There was a time, before the mobile phone, the internet and blogs, when hotels used to put brochures into envelopes and post them to customers who had requested, via a letter, for “further particulars”, and used to place small ads in the classified columns of newspapers, extolling the presence of hot and cold water in every bathroom.

You took that at face value – you had no other way of knowing whether the Miramare Hotel really did overlook the sea until you got there.  And then the automobile associations such as AAA (in the USA), the RAC (UK) and Michelin (France) decided that, as a benefit to their touring members, and to provide them with a level of protection from, dare I say it, hoteliers who were somewhat economical with the truth, they would produce guidebooks. These organisations gave their own opinion of the quality of each hotel, so that members seeking something of a high quality would know that the “five star” (according to the guide) Grand Hotel was a better quality than the “three star” Very Grand Hotel, before they arrived – because, as we all know, names can be misleading.

These systems of star ratings developed, and they did, and do work to some extent – we all know that a one or two star hotel is likely to be pretty basic, a three star hotel will be kind of average, a four star hotel – well, that’s something better than a three star, and a there is no official star rating system.  Those hotels that announce themselves to be five five star is all about luxury.  However, in Nigeria, with the region’s largest hotel industry, star, four star or whatever star have “self-awarded” – so the system that was supposed to be for consumer protection falls flat on its face when a hotel can decide itself how many stars it would like to have!

And anyway, after nearly 40 years in the international hotel industry, I still can’t tell you what a five star hotel is.  This so-called expert in the hotel industry doesn’t know something as simple as that!

Think about it, however.  Hotels are really complicated things, selling services (e.g. overnight accommodation), manufactured goods (chicken pie and mash) and packaged commodities (a bottle of beer) in multiple outlets, in hundreds, sometimes thousands of transactions per day, between invariably different human beings.  How can you possibly categorise a diverse creature like that using just two words – five star?  Did you know that, until recently, there was no such thing as a five star hotel in Paris?  The system there used one star to four star, four star deluxe and Palace hotels, for the top properties in heritage buildings.

But they are still not particularly good definitions, are they?  Basic, average, luxury?  One guest’s luxury is another guest’s average, after all.  Take three of London’s hotels as examples, all on Park Lane – the Hilton, The Dorchester and the Grosvenor House are all five star hotels, but cater to quite different clientele – a regular guest at one probably would not in his or her lifetime want to stay at one of the others.

I mentioned earlier that star rating systems vary from place to place – there is no such thing (contrary to what many people think) as an international star rating system.  The ECOWAS region has a rating system, which is half-heartedly applied in some countries and not all in others.  And this regional system suggests that to be five star you should have a casino – really?!

The International Hotel & Restaurant Association (IH&RA) argues against any attempt at harmonisation – would it really be appropriate to specify the same level and extent of facilities and services at hotels in New York and in Nouakchott?  Of course not, and travellers would not expect it.  Even in Europe, there would be confusion between the French insistence on having a bidet in the bathroom, and the British not knowing quite what it was for!

What’s the solution?  It’s already there.  Two factors make star ratings far less relevant, and irrelevant to many.  One is the increased availability of information on the internet, where sites such as TripAdviser.com provide guest feedback on hundreds of thousands of hotels, warts and all.

In addition, hotels and booking agencies can provide pictures of their facilities, so that prospective guests can make a judgement regarding the quality of the hotel pre-arrival.  Of course, the camera can lie, as can blogs, but still a great advance on a subjective assessment of “quality”.  Some websites provide information on every room in a hotel, including the views!

The second solution, which goes hand-in-hand with the huge increase in information available on the internet, is hotel branding.  The Hiltons and Sheratons of this world have no interest in being classified as three, four or five star.  They have already classified themselves – as Hilton or Sheraton!  These chains commit considerable sums each year to product development and to consumer research, so that what they offer under their brand name, is what the guest wants, and what the guest expects. The brand is instantly recognisable, and in theory provides a much more substantial promise of what’s inside the box than does any generally-applied rating system.

And no, I have no idea what a “six star” hotel is!

Trevor Ward

W Hospitality Group, Lagos           

trevor.ward@w-hospitalitygroup.com