The star rating system for hotels still has an important role to play in today’s rapidly changing world of blogs and customer on-line reviews, a group of leading hoteliers* agreed this week.

Speaking at the Hotel Marketing Association’s Chief Executive’s Question Time, the panel agreed that the recent unification of the AA grading scheme had made it much simpler for customers to interpret. While regular inspections by the AA also helped to keep hoteliers on their toes and provide valuable feedback.

“Three, four and five star ratings are a common language for the customer and as a result they know what to expect,” said David Clarke of Interchange and Consort Hotels. While Matthew Welbourn of Folio Hotels and Jonathan Raggett of Red Carnation Hotels agreed that the mystery shopper element of inspections was important. “It helps to drive standards’, said Matthew Welbourn.

Fellow panellist Stephen Hanton of Bridge Street said websites such as tripadvisor could be unreliable as they carried reviews which ‘can be manipulated’. But Lawrence Alexander of easyHotels said that the future lay with the worldwide web. “Customers are looking for more information than they can get from the star rating system and they will go straight on line to find it. Google is the world’s largest travel agent, right now,” he said.

In a lively meeting, the panel covered a variety of questions from the audience including the importance of sustainability, challenges for 2008 and the 2012 Olympics.

On the topic of sustainability the panel agreed that the hospitality industry was in danger of lagging behind other industries.

“Customers will want to know what carbon consumption is. The industry has many challenges to face in terms of food and waste and we will have to start pulling our socks up,” said David Clarke.

“Enormous savings can be made by hotels undertaking green initiatives and we have to make sure that we are also giving something back to the customer so that the benefit is not one sided,” said Jonathan Raggett. Stephen Hanton agreed that there was a danger that green driven initiatives could be perceived as an excuse to save money and that could lead to cynicism about the motives.

Longer term Matthew Welbourn said it was likely that customers would start choosing hotels according to how green their policies were and the industry had to be prepared. Lawrence Alexander said companies like easyJet kept the environment at the forefront by giving its passengers an opportunity to offset the carbon emissions made by their flight. The small additional fee that this entailed was channelled into environmental UN certified schemes.

On the panel were: Lawrence Alexander, Chief Executive, easyHotels Ltd; Stephen Hanton, Managing Director, EMEA/Chief Operating Officer BridgeStreet Worldwide; David Clarke, Chief Executive, Interchange & Consort Hotels; Jonathan Raggett, Managing Director, Red Carnation Hotels; Matthew Welbourn, Group Managing Director, Folio Hotels. The session was chaired by Stuart Harrison of the Profitable Hotel Company.

The HMA is the official industry group of the Chartered Institute of Marketing and its members comprise sales and marketing specialists and operators of both independent and chain hotels.

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