To put it bluntly, it's a mess. There's no other way to describe the outcome of two years of negotiation between the English Tourist Board (ETB), the tourist boards of Scotland and Wales, the AA and the RAC which attempted to achieve a harmonised classification and grading scheme for hotels and other serviced accommodation.
Instead of the single unified scheme envisaged when the parties first sat down, there are now two conflicting proposals for hotels, with plans to launch both of them. The ETB, in conjunction with the AA and the RAC, is going for a facilities-and-quality-based scheme. The Scottish Tourist Board (STB) is to base its classifications on quality assessments alone. The Wales Tourist Board has said it favours the STB's approach and is shortly to announce which way it will go.
With hindsight, it is unsurprising that the STB has chosen a quality-based approach. Quality assurance has been an integral part of its policy for at least 15 years. The STB was the creator of the quality grading option employed in the Crown classification scheme now used by all the tourist boards, and was the first to introduce it, in 1983. Since 1991, it has made quality grading mandatory for members seeking Crown classification, a policy which has led to rising standards within its hotel stock and strong support from the Scottish industry.
Of all the organisations in the debate, the STB has the most experience in this area and is eminently qualified to judge the validity of this type of scheme.
All parties to the negotiations accept that quality must be intrinsic to any scheme. The dispute is over how much weight to give it. For the STB, there was no question as to its priority.
"When we began this exercise, harmonisation was our objective, but we felt it was critical to put consumer needs first," says Tim Oliphant, the STB's director of visitor services. "We carried out consumer research last summer and what came out very clearly was that consumers wanted a simple, easily understood scheme based on quality. They felt that quality was the most important aspect. Their perception was that inspection schemes are based on quality, anyway.
"We couldn't ignore these findings and put the clock back, even though it created a dilemma with the other organisations involved. We have discussed the issues with our trade and have come up with a scheme based on quality assessment, except at the four- or five-star end, where facilities are taken into account. We feel this is the cleanest and easiest way of putting across the message to consumers."
The facilities-and-qualities approach was rejected because the STB believes it would not express a hotel's true quality. Oliphant says: "If you take a hotel such as Glasgow's One Devonshire Gardens, which is clearly five-star, but then bring in facility assessment, it will be downrated as it's a townhouse, which won't indicate to consumers the quality experience they'll get. It is even conceivable that a hotel with five-star quality and one-star facilities, and another with one-star quality and five-star facilities could get the same rating. Yet both will deliver a totally different experience, to the confusion of visitors."
The STB's new scheme will be based on the Crown system's existing quality grading element, which employs a range of descriptors from "approved" and "highly commended" through to "de luxe". Tony Mercer, director of quality assurance, says that this will be "fine-tuned", with more emphasis being put on service standards.
"This system, which we've run for 14 years, is highly objective and is based on a clearly defined set of standards," says Mercer. "Currently, we assess 50 different areas within a hotel, from food and service to ambience, but will be adding more as the scheme evolves. Inspectors rate these areas between one and 10 to achieve a total score. For example, one is unacceptable, while 10 is quite exceptional. Our inspectors are rigorously trained to use this system and their personal taste doesn't come into it.
"For hotels, we've agreed a minimum facility entry requirement of 50% en suite, after which all assessment is based on quality. Each star rating will have its own quality threshold or score. For example, to attain one-star, a hotel would have to gain four out of 10 for all areas. If it receives nought for more than one area, it will be denied entry to the scheme.
"To attain two-star, a hotel would have to attain a higher quality score than for one-star. The same applies to three-star. To give an example, for three-star, the warmth of the welcome would have to be higher than it is for two-star. Inspectors would note the type of greeting they received on arrival, and whether they were offered a morning call and a newspaper.
"At four-star, we bring in an additional facility requirement of 100% en suite with either bath or shower, and a higher quality level. At five-star, we require 100% en suite with bath and shower, and a full-service restaurant, plus world-beating quality."
To make the scheme easy for consumers to understand, each category of accommodation will be defined by a designator and rated according to its set of quality standards. The designators will be displayed on plaques and promotional material to ensure that consumers know exactly what type of accommodation they're getting.
"We've conducted focus groups with consumers and this is what they tell us they want, so it's consumer-driven," says Mercer. He reckons that there will be about 10 designators covering the whole spectrum, from hotels and guesthouses to caravan parks and bed-and-breakfast operations. Townhouse hotels will have their own designator because of the difficulties that can arise in rating these very high quality but limited facility properties.
"In Scotland," says Mercer, "rating them isn't a problem because all our townhouses except one have restaurants, so this category has been included to allow for future development."
The STB plans to start inspections under the new scheme this August and to begin delivery of hotel plaques early next year. By July 1998, it hopes to have all accommodation inspected and equipped with plaques, but doesn't envisage the scheme being fully operational and included in its guidebooks until 1999 - a year earlier than the proposed ETB/AA/ RAC scheme.
Reaction from STB's members to the scheme is very positive. "I am amazed by the overwhelming level of support," says Oliphant.
However, despite their support, many STB members will still want the advantages of being rated by the motoring organisations. Both the RAC and the AA confirm that there will be disparities in ratings between the two new schemes. "We've not seen the STB scheme in detail yet but, as requirements differ, so the end results will be different. It certainly won't be helpful for consumers," says an RAC spokeswoman.
The AA believes that the STB's scheme won't provide a true picture of what hotels have to offer. "Turnberry and One Devonshire Gardens will both be five-star rated under the STB's scheme," says spokeswoman Louise Bowden, "yet Turnberry is what the man in the street recognises as a five-star because of its high quality, extensive facilities and service, while One Devonshire Gardens is high quality but doesn't have five-star facilities and service.
"The lack of distinction in the grading will be confusing. Top-rated hotels may not like the situation either."
Peter Lederer, managing director of Gleneagles, top-rated by both the AA and the STB, has no qualms about sharing a rating with One Devonshire Gardens. "I send my guests there and they send their guests to me," he says. "We have the same kind of customers. I am all for the STB's scheme. It is driven by what customers want, which is a measurement of quality, and is simple to understand. That is all that matters."
In some quarters, the schism between the STB and the ETB has been attributed to a Scottish/English divide. But Peter Taylor, managing director of Edinburgh's Townhouse Co and BHA's chairman for Scotland, refutes this. "If I was in England, without detailed knowledge of the scheme, I'd think the STB was on an ego trip," he says. "But that's not the case. The new scheme is built on an existing approach, which is widely supported and has improved quality and standards in Scotland. My company uses it as an internal benchmarking tool. We should listen to what consumers want and go for best practice."
One industry view is that a more satisfactory outcome might have been achieved if the tourist boards had negotiated internally before beginning discussions with the motoring organisations.
At the moment, the Wales Tourist Board unwittingly holds the trump card. It sees merit in the STB's approach, has undertaken consumer research and is about to announce its conclusions. If it sides with the STB, this will put the ETB in an invidious position - isolated from its natural partners and in what will then be perceived as a rather strange alliance with commercial interests.
As one hotelier has said: we've not heard the last of this!