Just who should be responsible for giving hotels their ratings - VisitEngland or the private sector? Emily Manson asks the leading protagonists on both sides of the argument for their views.
What's the best way to rate a hotel? What's the difference between a hotel and a guesthouse? These debates have been reignited with the news that VisitEngland has launched a review of its Common Standards.
The controversial rating system has come in for stick over its property classification system since its launch in 2005, for what some see as duplication of a perfectly good ratings system provided by the privately funded AA. Some suggest the advent of consumer feedback sites such as TripAdvisor - controversial in its own way - have also made the rating system redundant.
However, others argue that the standards are far more wide-reaching as the only system agreed by all the UK's main accreditation bodies, including the national tourist boards of England, Scotland and Wales, the AA and the RAC. Some also argue that the AA, with its business model increasingly involving consultancy to the very properties it then rates, cannot provide the independence the government-funded scheme maintains.
Here, we ask the two leading protagonists for their views on an argument that is sure to keep firing passionate debate for months to come.
BOB COTTON, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, BRITISH HOSPITALITY ASSOCIATION
"Do we need hotel grading, or has it become superfluous with the growth of brands and with the level of internet information, such as individual hotel websites and TripAdvisor? Do stars give a realistic impression of the style and quality of a hotel, or are they misleading - even meaningless - to many members of the public?
This is not a new debate, of course, but recent letters and articles in Caterer have again highlighted differing opinions on the subject. It's true that for internationally known, branded hotel chains, stars are relatively unimportant because the brand name tells the customer what he needs to know about the product. But for independent hoteliers, stars are vital in providing information about the type and quality of the hotel. They are highly prized and represent considerable value.
What, however, has not been mentioned in the debate so far is what role the national tourist boards should play in this area. Should grading be a part of their function, or should they concentrate solely on marketing? How big a role does grading play in marketing and should tourist boards have an interest in ensuring that they have a mechanism for encouraging higher standards if they have a key role in promoting UK tourism?
It's clear that grading costs money - there is a real net cost to VisitEngland to enable it to support the harmonised star grading scheme. In an economic recession, when money is tight - and will get much tighter when the new government, of whatever hue, takes office next June - there's a strong argument that public funds should not be spent on providing a scheme which is perfectly well provided by the private sector - in this case, by the AA. If funding is to be cut back, then what money is available to the tourist board should be spent on promotion and marketing.
This is a powerful argument, especially as the AA scheme - devised originally in conjunction with the tourist boards - is so well established. Even though the scheme is not perfect, AA stars give a realistic impression of a hotel's standard and the type of facilities it offers. They are well supported by many hotels. Inspections enable a hotel to raise its standards if it wishes. Customers have confidence in the star ratings, despite their imperfection. Why, then, should a tourist board become involved when it duplicates this activity and - more importantly - cannot improve on what the private sector provides?
What is a certainty is that all hotels must be fit for purpose, if only because tourist boards promote a country as a whole and, therefore, indirectly promote every hotel in it. But local authorities have a statutory duty in terms of health and safety, food safety and other legislation - there is no case for tourist board involvement here.
Without a nationwide statutory hotel registration scheme - too costly and too bureaucratic to justify, with too little benefit - grading should be left to the private sector. Hotels that want to take advantage of star gradings can do so and gain from them - others can opt out. To the industry's advantage, the tourist boards should concentrate on marketing and promotion."
JAMES BERRESFORD, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, VISITENGLAND
"As I enter my second month as chief executive of the new tourism authority for England, VisitEngland, I continue to be excited and energised by the work that we are doing and the people I am working alongside.
In these first few months, the focus is on developing England's first tourism strategy in more than 10 years. A sound and well-supported strategy will help us build a solid foundation for the future of English tourism.
Orchestration and leadership by VisitEngland will be at the centre of this strategy. We need to make better use of existing resources if we are to promote and develop our sector in what is a hugely competitive market place. Factors such as limited funds as well as continuing to develop our external partnerships will be vital in assessing the areas VisitEngland should be, and can realistically be, focused on.
One topic that continues to be a point of industry discussion is, of course, the National Assessment Scheme for accommodation.
If you've been keeping up with the ongoing debate about the Common Standards, introduced by VisitBritain, the AA, VisitScotland and VisitWales in 2005, you'll also know that VisitEngland - together with its Common Standards partners - is currently undergoing a review of these.
The review will assess the importance and relevance in today's digital era of the criteria used in assessing accommodation and to chart how consumers' priorities have changed since 2005.
The review has been in the planning for many months now and we look forward to sharing these results with you later this year.
I would like to stress here that VisitEngland remains committed to the fundamental concept of the standards. The UK is one of a few countries worldwide that operates a cohesive quality accommodation scheme that encompasses service and hospitality as well as facilities, and includes a mystery guest overnight stay.
VisitEngland currently lists more than 24,000 assessed accommodation businesses, ranging from hostels and campsites to self-catering and hotels. The scheme is self-funding and provides much-needed assurance to our visitors. One of our key partners in Common Standards in England, the AA, currently assesses serviced accommodation only, amounting to around 4,500 properties in the UK.
It is good to remember in our web-dependent world that the scheme is not just about marketing. Our research shows us that business support, advice on such issues as accessibility and raising professionalism for small businesses and accommodation providers is highly valued by scheme participants.
Of course our championing of the visitor experience is not limited to accommodation. We also embrace the Visitor Attraction Quality Assurance Service in support of England's highly valued visitor product. Clearly our remit is to champion standards and quality - not simply to pass judgement on them.
I believe one of the advantages of our involvement in the scheme is that it helps facilitate a more holistic approach to the raising of standards and our understanding of visitors' requirements and expectations. We do, however, have to look at its fitness for purpose. This review will help us do that and to build an ever more customer-focused service for the future.
We are in what is possibly the most important era for tourism since the English Tourist Board came into existence 40 years ago. As a society, we are conscious of the negative legacy recession can create - tourism has a major role to play in combating that. It is an economic powerhouse and can provide vital employment opportunities and routes into work. I will continue to champion the cause of our vital industry."
CATEGORIES AND CRITERIA USED IN VISITENGLAND'S COMMON STANDARDS RATING SYSTEM
Hotels: Hotel, country house hotel, small hotel, townhouse hotel, metro hotel, budget
Guest accommodation: B&B, guesthouse, farmhouse, inn, restaurant with rooms, guest accommodation
Common Standards for Accommodation Entry-level requirements at each rating level are detailed below. Each level builds on the criteria that precedes it.
Formal accommodation with full service
- Open seven days a week in operating season
- Six or more bedrooms with en-suite or private facilities; reception; bar; dining area serving cooked breakfast seven days a week and evening meals five or more days a week
- Guest access at all times, staff available 24 hours a day
- Supplier Directory: Breakfast cereals
- Cereal dispensers
- Notepads, breakfast
- Breakfast provisions
- Supplier Directory: Serving dishes
- Serving bowls
- Serveries, bespoke
- Serving equipment
- Trolleys, serving
- Supplier directory: Bar/backbar equipment
- Glasswashing machines and equipment
- Ice buckets
- Snack bars
- Bar sundries
- Supplier Directory: Ready meals
- Meals, delivered
- Caterers, community Meals
- Ready meals, chilled
- Evening meals served seven days a week
- Room service offering drinks, snacks and one meal (breakfast or dinner) in the day and evening; en-suite bathrooms in all bedrooms
- Enhanced services such as 24-hour room service, luggage assistance, or lunchtime meals
- At least one restaurant open to residents for breakfast and dinner seven days a week
- Open seven days a week all year
- Some luxury suites; baths in all en suite bathrooms
- Additional facilities such as secondary dining, business centre or spa
Enhanced services such as valet parking and a concierge
Informal accommodation with limited service
- Substantial breakfast; staff present at arrival, departure and meal times; meals served in eating area or bedrooms
Three-star and above
- Access to both sides of all beds for double occupancy; bathrooms/shower rooms not shared with proprietor; washbasins in all guest bedrooms
- 50% of bedrooms en suite or with private facilities
100% of bedrooms en suite or with private facilities
Uniform accommodation with limited service, such as roadside and budget hotels