The Quality Review Group (QRG) has reached an "agreement in principle" to introduce a system of common standards for rating UK accommodation in 2006 and is set to begin a period of consultation with industry and consumers (Caterer, 27 May).
Alan Britten, the former English Tourism Council chairman leading the Government-backed review, is confident that a unified system will be introduced and the review group will be "absolutely clear" where it's going by the end of the year. However, it will take the inspectors three years to complete their task of assessing properties, so no changes will be implemented until at least 2006, and further changes may be necessary as "the fat lady hasn't sung yet".
It's also important to remember that while the five UK accreditation bodies that comprise the review group - the AA, RAC, VisitBritain, VisitScotland, and Wales Tourist Board - all support "in principle" a unified system, some differences between the national systems will continue. "The operating environments [in Scotland, Wales and England] are different and we all have to realise that," says Tony Mercer, head of quality and standards at VisitScotland and a member of the review group. "What we're building here is flexibility based on quality."
Take the group's recommendation that a bridging point or entry level standard be created for what Britten calls the "underclass" of operators, often located around the fringes of urban centres or seaside resorts, whose accommodation fails to register on the current star ratings systems. While Mercer calls this "a tremendous move forward for England", he says it's "not an issue" in Scotland, where there are no such concentrations of low quality accommodation. The recommendation that a high level advisory group be set up to unite key areas like skills, transport and training is another that relates to England alone.
Similarly, while the AA fully supports the idea of a unified grading system, it will continue to run an independent inspection service and separate promotional and marketing services.
Aside from giving the green light for the introduction of common standards, one of the review group's most important recommendations is that a new bracket called Travel Accommodation be created for the budget sector. However, Britten says more research will be needed to understand customers' perceptions of the sector in relation to existing hotels and B&B brackets.
The review group's recommendations have been largely welcomed by the industry. But Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, speaks for many when he says the agreement in principle is just the start, and issues such as operators losing stars will need to be closely monitored.
"We're pleased we've got this far, but there's still a lot of work to be done and there will inevitably be some issues," Couchman says. "We still have to put the pressure on, we still have to see the consumer survey results and we'll still have to follow its progress."
The review group has certainly tried to be inclusive. In addition to the recommendation for a new entry level standard, Britten has tried to involve as many of the international hotel chains as possible, and he reckons about 85% of them are on board. For his part, Mercer points out that the Welsh and Scottish systems already have a good track record in this area.
Another key focus has been on changing operators' attitudes, especially among those at the lower end of the spectrum, by instilling an ethos that focuses on four basic criteria: providing a warm welcome, staff who care, basic cleanliness, and offering value for money.
Britten hopes that a common ratings system will improve tourism standards in the UK and support our bid to host the 2012 Olympics. While he feels tourism minister Richard Caborn's target of increasing the UK's annual tourism market from £76b to £100b by 2010 is "very ambitious", he's behind it 100%. "I don't want the momentum to be lost," he says.
Now that he's been persuaded to stay on in his role for a further year, Britten aims to tackle further issues like getting the treasury to reduce the VAT burden on UK hotel operators and replacing the proliferation of inconsistent, out-of-date signage.
"Tourism is an undervalued asset in the UK, and it could be worth a lot more both economically and socially," he says. "We have all the ingredients or world class tourism here."