-Frank Corr examines a system in decline
To indulge in a culinary metaphor, grading has always been a ‘hot potato’ for Irish hoteliers.
Back in 1948 a Miss Brigid Duignan bitterly complained to the Irish Tourist Board that after she had spent her money on wallpaper and new china, an Inspector had called for ‘a cup of tea’, after which he promptly downgraded her premises.
‘Is that any way to treat a woman trying to build a business’, she moaned.
She was not alone among hoteliers, who ever since have had issues with inspectors from ITB, Bord Fáilte or their latter day successors. Ever since Sean Lemass, in the Tourist Traffic Act of 1939, provided for the compulsory registration of hotels, their owners have battled with the ‘Powers that Be’ on the issue of grading. In the early years, hundreds of premises were simply dumped out of the system because, even though they had the word ‘Hotel’ over the door, they were really pubs or guest houses. Grading those who remained was far from a scientific process. An Inspector called- often on his or her bicycle, had a a look and a cup of tea and made an arbitrary decision on the grade to be awarded. By 1951 the Irish Hotels Federation was demanding a ‘more scientific approach’ and the inclusion of ‘information symbols’ as well as details of how Bord Fáilte arrived at its grading decisions. A few years later, IHF President F.X.Burke wanted hotels classified as ‘de luxe’, ‘city’, ‘resort’ or ‘provincial’. A new row erupted over the number of bathrooms needed in hotels. The Federation wanted one for every ten rooms and Bord Failte demanded one for eight.
The intervening years have seen much chopping and changing in hotel grading in Ireland. Initially it was an alphabetical system with grades A to D. Next came stars to indicate service, so a Grade B hotel with good service would become ‘B*’. Eventually we switched to the international system of one to five stars and later again, following intense IHF lobbying, we introduced a Dutch-based system which allowed hoteliers to acquire a ‘star classification’ by providing basic facilities for a particular grade plus a choice of services from an ‘a la carte’ list. Fáilte Ireland then out-sourced the inspection process while retaining overall responsibility for registration and classification
Over the past 20 years or so, much joy was expressed by hoteliers whose properties were upgraded with equal resentment among those who were moved down the ladder.
But not any more.
Rarely now is there controversy or even discussion of grading, with many hoteliers taking the view that the process is irrelevant to their business.
‘Is hotel grading still an important element in marketing a hotel?’, I asked Michael Rosney of Killeen House Hotel in Killarney.
‘Had I been asked this question in the 1970s and 80s, I would have said that the hotel grading system was as important to marketing as the telex was to communications, which was vital. Today, the hotel grading system still has the same level of importance as the telex, which is to say totally irrelevant and meaningless in the 21st century’
Deirdre McGlone of Harvey’s Point, Donegal, agrees:
‘Hotel grading for Harvey’s Point is not a major element in our marketing strategy. Our focus is on selling Harvey’s Point as a brand that is synonymous with luxury and hospitality. Social media / Trip Advisor channels rarely mention grading and reviews are based on the guest experience, irrespective of grading.
However, sometimes a negative review for a five star hotel may reflect that guests’ expectations were not met. This is why we at Harvey’s Point choose to be best in class at four star than perhaps not make the grade as a five star hotel to international standards’.
Many hoteliers believe that social media is sounding the death-knell of hotel grading. ‘Why rely on an arbitrary system based on measuring rooms and counting table linen’, they say, ‘when you can get real human reactions to what the hotel is really like on Facebook or Trip Adviser’.
Promoting your hotel as a three, four or five star property does not ‘cut mustard’ in the cyber marketplace. The millions who choose hotel rooms on line look much deeper into what you have to offer, what their experience is likely to be and what previous guests report. The Bord Fáilte Inspector, apparently, is no longer the arbiter of hotel standards.
So just how important is social media in positioning a hotel in the marketplace?
Michael Rosney gives the experience of his Killeen House Hotel as an example:
‘Even though it's home to one of Killarney and Kerry's premier restaurants, it merits a three star rating, while four star properties in the area do not even offer dinner to their guests on a nightly basis. Thankfully though, we are consistently in the top rankings for Trip Advisor, which is a seriously important component of our marketing strategy. We are also active on Facebook and Twitter, social media platforms which allow people to directly access all the information they need to make the decision that suits them best. In fact, a case could be easily made that the hotel grading system is significantly more dangerous than it is beneficial to either the consumer or the hotelier in today's world.’
The published grade of a hotel can however be significant in some market segments, including tour operators and conference organisers. Many coach tours offer to accommodate customers in three, four or even five star hotels while individual visitors, particularly motorists, continue to use the star system as a guide to choosing accommodation.
Says Nicky Logue, general manager of the Gibson Hotel in Dublin: ‘Many guests have different expectations and therefore like to know which grade of hotel they are researching/booking. Pharmaceutical companies have a new charter to use only up to 4 star, so for this sector, is it important to know the rated hotel they are booking’.
Nicky agrees that social media, brands and Trip Adviser have reduced the impact of grading. ‘With Tripadvisor people are happier to book, based on other experiences and reviews, as opposed to grading’, he says.
Paul Gallagher, general manager of Buswells Hotel in Dublin and chairman of ITIC also believes that hotel grading continues to play a significant role.
‘Hotel grading is important when a visitor is doing some advance research into a destination’, he says. ‘It should give them a sense of cost appropriateness to star rating. The other important deciding factors are location and style of property, this can encompass facilities, modern over heritage, business as opposed to leisure and so on. The other significant deciding factor is social media and the proliferation of rating sites in particular. Guests can evaluate previous guest experiences against the actual hotels website/brochure promise. The use of rating sites give an insight into the character of an establishment, the attitude of staff and the overall satisfaction of the client’
Paul also believes that Social media platforms, where guests report on personal experiences are a critical component in evaluating whether to stay in one property over another. ‘Managing feedback is critical in modern hotel keeping and those who don’t engage in this management, underestimate its power. The absence of real engagement especially when an experience is not good, speaks volumes.’
Brands too have impacted on the grading system. Groups as diverse as Travelodge, Jurys Inns, Maldron, Clarion and Hilton have all created specific styles and branded offerings which are carefully packaged and marketed in a style which makes the grade of the hotel irrelevant to the vast majority of guests. You are clearly told what to expect and the hotelier delivers on that promise- grading simply does not enter the equation.
The most fundamental problem with Irish hotel grading from the 1930s to the present day has been it inability to ‘measure the smile’. Grading bodies could record the dimensions of guest rooms, count the loos, check the linen cupboard or even demand 24 hour service- but they were unable to quantify the warmth of a welcome, the helpfulness of staff, the quality of the spuds or the banter of the barman. In other words, the qualities which mark out the ordinary from the exceptional.
And that is exactly what social media does.
Says Nicky Logue:
‘I feel a fundamental flaw of our system here in Ireland is that it is purely facilities based and not service based’.