please
AAA Tourism says 94 per cent of Australians rate cleanliness as the most important aspect of a star rating.
According to Sweeney Research, cleanliness and other quality aspects have been included in star ratings since late 2011, along with facilities and services. The tourism organisation says the star rating criteria have been weighted according to the importance placed on them by consumers.
AAA Tourism says the new scheme was introduced to ensure the star ratings remain relevant.
Two of online travel's biggest players have teamed up to bring us more information in one place.
TripAdvisor has taken another step towards becoming a one-stop shop for travel research, bringing tours and attractions onto its site through a partnership with Viator.
Viator is the world's leading website for booking tours and attractions, offering more than 10,000 options around the world, from cultural tours to extreme-adventure sports.
Through the partnership, travellers using the TripAdvisor website or city guides mobile application can now click a "book now" button to get direct access to Viator's offerings for a particular location. They can also read other travellers' reviews, with the Viator website now featuring more than 360,000 reviews and photos uploaded by customers.
TripAdvisor already claims to be the world's biggest travel website, with more than 75 million reviews logged by travellers. The site has often been accused of failing to ensure the validity of those posting reviews, but continues to grow in size and influence.
It is one year since TripAdvisor added flight searches to its Australian site, comparing fares from various online travel agencies.
TripAdvisor users can now research and book (through links to external suppliers) flights, hotels, holiday rentals, tours and attractions, as well as look up restaurants and general information for destinations.
- Sydney Morning Herald